High School Students in Greenwich Celebrate Diversity and Advocate Locally for Change during Pandemic

By Kathy Mintchev, Greenwich Academy Class of 2022

Back on June 17, 2020, an empty podium stood under the overhang of the Greenwich Academy turf field. Presenters—students and educators, masked and clothed in black—lined up beside it as members of the community arrived in similar attire.

Educator Rebecca Ramos and three students – Olivia Jonokuchi, Lauren Harteveldt, and Meena Behringer – had organized the Black Lives Matter rally as a way to stand in solidarity with Black communities across the country. 

“What happened over the summer made people upset and wondering, ‘How do I fix this,’ ‘What do I do,” Kayla Rocha, the president of the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) board, later reflected in February. 

The presenters, including Rocha and others, discussed police brutality against minorities across the country. They recognized victims such as George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin 23 days earlier.

Later, crowd members were invited to the podium to share their own anecdotes. Some speakers expressed their desire to begin healing the wounds of injustice within the Greenwich Academy community. 

According to Rocha, the rally—and the Black Lives Matter protests held across the country over the summer—had lasting impacts on the Greenwich Academy community throughout the 2020-21 school year.

“It’s definitely amplified the engagement,” Rocha said. “People are more interested in what we [DEI] are doing now. We’re just trying to ride the momentum and do as much as we can.” 

“Our big thing is identity and that’s the main thing we wanted to focus on. We have more long term goals of promoting diversity at our school which are pretty pressing… We’ve also considered the lack of body diversity at our school,” she added.  

The new virtual formats presented DEI with logistical challenges. “The hardest part of [COVID-19] was figuring out how to adapt and do cool stuff virtually,” Rocha said.

On Martin Luther King Day in January, the DEI board created a digital presentation which introduced students to the topic of anti-racism. To supplement the conversation, DEI supplied each 8-10 person advisory with copies of This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. Students then took part in a virtual discussion about anti-racism with peers through an online message board. 

“Our MLK presentation was really unique and productive; I think that should continue on in the future after COVID,” Rocha said. 

Additionally, Rocha reflected on how she has personally changed as an activist. “These days, I feel more overwhelmed. COVID has given me a lot of time to think about things and learn more. I want to do more and fix these things… but I can’t fix everything.” 

Even as online platforms have allowed the DEI board to broaden their outreach, COVID-19 has presented them with new challenges. 

“I don’t see anyone who’s not in my classes and I don’t know anything that’s going on with the freshman aside from my peer group… I have no idea what’s going on with the sophomores for the most part, too… A lot of issues like body image have been concealed because events like homecoming are cancelled, but they’re still there,” Rocha continued. 

Prathit Kurup, a junior at Greenwich High School and an executive commissioner on the Greenwich First Selectman’s Youth Commission (FSYC), is currently working on a project to unite middle schoolers around Greenwich. He noted the same issue of isolation among age groups as Rocha. 

“We’ve been working to start a Junior First Selectman’s Youth Commission, connecting middle schoolers around Greenwich and continuing to establish that youth voice to prompt change, but it’s been tough connecting with people you don’t know during COVID,” Kurup said. 

The First Selectman’s Youth Commission of Greenwich was established in 2014 to amplify Greenwich’s teen voices and advocate for change in the community. During COVID-19, the FSYC has continued conversations around topics such as diversity in schools through virtual events and discussions. 

Kurup expressed his willingness to expand the Commission’s outreach.

“I feel like our FSYC does a lot of work in the high schools, and we wanted to give those opportunities to middle schoolers because we know that there is a lot going on there that we can’t target,” Kurup said. “A lot of our projects would be more effective if we had a smaller middle school commission to drive change.” 

Kurup has been planning the Junior FSYC project with Lauren Hartevelt, a junior at Greenwich Academy who is a Vice Chair of the Commission.

Harteveldt noted the benefits of utilizing online platforms like Zoom to create such a program.

“We realized this program would be a simple and easy way to connect kids using Zoom,” Harteveldt said. “By meeting online, we can connect students all across Greenwich in a way we haven’t done before, so we’re going to stay virtual after COVID ends.” 

“We’ve been planning this project for the last months now and are really excited to launch it next fall, in September 2021,” Harteveldt said. 

Both Kurup and Harteveldt take part in diversity work outside of planning the Junior Commission. 

Separate from his work at FSYC, Kurup has been working with an administrator at Greenwich High School to diversify the curriculum in English classes. In December 2020, he participated in a panel at GHS to advocate for this cause. 

“Teachers and administrators have been trying to do this for years, fighting to get more diverse books…and more diverse American authors that represent the country as a whole, so I’m really helping out in that process,” Kurup said. 

Harteveldt has been a member of FSYC since her freshman year, and she has taken part in racial justice work throughout high school. Last summer, she helped plan the Black Lives Matter rally at GA. In December 2020, she planned a virtual diversity conference for high schoolers across Greenwich.

Harteveldt said, “I planned the conference to connect teens in Greenwich on issues that are important to us right now. Doing it virtually was a great way to educate ourselves and learn from other people’s experiences.”

Kurup also noted how virtual opportunities have positively impacted the FSYC throughout COVID-19.

“We [FSYC] have an Instagram account that we created in the beginning of this school year to reach out to local partners and students and get the word out for us,” he said.

He finished with a hopeful statement about FSYC’s plans.

“It’s been really successful,” he said. “We feel that we can reach out to a wider audience than possible even before COVID.”