FLORIDA HIGH SCHOOLS RISE TO END RACISM WITH YMCA
July 31, 2020
By Jared Shanker
As Lorenzo Bogle listened to the facilitators during a session from a RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program, he began to reflect on his own experiences. As they covered how anyone is capable of being a leader through their actions, he thought about how it applied to his own life.
"I had a lot of opportunities in the past to be a leader, but I was too shy to open up," said Bogle, a senior at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida. "But when I started this RISE program, I could tell I felt more confident."
Bogle is one of more than 130 students, teachers and staff throughout South Florida that participated in a RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program, an experiential-based program educating and empowering youth and adult participants to be leaders in discussing and addressing matters of racism, prejudice, diversity and inclusivity within their teams, schools and communities. The program was integrated into the YMCA of South Florida's six-week summer program as part of the Y's commitment to strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
Students across nine area high schools recently completed the eight-course RISE program, which was in partnership with the Related Affordable Foundation and included participation from former NFL players. The program engaged students from Blanche Ely, Boyd, Deerfield Beach, Dillard, Hallandale, McArthur, Northeast, Piper and Plantation High Schools, helping them to build skills to be culturally competent and advocates for racial equity. Over the course of the program, topics such as identity, perspective taking, how sport is a vehicle for change, privilege and leadership, among others, were covered with the students through sessions that included activities and group discussions. Those discussions fostered relationships between the participants, teachers and staff.
"I learned a lot about myself and the people I go to school with. A lot of people in the [program] I'm not close with, but over these past few weeks, we've had things to talk about, answers to compare and really getting down to the root of ourselves that we don't do really during the school year," said Parris Brown, a senior at Dillard in Fort Lauderdale.
"… For the people I am closer with, I've spoken to them before the meetings and after, and I saw a change in their thoughts, especially about the protests. When we were going over how everyone has privilege, a lot of my peers who are minorities didn't see it like that, and now this has made us more educated and relatable to everyone."
Many students, teachers and staff shared that this program came at a critical time for the participants as they seek to grasp the national climate around race relations and their own personal feelings in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the ensuing protests to address systemic racism and police brutality and create a more equitable society.
"For the YMCA and the youth development focus, plus with what's going on with George Floyd, it came at an opportune time. Our focus moving forward is on reimagining the programs we're offering so that people of color understand they're more than stereotypes," YMCA of South Florida associate executive director Kerith Cobourne said. The YMCA of South Florida Afterschool Programs touch nearly 11,000 kids' lives annually, and Cobourne said, "We're thinking about ways we can empower students so they can speak about issues of race in an articulate manner by referencing facts, accomplishments and successes of persons of color, which isn't always included in the narrative. RISE brings a greater energy and focus on that particular issue."
Marilyn Stephens-De La Cruz, the physical education department lead at McArthur, was one of the teachers who participated in the sessions. Many of her students in the RISE leadership program are on the dance team and frequently engage with a public audience, and Stephens-De La Cruz said "absolutely" this will help those students strengthen their public voice. However, she also said that in those sessions when addressing issues of race, diversity and inclusion, she heard from students who were often quiet in normal school settings.
"When RISE asked about if anyone experienced certain things or how they felt personally, they gave insight on things I've never heard them speak on," she said.
Said Cobourne: "Some of my staff said students were talking in sessions that they never heard from, that it'd been like pulling teeth before. Having them in that kind of environment and breakout sessions encouraged them to speak up. They saw other colleagues just like them and spoke up. RISE allows students to have their voice and a voice around issues of race and equity. The sense their voice matters will be empowering for them."
For Mackenzie Thies, a senior classmate of Brown's at Dillard, the lessons on leadership and athlete activism were particularly empowering, even for someone who doesn't follow sports closely. Thies, who is white but whose class and bandmates are predominantly Black, said fostering diversity and inclusiveness has always been important for her, and the conversations she had with her peers during the RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program were helpful.
"I'm not really a sports person, but seeing how much people have done in the [sports] community is really inspiring because I always thought of sports as just like ‘Everyone's just kicking a ball around; it's not really important,' " Thies said. "But people are able to take their platforms and use it to their advantage and spread a message. Everyone has the platform, and I think that's what this helped me realize."
Sports have the unique power of unifying the country and the world like few things can, as it brings together people of different backgrounds for a common goal. Throughout history, athletes have played an important role in advancing equity and civil rights. Some of the country's most important moments when it comes to race relations have come at the intersection of sports and social justice, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting atop the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Even through a global pandemic, it's been clear how sports can inspire social action as sports leagues such as the NBA, WNBA, NFL, NWSL, MLS, MLB and more have committed to raising awareness.
As part of the program, members of the Miami Dolphins organization, current Dolphins cheerleaders and other former NFL players joined the session on leadership. Twan Russell is a South Florida native and played seven NFL seasons, including three with the Dolphins. He now serves as a youth programs ambassador for the franchise, and he and former NFL player Corey Mays participated in an early July session.
"Hearing these young people talk, they all have a very good understanding of what it means to be a leader, and they all didn't come at it from the same angle. Leadership is something where if you have 10 different people, they all have the core message of leadership but they come at it 10 different ways," Russell said. "We need diversity in our leadership styles, diversity in how we approach things. I was pleasantly surprised they had that."
As Bogle, the McArthur student, begins to embark on his senior year in the coming weeks, he said he's better prepared to be a leader and make a social impact as he's more aware of the world around him. After completing the RISE Multi-Week Leadership Program, he's more confident in using his voice so that he and his peers are heard during this critical juncture in the country.
"I felt being in this leadership program elevated my mind to be a leader and really help people out there who need the help," Bogle said. "I think when we come out and talk about the [protests], now we know how to express our words so we can be heard in today's society."