Seated in the hallway at North Charleston High School, Michael White leans over his desk with the drowsy posture of a student in the final stretches of the school year. With summer break in sight, obscured only by the usual mountain of tests and year-end assignments left to climb, there is a mix of exhaustion, anxiety, and excitement among the students. For White and a few of his fellow classmates, last week marked the end of a lengthy project where the students were asked to write an essay answering a deceptively simple question: What will make our city safe, a true home for everyone?
"Remember when you were a young kid and you'd hear about war and violence in the streets and you'd think, 'That won't happen when we're older. We won't let that keep happening,'" says White, a 16-year-old rushing up on adulthood. "Then you get older and all those things are still there."
To say that these students will inherit this world ignores the fact that it's already theirs. While most of the students at North Charleston High School tasked with penning essays that examine the problems they see in their community are barely old enough to drive, they will vote in the next presidential election. They will start careers, enter college, enlist in the military. Some will move away. Others will put their roots down in the community in which they were raised. But regardless of the path they take, the lessons of their youth will be imprinted on these students for the rest of their lives.
For Emily Connor and Micah Carpenter, the two educators overseeing the project, the reasoning behind the assignment is twofold. Connor's motivations are purely pedagogical, knowing that for students to truly engage in their op-ed writing, you have to give them a topic that they care about. Carpenter on the other hand views the project as equal parts English assignment and civics lesson — giving the students a chance to not only consider their community, but also consider how they can improve it. Together the two teachers strike a healthy balance with the students, even if their jokes about '90s pop music fall flat with kids who were born in the 2000s.
Separated from politics and professional agendas, what changes do these students hope to affect in their community? How can we create a true home, a real sanctuary, for everyone? Their opinions are as diverse as the class itself.
DeAndre Deveaux is the first student willing to stand up and talk about his essay. Like many other classmates, Deveaux's focus is drawn to the violence between young men of color and members of law enforcement. Growing up in North Charleston, a city that's been under international scrutiny following the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott by a police officer, the fractured trust between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect hasn't gone unnoticed by these students.
Deveaux recalls walking to the store with his friends one day earlier this year. Picking up some snacks after playing video games, they were stopped by an officer and told to place their hands on a patrol car. The teens were questioned about drugs before being allowed to return home.
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- Michael White chose to write about self-hate in the black community
"The trust is kind of off, and it's an ongoing thing," says Deveaux. "Some people still trust law enforcement, but as these incidents keep happening the trust is fading away. I believe that a way the trust can come back is if the police get together as one and speak to the community."
Deveaux's classmate Jonathan Smith is one of the other students who has chosen to write about the role of police in North Charleston. Although he has focused on the problems surrounding race and the justice system, Smith has a different relationship with some of the officers in his community. Living in the Remount Road area, Smith says the local police throw parties at the community center and sponsor events to better connect with kids.
Smith really just wants to play basketball at church on Wednesdays, but he's struck with an unease that seems to permeate the community. There's a tension with the police mixed with the threat of crime and gunfire that many students feel caught between. In her writing, Dasani Gorrelle attributes this problem to the seemingly inescapable cycle created when poverty feeds into crime. Danaija Duncan blames a lack of communication for the underlying racism that propels so much of what plagues society.
"You don't have to be afraid of us because our skin is darker than yours. You don't know a person until you sit down and talk with them," she says.
Duncan compares writing the essay to meditation. It has allowed Duncan to get her feelings off her chest, while at the same time considering how other people will interpret her writing.
"You have to bring them into your world. Make them understand how you feel," says Duncan. "Not necessarily make them feel sorry for you, but make them want to change."
Eric Scott has issued a call for reparations for the black, Hispanic, and Latino communities. Addressing gentrification and a lack of proper funding for education in overlooked neighborhoods, Scott sees money as a key to "cripple white supremacy" and allow people to "teach themselves to love themselves." The issue of self-hatred among the black community is the sole topic Michael White has chosen to address.
"So much hate has been given to the black community that we have turned it in on ourselves. That's why there is so much black-on-black crime. Our lives are devalued," says White.
As he finishes up his essay, White says he now feels more comfortable talking about race and directly addressing people about these issues. He knows that if you don't bring up these problems, they will only get worse. Realizing that internalized oppression is a generational problem, White is aware that any solutions would be slow to come — but that won't stop him from trying.
"Don't give up. Try to get into the system and make a difference," he says. "You can't ignore something and hope it goes away. You have to relate. You can't just talk about how we live. You can't just talk about the violence because some people never see that. You have to say it in a way where people want to understand."
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For many of the students at North Charleston High School, the topic of home and sanctuary elicits talk of immigration. For the children of those who came to America from another country or immigrants themselves, the challenge of feeling at home is all too real. These are students who can recall their family members and loved ones being deported. One student recalls crossing the border from Mexico, his mother taking him by the hand as they made their way into the country. At the age of seven, his father was forced back to Mexico. For three years, he would speak to his dad only over the phone, asking when he'd return. Starting a new life in South Carolina, the student's optimism has been tempered with a lifetime of struggle.
"For me, it was the same no matter where you are," he says. "I thought there would be much less racism in this country. I hear the gunshots and sirens. That's how I came to realize that every country is the same."
Linda Perez points out the fear that weighs on many undocumented immigrants. Under the constant threat of deportation, they become victimized and taken advantage of by those who know they won't contact authorities.
Max Krasae recognizes that he holds a different opinion than many of his classmates. He says his father came to America from Thailand in 1975, and he feels a sting of unfairness when hearing of undocumented immigrants.
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"My family had to go through the process, but these people don't have to. I just want everyone who comes to this country to get the best out of it," says Krasae.
Pulling together all these different threads of how prejudice and issues of immigration can stand in the way of finding a true home is Sofia Montes. It has been nine months since her family relocated to North Charleston from the Philippines. A bright student, she seems to shrink aside when a boisterous crowd of her peers passes in the hall. Not only moving to a new country, Montes joins North Charleston High School after spending her time in an all-girls Catholic school. Asked to describe the effect the transition has had on her, the ninth-grader says it has definitely been a culture shock. Reluctant to speak in her native language in public, she's still adjusting — and she's still hoping that others will adjust to her.
"I'm still working on transitioning. I still don't feel at home. I miss my friends. I miss talking in my native language," says Montes, whose essay is a call for people to not saddle others with harmful stereotypes.
Montes knows that not everyone can understand what it's like to start over in a new country, and she's not asking them to understand. She's just asking for respect — whether it be from those who might label her with Asian stereotypes, young men who feel it's acceptable to disrespect their female classmates, or anyone who looks at another person and only sees their differences.
"I want to address how we don't feel at home or we don't feel welcome. I want everyone to respect our culture and our differences. Not necessarily understand them, but respect them," says Montes. "Honestly, I feel pressured to act the way others do, so I can fit in, so I can make friends. That's one thing that's blocking me from feeling at home, but my whole family is here now though, so I'm happier."