Jenelle Nangah was in fifth grade when a white classmate called her the n-word. That moment, and how it was handled, has stuck with her, in part because of what followed — or didn’t.
Jenelle said her teacher and an office administrator confronted the boy as part of a classroom discussion, telling the kids that his language was not acceptable. No kind of punishment was delivered as far as Jenelle knew, and so the rest of her classmates could see that uttering that profane word carried little consequence.
It wasn’t the first instance of racism Jenelle experienced, but it’s one seared into her memory. It’s also part of a string of racist moments that have driven her to elevate the call for change in Denver Public Schools classrooms, to turn up the volume on the need for equity and inclusion in education.
“I feel like every single experience that I’ve had with racism shapes what I’m trying to do today,” she said.
While many of her peers have taken to the streets to push for change with crowds of marchers chanting about how much Black lives matter, Jenelle is raising her voice through a microphone instead of a megaphone. On Saturday, the rising senior will join three of her peers from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver to launch a podcast that will take listeners inside the experiences and struggles of Black Americans and that will advocate for a curriculum that sheds more light on African American history.
The podcast, which will unfold with eight episodes over the summer, isn’t directly related to the Black Lives Matter movement that has united residents of Denver and other communities across the country in standing against police brutality, DMLK Principal Kimberly Grayson said.
It will, however, include conversations on current events happening in the world, in the district and in education, Grayson said.
“Know Justice, Know Peace, DMLK’s The Take” is a project of the school’s Black Student Alliance, a group created in early December so that students were able to build support within the Black community and help each other learn about their history.
It was after a school trip in October to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., that students realized how important their education about Black history is, which better informs them about themselves and their identities.
The tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed clarified to the students the relationship between justice and peace.
“If you know what justice looks like, then you will know what peace looks like,” Jenelle, 17, said.
She is particularly eager to broadcast young voices, many of which she finds are often ignored.
“With the youth voice being overlooked, a lot of youth do not see the importance of their voices,” Jenelle said.
“We want others to know that their voice can make an impact and we want to encourage them to make a positive impact with the things that they learn,” she added.
Disrupting systemic racism and inequity in schools
With the podcast,the students are targeting people who want to be educated, who want to know more about the Black community and Black Americans’ struggles.
“People all over should be able to know about this because our voices do matter and we have some really good insight about topics that people need to hear,” said Kaliah Yizar, who will be a sophomore at the high school in the fall.
Kaliah, 15, said that even she as a Black person has learned a lot about herself by being surrounded by her peers in the alliance. This suggests that people outside the Black community can learn about what Black people face if they just listen, Kaliah said.
The four students behind the podcast have timed its rollout with national holidays celebrating independence — though one that is arguably celebrated more than the other.
They announced the podcast on June 19, when Juneteenth marks the 1865 liberation of the last slaves in Galveston, Texas. Jenelle said that a lot of people in the Black community don’t know what Juneteenth is, and that lack of awareness only widens across the broader community.
Announcing the podcast on the holiday added more meaning to the students’ efforts “because of the fact that we’re trying to shed light on the things that we should be celebrating and something positive,” Jenelle said.
Juneteenth, she said, should be regarded equally as important as July 4th because “they mean the exact same thing,” she said, pointing to freedom.
“The Take” will debut on July 4th with an episode called “Your Independence is Not Ours.”
The first episode will revolve around the four students so that listeners can get to know them. They also plan to discuss abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” The four will frame much of their initial conversation around the importance of Juneteenth, pulling quotes from Douglass’ speech to elevate its significance.
In opening up to listeners about what it’s like to be Black in America, Jenelle wants to sound the alarm on injustice.
“I think we all want to call out the injustice and the things that Black and brown people have normalized in their lives and things that should not be normalized because it’s detrimental to a person to think things like that are OK,” she said.
Among those things that have been wrongfully normalized, she noted, is racism in general, being called derogatory names, being deprived of opportunities because of the color of someone’s skin and police brutality against people of color.
The students are also setting their sights on disrupting DPS in a way that will better prioritize Black students and the history of those who came before them. Alliance members have attended multiple meetings with the Denver school board, advocating for the need to change the district’s history curriculum so that it better incorporates Black history.
Students also met with DPS Deputy Superintendent of Academics Tamara Acevedo and other administrators on Wednesday, when they learned about changes being made to eighth grade and 10th grade curriculum in particular as the district tries to be more inclusive of Black history across the K-12 spectrum.
Kaliah added that the students were informed about steps the district is taking to reframe how teachers, especially white teachers, can raise topics of race in the classroom and discuss those topics with students in a more effective way.
Grayson, the high school principal, looks for DPS to take a thoughtful approach as the district reflects on what equity for students means. She hopes “that we really dig deep to determine the definition of equity and that we do the deep-rooted work that is needed to ensure that all of our students are successful.”
The work is not easy, but the students have a bright outlook on the possibility for change.
“Everything we’re fighting for can be attainable through simple actions,” Kaliah said.
Interested listeners can subscribe to the eight-episode podcast here. The first episode will air at 11 a.m. Saturday. Topics for the final three episodes will be influenced by audience input.
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