Youth Spend Weekend Learning to Undo Institutional Racism

by Chloe Collyer

I have the people behind me, and the people are my strength.”

-Huey P Newton

“The password today is Huey P Newton.” This is the greeting each student receives as they enter the Black Power Epicenter in Beacon Hill. A volunteer checks in each young adult who in turn, repeats back the day’s quote with a dutiful confidence.

“ I have the people behind me, and the people are my strength.”

Everyone here has pre-registered for the weekend’s events, which are offered by the group Youth Undoing Institutionalized Racism (YUIR), an offshoot of anti-racist organization The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Northwest (PISAB). On an early Sunday morning, dozens of young people file into the Black Power Epicenter’s community space.

I was amused to find the Epicenter, which has been used by YUIR as a headquarters for the last 3 years, unlisted on google maps, and circled the area many times before finding what had to be the right building; a mid-sized portable structure with a wide wheelchair ramp and windows filled with posters for various racial justice causes. The space has held many anti-racist and political events in the past but this weekend has focused on youth voices.

YUIR educators greet each other. [Photo: Chloe Collyer]

“Do you know who Huey P Newton is?” asks a mother to her young children as they sign in for the day’s workshops. Older teenagers gather in groups around a spread of free breakfast items. All of us sit together eating a nutritious breakfast, while the mother continues on to her children about the Black Panther Party and what they stood for.  

They join youth of all ages here today to participate in classes designed to provide a space for youth to not only learn about racial and social injustices but also to prepare them to teach others about those issues as well. The YUIR program is facilitated by and for youth, who in turn do similar work to educate and promote racial justice education and direct-action.

After our introductions, deep breathing, and some call and response the group centers around one woman. An anti-racist community organizer named Amanda Gross from YUIR Pittsburgh, who traveled across the country to be there. She identifies herself as a “white, cis, lady”.

A tiny live-stream camera sits at the front of the room capturing her as she begins to talk about the dangers of the status quo. “We (white people) are over-represented. Especially when it comes to working with youth and youth of color…we are the beginning of the school to prison pipeline, we’re the ones making the referrals to a judge or principal.”  

YUIR youth. [Photo: Chloe Collyer]

The discussion turns towards patriarchy, its history, and its connection to colonization. Everyone is told to untie a shoe. “Now tie a knot,” says white lady, “this represents patriarchy in Europe in the 1400s..” Now we finish with the loops, “…and that’s colonization. And a double knot on that, is global racism.” A wave of realizations moves across the room. “You can’t access patriarchy without dismantling the others first.”

Senait Brown, a black woman, leads a discussion about the problems with the suffragette movement – mainly its racist elements. Many youth chime in about what they know about the shadows of our country’s history. A young, white students asks a question about whether intellectualism encourages racism.  “I’m going to let you answer that yourself…” Says another YUIR organizer, Queen Sheba. “..because historically people who look like you have asked people who look like me to explain things to you, and sometimes you gotta just figure it out for yourself.” The entire room ponders this statement, taking a moment to meditate on the discussion.

Senait Brown (left) speaks with a student. [Photo: Chloe Collyer]

I sit with my eyes closed and think about how valuable these lessons are for our youth. To be taught about pieces of history left out of the textbooks, but also to be given the respect and agency to make their own decisions about justice.  

Featured photo: Chloe Collyer