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Education Activists: N.H. Students Share Frustration That They Received An 'Incomplete Story'

Grace Landry and Adaeze Okorie

Teachers in New Hampshire are now limited in the ways they can talk about issues like racism and sexism in the classroom following the recent passage of the state budget. Some activists quickly stepped up to speak out about their concerns, including the founders of New Hampshire for Anti-Racist Education (NHARE), Adaeze Okorie and Grace Landry. 

Landry and Okorie formed NHARE last year after Landry started a petition to end New Hampshire’s “whitewashed” curriculum and say education around systemic racism in the New Hampshire public school system was already limited, even before the new legislation passed. All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with the pair about their perspective on the new laws and plans for the future of NHARE.

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What We Learned:

  • Okorie and Landry say their education in New Hampshire public schools treated racism as a thing of the past, and didn’t connect it to structural racism that exists today. Landry said she only started exploring those ideas when she had the opportunity to go to college.
  • In the testimonials they collected from students in New Hampshire who felt there were shortcomings in their education, they said it was common that schools would refer to racism in the past tense.
  • Landry and Okorie worry about the repercussions this could have for educators who try to broach these subjects in the classroom, and for their training.

Transcript Of The Conversation:

Peter Biello: Let's start by talking a bit about this legislation. What are your concerns about it? I want to hear from both of you. And let's start with you, Adaeze.

Adaeze Okorie: For me, the concern that I have is the way that it kind of makes people stop in their tracks. I know a lot of people have good intentions in terms of hoping and contributing to the reform of New Hampshire's education system in a positive way to make more spaces for dialogue and spaces for these tough conversations that are very necessary. And now with the passing of this legislation, it's kind of made a lot of people stop in their tracks and wonder now, like what are the consequences of the work that I'm doing? Is there any harm that's coming to me? And that's really unfortunate.

Peter Biello: And what about you, Grace? What are your concerns about this legislation?

Grace Landry: I would second everything, as well as on that note of when we have spoken with teachers before, they describe that they're already feeling kind of ill-prepared for these conversations and having dialogue in the classroom around – specifically for us, we've talked about anti-racism and having those conversations – and feeling like there needs to be some sort of training or preparation so that they're going into these conversations in the classroom well prepared and knowing how to facilitate them. So without the ability to have trainings, to have teachers have the confidence to facilitate those conversations, I think there's going to be a lot less open dialogue in classrooms. And I know for myself, and I know Adaeze similarly, when we got to college, that was when we had the space. And for me that was when I had my first teacher of color and had the opportunity to learn and talk with other students about race in the classroom. And that's really where my whole perspective on the world shifted and I was first taught about white privilege and systemic racism. And so I think by not having spaces where either the teachers feel confident and supported and prepared to have conversations and also just having, for students, that space to have the conversation, it might make students not be prepared for the future, because I know that's a big thing you need to kind of learn in school. So not having that space.

Peter Biello: Can you tell us about the curriculum you are pushing for and how or whether it will avoid running afoul of this new law? I will start with you, Adaeze.

Adaeze Okorie: I wouldn't say that there's one necessarily curriculum that we have promoted and pushed to the forefront through our work, [it's] more ideologically [that] we're pushing for inclusive and open curriculum that doesn't shy away from conversations around these uncomfortable topics. And because we are former students of New Hampshire's public education system, we're not necessarily experts in the field of education and the curriculum that are available to teachers, but we're fortunate enough to have had some very eye-opening and informative conversations with teachers who have shared with us some resources that are promoting these spaces for conversation.

Peter Biello: Grace, would you like to speak to that?

Grace Landry: One of the big things that we both saw in our education was the critical lens that we got through our college education... wasn't quite the way that our public education up to 12th grade was kind of approached in New Hampshire. And so I think it's not necessarily specific, whether it be teaching tolerance or a specific curriculum that we've been pointing to, but more so those kind of ideologies of critical thinking, connecting and seeing how history has led us to where we are. And so the policies that are in what was HB 544 and was just passed through the budget really tries to, I think, disconnect our history from where we are today. So that's where my biggest concerns lie.

Peter Biello: You've both collected testimonials on your website, stories that you share anonymously from students in New Hampshire about shortcomings that they've experienced in their education. Adaeze, can you share some of the themes you heard in these stories?

Adaeze Okorie: Just to come back to what Grace had mentioned, there's this lack of connecting the past to the present that we saw a continual theme of, as well as recognizing that living in New England, living in New Hampshire, the narrative [that] was kind of pushed forward is that racism is this entity that we can place out over there in the past. We no longer have evidence of it in our society today, we've overcome it. It's a thing that we don't have to talk about. And being in New England, like we were the good guys, we were on the right side of history, when there's a more complex story than that that isn't necessarily told. And when we learn about the history of the United States from the beginnings of slavery up until today, not being able to recognize the way that racism and prejudice has perpetuated and morphed and changed and continued from then to now and resulted in a lot of the inequalities Grace mentioned in health disparities, in economics, and the achievement and wealth gaps... We don't have a lot of spaces, I think, in our education to sit and draw those parallels and draw those connections. And so people have shared their frustrations that what they received was an incomplete story and they weren't allowed to be agents of their own education, to sit with the whole, multiple pieces, to draw or to pull together the truth of the larger story of both our region and the country as a whole.

Peter Biello: So what are the next steps for NHARE? We'll go to you, Grace.

Grace Landry: So, what we're looking to do is highlight the champions around the state, whether it be teachers, organizations, student groups, that are doing work in their communities and identify the ways that those groups, whether it be people or individuals, are able to implement and [identify] barriers or the facilitators to their success and then share that and kind of build a community around the state to share the resources and also frameworks they've been using. Because we see ourselves as not necessarily, as Adaeze mentioned earlier, we're not experts in education, we just have the past experience as students. But how can we uplift others that are already doing this work and connect the dots so that we all can work together?

Peter Biello: Adaeze Okorie and Grace Landry are co-founders of New Hampshire for Anti-racist Education. Thank you again for speaking with me. 

Grace Landry: Thank you so much. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.

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