Alex Miles said in his four years at a charter school on St. Paul’s East Side, he witnessed and experienced implicit bias more times than he can count.
Sometimes it would take the form of overt slurs, but more often it would show in subtle ways. Teachers sent him and other students of color to the office more often than white students for minor offenses like showing up a couple of minutes late to class or talking amongst themselves after the bell rang.
In one instance, Miles said the Twin Cities Academy suspended him for three days after a substitute teacher reported his posture — with his hands at his sides — was something she deemed “threatening.”
As a freshman in 2016, the now-18-year-old who lives in Forest Lake began empowering students and teachers at his school to challenge implicit bias and foster conversations about race and racism through the reinstatement of a student racial justice club.
Since graduating from Twin Cities Academy in June, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation awarded Miles the 2020 Facing Race Award, which recognizes individuals and organizations working to combat racism in Minnesota.
Miles is one of the youngest winners in the foundation’s history and will be honored during a special Facing Race Awards program on Sunday at 7 p.m. on the TPT channel, Twin Cities PBS.
Viewers are also invited to join a panel discussion with the honorees during a live Q&A Zoom event at 7:45 p.m. Sunday after the program. People can register for the free event at bit.ly/FacingRaceZoom.
FULFILLING A NEED
At Twin Cities Academy, Black students are almost four times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to analysis from ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom.
With 62 percent of students at Twin Cities Academy identifying as non-white, Miles said there was a need for conversation about this racial discrimination and implicit bias.
Miles reinstated the Racial Justice Club at the school when he was a freshman, and led conversations with faculty members and students about race and racism.
Miles often went to the school’s office of his own accord and asked school officials to look into the demographic data of which groups of students were called into the office, said Andrew Ng, a club advisor who nominated Miles for the Facing Race award. Miles also challenged people at the school to analyze their own biases and come up with new solutions to the problems they were seeing.
He hosted presentations about implicit bias for students and staff, and the Racial Justice Club had weekly discussion sessions and put on an annual cultural heritage night.
John Dabla, a behavior specialist at the school, said seeing Miles’ confidence and dedication pushed him — as a person of color — to get involved as the other club advisor.
“This was not happening when I was in high school and so to be able to hear from our students, … what they think needs to change and sometimes even hearing the uncomfortableness of it … definitely has shown that we can come together (and have these conversations) without tearing each other apart,” Dabla said.
Since Miles brought back the Racial Justice Club, Dabla said his work led to policy changes at the school and a greater awareness of implicit bias among the staff.
Twin Cities Academy Principal Erin Amundson said the school started a staff equity team this year to look into the language and consequences listed in their discipline policies. Instead of defaulting to a punishment approach, she said she wants to look into fostering restorative conversations that make students feel seen, heard and respected.
Nadege Souvenir, senior vice president of operations and learning at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, said Miles receiving the Facing Race Award speaks to the current moment, a time with dual pandemics of racism and COVID-19.
“It reflects that the movement can come from all places,” she said. “It can come from those who are at the beginning of their journey in this work, as well as … folks who have been steeped in this work for years and all of that has value.”
Miles — who is planning to postpone going to college for a year due to the pandemic — said the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police hit especially close to home, having lived in that neighborhood for years. If no one does anything, injustice will keep happening, he said. It’s something he thinks about all the time.
Now, he stresses the importance of young people – like himself – leading the fight against systemic racism.
“I think it starts with younger kids,” he said. “They’re up next.”
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