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How Racial Tensions At School Helped This Student Discover The Power Of Her Voice05:13
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Meggie Noel reflects on her efforts as a member of the #BlackAtBLS movement. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Meggie Noel reflects on her efforts as a member of the #BlackAtBLS movement. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For Meggie Noel, the high school experience could be an isolating one. Noel went to Boston Latin School (BLS), where black students like her made up just 9% of the student body.

"When you're in the minority at school, it's this constant environment of self-doubt," she said. "You don't have teachers who look like you. You don't have those role models. You don't have those guides."

Noel said those feelings were made worse by a barrage of bad news affecting her communityDuring her tenure at BLS, which lasted from 2010 to 2016, stories like the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the suffocation of Eric Garner were unfolding. It all was taking a real emotional toll on her, she said, and the events were being talked about constantly by her loved ones in Roslindale. Yet, every day when Noel went to her prestigious exam school, she recalled, "It was silence."

At the time, racial tensions in the halls of the Boston Latin School were also palpable and growing more intense. Noel remembered regularly hearing racist comments. She said she endured more subtle discrimination, too, like when students in her U.S. history class turned to stare at her when the lesson turned to slavery.

Noel's junior year, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson -- the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, a black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. Protesters took to the streets across the country and in Boston.

Noel said she and other students found racist and upsetting social media posts about Brown's death that appeared to be posted by fellow students at Boston Latin. Noel and the other students assembled a binder with printouts of the comments and handed it to school leaders. Noel said the students hoped for a swift response and a chance to have a school-wide dialogue.

But for months, it felt like nothing happened.

By the time Noel reached senior year in 2015, she said she and her classmates felt it was time to speak out publicly. The group they were members of, known as BLS Black, considered several ideas for how to speak out. Ultimately, they settled on a video.

The idea went dormant for a bit. The group wanted to give the administration a chance to make things right. But by January 2016, shortly before Martin Luther King Day, Noel and her friend Kylie Webster-Cazeau felt they couldn't wait any longer.

With the help of a few notes and a smartphone, the students started recording.

"We are here today to make our voices heard," they said in the video. "To show BLS administration and everyone that we refuse to be silenced."

The students went on to list several ways they experienced racism at school and what they saw as administrators' inaction, and urged viewers to amplify the message and share their own experiences on social media with the tag #BlackAtBLS.

Noel said when they posted the video online she and Webster-Cazeau were hoping that, at best, it would spread among friends and alumni. Instead, the video went viral across the city.

"It just spiraled into a life of its own," recalled Noel. The video got more than 34,000 views. The girls and BLS Black, were soon inundated with interview requests from local media and national outlets like The New York Times and CBS.

It was a lot to contend with, but ultimately, the students felt proud of their efforts.

"At the end of the day, no matter what was going on around us, we knew that if we had each other, we were going to be alright," she explained, saying that Kendrick Lamar's anthem "Alright" gave extra meaning to this sentiment. "We still made a difference."

And the effects of those efforts were significant. Boston Public Schools and the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts quickly launched investigations into Boston Latin School's racial climate. District officials promised new trainings across all Boston schools. BLS's headmaster and assistant headmaster resigned.

Come late spring, the district concluded that BLS administrators failed to appropriately take action when presented with evidence of biased conduct. The U.S. attorney's report went a step further, saying that the school violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for mishandling the response to allegations that a non-black student threatened to lynch a black classmate with an electrical cord.

"It was a life-changing experience," said Noel. "It forced us all to realize that we have a voice. And if we use it correctly, we can absolutely make a change."

"It was a reminder that when you speak truth to power, when you push yourself to be in uncomfortable situations, that is where you learn and grow. That is where your power is."

Meggie Noel

Noel said she left high school feeling empowered. But when she started classes at Spelman College, an all-women's historically black college in Atlanta, that confidence was shaken.

During her freshman year, Noel said a few really hard things happened: Noel's grandmother died. Her mom lost her job. She struggled to recover from a sexual assault.

"Coming from a situation where my voice had such an impact," she said, "it was such a hard contrast."

She floundered academically, and she realized she needed to take time off.

Noel described her return to Boston as humbling and healing. She said being around the community that helped build her into the person who had the confidence to speak out against high school racism was exactly what she needed.

She said it was also helpful to see just how much change her voice made back at BLS. Over the last three years, the school launched an African American studies course. Boston Latin hired the first woman of color to take the role of headmaster. And lessons about race were built into professional development and the curriculum for teachers and students, alike.

"It was a reminder that when you speak truth to power, when you push yourself to be in uncomfortable situations, that is where you learn and grow," said Noel. "That is where your power is."

Noel added that time back home also reminded her of how many allies she had. And that even though she may have felt kind of alone in college — just like she did in her first days at BLS — there was still a strong system of support ready to lift her up.

"I'm never alone. It taught me that I have a community."

This segment aired on November 4, 2019.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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