The death of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis Police in May set off a wave of protests worldwide in support of racial equality.
Township school district officials were determined not to let the conversation about equality die down when protests did.
"I know a lot of districts, when this George Floyd incident occurred, everybody jumped up and said, 'Yeah, we're going to do this,' and all these protests were happening — and then some of that kind of died down," said Saskia Brown, director of student support services for the district. "It was really important for me, in our district, that we weren't just a part of a moment, that we really wanted to continuously engage in this work."
In recognition of Black History Month, the district produced "Our Voices United," a video log created by a group of students and staff that promotes acceptance of all races and backgrounds.
The 13-minute long video features students' personal experiences with prejudice in the community along with information about terms such as stereotype, microaggression and implicit bias. It also outlines the purpose of Sparta's initiative, which Brown explained is to "unite us in the common values of humanity to ensure a school community that is a welcoming place for all."
Our Voices United is a collaboration between two groups — the Racial Equity Taskforce and the Diversity Council — that are offshoots of the district's Commitment to Culture and Climate, also known as the Sparta C3 Committee.
The committee was formed in November 2019, shortly after Brown began her tenure in the district, and focuses on topics including mental health and overall wellness. But when the issue of racial equity came to the forefront following the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans, Brown said, "it just made sense" for the committee to take the lead to address the topic in the community.
Today, the C3 Committee comprises more than 80 students, parents, faculty and community members who meet monthly. The two offshoot groups have hosted forums featuring experts on race and culture and have also started a book club dedicated to racial issues.
Brown noted the desire to expand the Taskforce and Diversity Council was largely student-driven. Members of the school advocacy group "We are the Dream" were among those who helped organize the March for Black Lives in Sparta last June, and many now sit on the C3 Committee.
"I would say that they were the change agents for me to really push this work forward in the district," Brown said. "They were advocating, they were sharing their experiences with me, and I had to figure out a way to get those experiences to be shared with the larger community."
Among students who shared their experiences was Sawsan Srour, a Muslim who was born in Palestine before immigrating to Sparta. She talked about local students ripping off her hijab, refusing to sit next to her and labeling her a "terrorist" on social media.
"Going to school was suffocating," Srour said. "I felt unsafe, not belonging, and I hated having to prove my innocence to kids the same age as me."
Maia Albuquerque also shared. A life-long Sparta resident whose parents emigrated from Colombia and Peru, she said her mother was asked by a doctor "when she crossed the border from Mexico."
Albuquerque said on the video that she was mistaken for "Mexican" by another student. That, and other incidents she said, made her feel isolated until she began to speak with her peers and learned they had similar experiences.
Srour and Albuquerque have amplified their voices by joining the Sparta C3 Committee, which welcomes community members of all races, backgrounds and political beliefs to join.
"This isn't about who you voted for, whether you're Trump or Biden, whether you're liberal or conservative," Brown said. "I know that in a community like this, sometimes it becomes unpopular because people want to add the politics on top of it. We have really tried to say, 'Could you please leave your politics to the side?' We're talking about human issues, humanity issues."
Regarding the future of the racial equity movement in Sparta, Brown said "the ground is fertile" thanks to the passion of students and the willingness of residents to embrace the challenge.
Having shared her own negative experiences, Albuquerque feels the same optimism that her hometown will ultimately benefit from hearing such accounts.
"Sparta has the potential to be better," she said. "Telling our stories will open the minds and hearts of others and be the change we need to make this town a place we are proud to be from."
For more information on the Sparta C3 Committee, visit www.sparta.org/Page/1979.