What’s it like to be a child of color in the Adirondacks?
KEENE VALLEY — How would you feel if, while walking along a street in one of the local communities, you heard the click of people locking their car doors while you approached? Or if you saw people coming toward you to cross the street and, after you passed, cross back? How would you feel if that was a common experience of your son or daughter?
On Thursday, Miles Warner, a senior at Keene Central School, described that as a too-common experience he has living in Keene Valley. Miles, who is the son of a mixed-race couple, and CorrieAnn Stoner, an African-American child, described this and similar experiences first to a middle-high school audience of students and teachers at Keene Central, followed by a packed evening presentation open to the community. The title of their presentations was “Even Here: The Issue of Race in the Valley.”
At Keene Central, seniors are required to create a Senior Legacy Project as a requirement for graduation. Months ago, Miles and CorrieAnn decided to educate their schoolmates and teachers what it was like to be a child of color living in the Adirondacks, no small undertaking in a region where the vast majority of residents are white.
Their goal, like that of students in Parkland, Florida, after a horrific shooting in their school left 17 dead, is to foster change. Their presentation was held in the wake of the SnapChat incident at SUNY Plattsburgh, initiated by Keene graduate Maria Gates, and the week following the prime-time news about two black men arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting to meet colleagues.
Miles and CorrieAnn began their presentation by describing what racism is, its impact, the stereotypes it projects, and the hate groups that foster it.
They traced evolution of racism in America from the Civil War, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement to the present. They illustrated how racism has resulted in a dramatic imbalance in how people are treated by our justice and educational system and portrayed in the media. As an example, African-Americans make up 13.6 percent of the population but 40.2 percent of the prison population.
They then shared three video clips, two by recent Keene Central graduates of Asian heritage, Grace Sturges and Austin Brown, who shared their own experiences of racism in Keene and out in college and the larger world, and one by Maria Gates, who shared how she ended up with a group of classmates who used racist humor, the lessons she’s learned, her apology and the challenges she now faces. Then Miles and CorrieAnn shared their stories. Miles said his experience “leaves me beaten down throughout each day with incessant negative thoughts of what my appearance might portray.”
CorrieAnne used a quote from Rosa Parks to challenge her schoolmates, teachers and community that she loves: “Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they will meet, and hopefully we will overcome.”
For her, her experience began in third grade when a classmate told her that she was “the color of poop.”
Over the years schoolmates went on to say such niceties as, “Where’s your dad? Oh right, Black kids don’t have those,” and “I’m not racist, but black guys rape and kill a lot more people,” and perhaps the kicker, “What do you call an Alabama wind chime? Three men hanging from a tree.”
They then shared the results of a survey they conducted of Keene Central middle and high school students, and their counterparts at CV-TEC in Mineville, which includes students from Elizabethtown, Moriah, Ticonderoga and Westport Central Schools. Sixty-five percent of the students surveyed felt their race wouldn’t hold them back or cause them to be unsafe in some situation, and another 25 percent could only imagine that happening maybe once or twice. Half felt they’ve never witnessed racism while 40 percent feel they’ve never participated in a racist joke. Seventy percent feel adults don’t react or comment when they hear a youth make a racist joke.
CorrieAnn and Miles concluded their presentation with recommendations they felt student, teachers and other adults can take on. Fundamentally they want Adirondackers to make their communities welcoming to all people in a proactive way, starting with becoming aware of their own behavior and language. They feel people need to aggressively introduce youths to others of diverse backgrounds, and to not encourage or participate in behavior that’s hurtful to another race. They urge parents to become more connected to the lives and experiences of their children.
They received a standing ovation. Parent, town board member and past school board president Teresa Cheetham-Palen responded, “I am sitting here thinking, God, I haven’t done enough to teach my own kids, and shame on me. Thank you, Miles and CorrieAnn, for calling us all out. We can all sit here and say we didn’t know; well, I think it’s not wanting to know. I think it’s not recognizing it because we didn’t have to pay attention. Thank you for forcing us to realize we need to do some inner work for ourselves, our families and as a community.”
“This presentation was amazing,” said Miles’ mother Sherri Warner. “Both of them are very brave. They did a great job. I was so nervous. They took on a big thing and spoke from the heart. They shared experience that we don’t understand and need to understand. It was real nerve-wracking for me as a mom, but so wonderful to see how cool and engaging they were. This issue is so important to them. I am just so proud of them.”
“I think their presentation was eye-opening for the students and faculty,” said Holly Hull, K-6 grade principal at Keene Central. “I think they’ve had a huge impact, especially for students to hear how it made CorrieAnn and Miles feel when they made some of the statements they’ve made. They now know such statements are not OK to say.”
Miles and CorrieAnn since have given their presentation at the CV-TEC campus in Mineville and have received invitations to do the same by a couple of other schools.