South High student group works at building racial trust


Students Together as Allies for Racial Trust (s.t.a.r.t) started out in 2009 with eight South High students. The group formed in reaction to school area boundary changes, said Kate Towle, who acts as an advisor to the group. The changes meant that there were fewer students coming from other areas of the city, and students wanted to create a dialogue about equity between the high schools. One of the students was Towle’s daughter who, with her friends, wanted to have a chance to reflect and have active dialogues about how South was still very segregated even though it was viewed as the most diverse high school in the district.

Towle has been a racial justice facilitator for the YWCA for nine years, and she made a commitment to meeting with the students over lunch for a year. They found a teacher, Charles Johnson-Nixon, to sponsor the group.

Soon, the group found that meeting over lunch was inequitable because only students in lunch period A could join in the discussions, so they decided to meet after school. 

After a year, the group decided they couldn’t just sit around and talk, and needed to become a leadership group. They created partnerships with other groups and began hosting evening events, which were open to adults as well as students. s.t.a.r.t. member Sara Osman talked about the challenges of presenting material to adult groups. “High school’s an awkward place where you have the mindset of an adult, but everyone treats you like a child. So it’s really awkward for adults to think that you can’t understand thoughts about race, that they don’t think you’re at a level to understand,” she said. 

The group has participated in various conferences and teacher trainings around the state, and has advocated for South offering regular classes about race. In 2011, they were chosen for the Facing Race Idea Challenge, established by the St. Paul Foundation, for which they won $2,500. Though it’s not a lot of money, Towle calls the award prestigious. 

They also sponsor in-school events such as “National Mix-It-Up Day”, encouraging students to sit by someone new at lunch. Though South is known as one of the most diverse high schools in Minneapolis, students say it can be pretty segregated. “There’s segregation at this school. How can this school be the most diverse if there’s still segregation?” said Amira Elhuraiba. 

Elek Harris-Szabo, a participant with s.t.a.r.t, spoke at the Overcoming Racism Conference at Metro State in November. Scabo and other s.t.a.r.t. members talked with college students and adults about how race is and is not talked about at South.

“Even though we’re learning about race, we’re learning from the white man’s perspective,” he said. He said it’s important to have a space where “white kids don’t feel like they’re being racist if they’re speaking being towards why we have stereotypes… This group is a safe area where we can all speak towards that.” 

Since forming at South, s.t.a.r.t also now has a chapter at Anwatin Middle School, and hopes to expand to Washburn High School as well, according to Towle. 

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.