Not In Our Town Princeton honored individual students as well as school groups and their student leaders who continued to work for racial justice at Princeton High School (PHS), Princeton Unified Middle School (PUMS) and in the community despite the challenges of a difficult year.in which many activities were curtailed due to the COVID-19pandemic.
More than 100 people attended the June 6 online Unity Awards ceremony, the 24th year Not In Our Town Princeton (NIOT) has honored students for their racial justice work. (More information about NIOT Princeton is available on its website here.)
“You are the ones we have been waiting for,” said Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in opening remarks. “So I say thank you for your leadership, helping to facilitate unity and connection and challenging the scourge of white supremacism and racism.”
Not In Our Town Princeton, which is dedicated to combating racism and white supremacy, honored 10 student groups and 10 individual students for activities that included organizing online diversity talks, lobbying for a more inclusive curriculum, tutoring students for whom English is not their first language and helping them with college applications, and helping to organize a large protest after George Floyd was killed by a policeman in the spring of 2020.
In addition to honoring students, NIOT also honored Lenora Keel, the long-time social worker and coordinator of student and family services at Princeton High School who retired this year, and Barry Galasso, interim superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, for their racial justice efforts.
Keel was honored for championing diversity and inclusion during her career, including serving as advisor for MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) and PULSE (Pride Unity Leadership Sisterhood Esteem), the latter founded by NIOT board member Shirley Satterfield. “This organization is indebted to you and so is the community,” said Juan Polanco, NIOT board member and Princeton High School alumnus.
Galasso received the award for his support of diversity and inclusion efforts during the difficult year of the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular for supporting racial literacy classes in the Princeton Public Schools curriculum, including the Pre-K to kindergarten curriculum. Galasso said he was impressed by the engagement of the student honorees. “I find it hopeful for our world, for our interconnected communities because we have young people who are interested in social justice, in equity, and in making this world a better place to live for all of us,” he said.
Joy Barnes Johnson, who teaches a course on racial justice, introduced several of the students. “We are grateful for everything you do,” Barnes Johnson told students. “Your diversity and perspectives helped transform us as educators.”
The individual awardees were:
Soorya Baliga, a junior, is a NIOT Youth Advisory Council member who has been active in racial equity at the high school. A member of Princeton’s Youth Municipal Advisory Board, she led an effort to diversify recruitment. She is also a member of the Princeton Mental Health Coalition and the Center for Supportive Schools.
Violeta Gonzalez Toro, a senior, is a native Spanish-speaker who worked with English language learners, organizing Spanish-speakers to assist teachers in online classrooms and supporting more than 20 students who might not have stayed in school, including five students whom she helped apply to community college.
Hailey Hawes, a senior, is a volunteer social media coordinator for the Paul Robeson House, which highlights the life of singer, actor, activist, lawyer and athlete Paul Robeson. Among other activities, she has collected food for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and assisted with the Princeton Police Forum in the summer of 2020.
Mia Mann-Shafir, a junior, is a member of the NIOT Youth Advisory Council. Mia worked with Solidaridad Princeton to help immigrants prepare asylum cases.
Isabelle Sethi, a senior, helped organize a Cranbury Candlelight Vigil in honor of George Floyd who was killed by police in Minneapolis last year. A member of the NIOT Youth Advisory Council, she also helped establish the Cranbury Human Rights Alliance Community Group, advocating for diversity on Cranbury boards and commissions. She established a club at PHS to provide free SAT test preparation to students.
Molly Sikma, a junior, was a tutor and project leader for the PHS Ideas Center. Molly organized five diversity talks for PHS that were held online and drew large audiences of PHS students.
Savannah Spring, a senior, was a co-leader of the PHS Girl Up Program, a non-profit affiliated with the United Nations dedicated to raising awareness of issues girls and women face all over the world. Among other activities, the group established contact with girls on the Lakota Nation in South Dakota.
Kyara Torres-Olivares, a junior who is a member of the NIOT Youth Advisory Council, was honored for numerous activities that include founding Code Equal with her sister Valeria, which offers free coding classes to girls and underrepresented groups. She also was among those organizing a Black Lives Matter Protest against the George Floyd killing in the spring of 2020, and last year’s Juneteenth celebration. “The award means so much to me because I know that NIOT and events like this one here today can create change,” Kiara said.
Aurora Yuan, a senior, started Diversify Our Narrative at Princeton High School, a chapter of a national group that advocates for a more inclusive curriculum, and presented their views to school officials.
Krelyn Zazarias, a senior who describes herself as a “future astrophysicist” helped establish the Girl Up program at PHS, which organized a talk in which college students and professional women of color talked about their experiences with gender discrimination.
Student groups honored
In addition to individuals, NIOT honored the following groups for their racial justice work, all of which, except the Black Affinity Club, are at Princeton High School.
AWARE: A counselor-led support group for students of Asian descent.
BLAC (Black Affinity Club): A Princeton Unified Middle School group that provides for healthy identity exploration, while creating an inclusive and thriving middle school experience for all Black identified students.
C.A.R.E. (Cultural and Racial Equality): A social justice club that raises issues including topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and mental health primarily through Instagram and podcasts; a digital Black history game; and other efforts.
Diversify Our Narrative: A local chapter of a national student-led organization working to implement and advocate for more inclusive and diverse texts and curriculum in schools that is working on the Social Studies and English curricula at PHS.
The Jewish Club: This group creates a safe space for students to discuss Jewish culture and heritage and to address anti-Semitism.
Latinos Unidos: Latino students who raise awareness and celebrate the many varieties of Latino heritage through cultural events and to increase access to educational resources, community involvement, and opportunities.
Leaders of Color for Change: A group of students committed to creating a space particularly for Black and Latinx students to feel socially and emotionally safe and to bringing the school and outside community together to address racism.
Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN): Formed in 2003, the group engages in ongoing dialogue and activities that address racial opportunity/achievement gaps issues. Their work supports the school district in its mission to increase diversity in all areas, to address equality vs. equity, and to address how student/teacher relations can impact student success.
Multiracial Student Union: MSU seeks to provide a safe environment for students who identify as multiracial, as well as monoracial students, to better understand and learn about what it means to be mixed in America. By fostering dialogue about race, the club “hopes to uncover how we can use our racial identities to contribute to a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse world.”
Pride Unity Leadership Sisterhood Esteem (PULSE): The longest-standing racial equity group at PHS, PULSE continues to create a safe place for young women of color to encourage each other, to be mentors to younger students, and to be community leaders and advocates of change.