Kiyah: Spirit of Action


Teenagers know more than we think. Every once in awhile I’ll pick up a journal from when I was fourteen or fifteen and read what I had to say about the world.  I often surprise myself. I read some insights I had after struggling with a class or getting into an argument with a friend, and I think, wait a minute. I knew that then? I thought I just learned that last week.  Sitting down to talk with Kiyah (the ‘i’ is pronounced like eye) was like reading my journal. A lot of wisdom was there, just spoken in the voice of a fourteen-year-old.

I first met Kiyah in October 2016 at a dialogue for racial reconciliation that was a collaboration between the Mayor’s racial healing initiative called the Welcome Table and a couple of local organizations, Equity in All Places and the Center for Restorative Approaches.  The dialogue was part of a six-week series that would inspire a mural on the theme of racial reconciliation to be painted by a group of several youth in the late fall. Kiyah is part of the youth group which call themselves the Young Artist Movement or YAM.

It was just by luck Kiyah was involved.  The coordinator of the mural project happened to be at the community center where she was using a computer.  The coordinator asked if she liked art and she said yes.

“But really,” Kiyah said, “I’m just that type of person. I’m outgoing. I love to be involved. I love to do art. And I like to talk about stuff. I like talking period.”

During the dialogues, she spoke more than the other two youth; they were outnumbered by about twenty adults in the room.  At first, she admits, she was shy. Even adults experience a lot of discomfort talking about race, especially in a space where about half of the people are White and half of them are Black.  I remembered during the first dialogue, she’d hesitated a bit when saying the word, “White.” I asker her if she had ever talked about race with White people. She shook her head no. She explained why it was uncomfortable to talk about race.  “You feel like if you say the wrong thing someone is going to feel bad, so you have to watch what you say.”

Kiyah told me she had been exposed in school to many of the ideas encompassed in the dialogues, such as how race was constructed in the United States, institutional racism, implicit bias, and inequity.   “We went deeper in the dialogues than in school. I really learned about how people are treated differently because of skin color.  In school we don’t have conversations around it. We just watch a video. Then the teacher sets a paper on the desk and then we have a test on it afterwards.”

Given that she’d been through the dialogues, I was curious about her take on the dynamics between White teachers and Black students. At her high school about half of the teachers are White and half of them are Black. I told her there is a lot of discussion about White teachers teaching Black students. She believes teachers of either race can be good teachers, but she also thought it was true that White teachers might not understand their students of color.

“Though not all of the White teachers come from a rich background, some of them do. But we all go through the struggle. And each child has different problems.” She paused. I imagined she was trying to sort out the complexities of these competing truths, the way I had so many times when I was thinking about these issues. Yes, it’s true that race matters in the way we interact with each other. Yes, class is a factor in that too. Yes, we all understand suffering and yes, every person’s suffering and problems are unique.  I think I was actually a bit overwhelmed by her response. She’d hit on a lot of the major threads of discourse on the role of race in education reform in New Orleans.  Then, she hit me with one more.  “I just think teachers period don’t understand. I think it’s a generational issue more than anything.”

I thought about this for a moment.  Leave it to a teenager to tell you that it’s not race or class that separates us the most, but age. I smiled.  “How do you solve that then?” I asked. “How can you try to understand when you can’t understand?”

I knew these were big questions, but instead of looking stunned like I imagined a young person might, Kiyah sat up straight and spoke confidently.  “Adults can listen to their problems and give them insight from their own experiences. They can’t understand, but they can listen.”

I thought about this in relation to what I’ve read about the role of empathy in reducing school discipline issues. A Stanford study showed after teachers reviewed articles and stories about the negative feelings students experience, their relationships with students were stronger and they were less likely to suspend them.  What Kiyah and the study were saying made sense. As an adult, it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be a teenager, and even more difficult to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager dealing with problems that no adult should have to deal with.  We, as adults, have to try.  Kiyah was right; it begins with listening.

At Kiyah’s high school, she felt the administration didn’t always listen to the students, especially about uniform code violations.  “They’re not strict. But what they are strict about is unreasonable. Like dress code. Like if you don’t wear the right color socks, you get a detention. It’s unreasonable.”  She said the school has been on the news regarding this issue, but they still haven’t made changes.  She also felt the school didn’t challenge her enough and the teachers spoke to the students like little kids.

In contrast, what she liked most about the dialogues was she would speak and people would listen.  “I liked that you could feel how you feel. Say what you had to say. You could say anything. No one was worried about your answers.”

I’m glad she felt her contributions to the dialogue were valued.  She also helped formulate ideas for the mural, in particular, the scene with a second line parade. The mural is on the four walls of the Lemann pool just off of the Lafitte greenway at the intersection of Lafitte Ave and N. Prieur St.

“It feels good to know my idea is up there,” she said. “Everybody’s ideas are up there.”

As a final question, I asked Kiyah what equity in education might look like.

She wasn’t optimistic. “To be honest, I think it will never be the same between the races. We have a lot of Black and Hispanic students at our school, but we rarely see White children.  I don’t think it’s going to change. It’s been the same for the longest time. It’s getting better, but it won’t change. White parents want their children to go to White schools instead of public schools.”

I thought it was interesting she associated public schools with schools where there are not White students. Although, she wasn’t optimistic, I was feeling optimistic enough for the both of us just by interviewing her.  She made me optimistic—this bright and intensely interested fourteen-year old who cares enough about the world to sit through two hours after school of dialogues on race for six-weeks. She also met twice a week for months with the other members of YAM to work on the mural ideas, organize community paint days, and paint and seal the mural.  She spoke to a crowd of about a hundred community members at the mural unveiling and met the Mayor. She wants to be an OB/GYN because she loves babies. This teenager, at fourteen, has wisdom and intelligence. Even more, she has the spirit of action.  She is a reminder we can trust young people. We can hand over the work of the world to them. Even if she doesn’t believe that things will change, she’s doing the work to make it happen and that’s all I need to be optimistic. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her and YAM’s work around town.

YAM is seeking opportunities to be able to continue this work. For more information please contact Sarah Woodward, YAM Project Coordinator at [email protected]

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