by Molly Johnson, Amie Lee and Feiya Wang, Features Editor, Features Reporters
graphic by Eyal Tamir
Seemingly every other week, students receive emails about hate incidents occurring at South, leaving many to feel like there has been little progress despite the efforts being made. The South Human Rights Council (SHRC), founded in the spring of 2020, was formed in response to incidents like these, history teacher and SHRC co-director Robert Parlin said.
Parlin said that the organization was first motivated by an April 2020 racist Zoom bombing incident in an AP Chinese class, which left the student and faculty upset by the lack of action in response.
“We were created about two years ago by a group of students and faculty who felt the school wasn’t doing enough to respond to hate incidents. [We were formed] to really make cultures that are more marginalized more visible at South,” he said. “We’re designed to help student groups feel more empowered and to help faculty get together to talk about issues that affect them in different groups and to create programs for everyone at school.”
After starting with approximately 20 student and teacher participants, the SHRC has grown to more than 50 over the last two years. Katani Sumner, a METCO counselor and director of the SHRC’s Legacy Scholars Program, said the SHRC was solely a volunteer effort in the beginning.
“I’m really proud of all the volunteers, students and teachers,” she said. “It’s just been amazing to see how much we’ve accomplished in the short time that we’ve been together, and I hope the future is even brighter as we keep moving forward.”
At the end of the 2019-20 school year, the SHRC created five sub-committees to improve the organization: the Communications Committee, Curriculum Instruction Committee, Fundraising Committee, Teacher Professional Development Committee and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee.
“It’s run by teachers, with a lot of students involved, but the SHRC board meets once a month, and then each individual committee tries to meet once a month with the students involved,” biology teacher and co-director of the Curriculum Committee Molly Estrada said.
Zak Gomes, history teacher and co-chair of the Curriculum Committee, said that while significant change takes time, every action counts. He said that there is much more to be done to support human rights.
“There are so many issues, problems that have happened, racist incidents and examples of violations of human rights that we see around the world and things that we can see at Newton South that we can improve,” he said.
So far, the SHRC has facilitated a meeting with the football team regarding an incident at a Westford Academy game in the fall, provided safe spaces where students can reach out for support and held several multicultural days.
The council helped form the Muslim Student Association and the MESWANA (Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian/Northen African) Coalition — two new student affinity groups. The SHRC also sought out grants to help fund guest speakers who spoke to students about topics such as Latinx culture, Indigenous issues and the Armenian Genocide.
These partnerships between student affinity groups and the SHRC have been a positive experience for students, Sumner said.
“The overwhelming response from the students was that they would like to be able to talk to one another more often,” she said.
Estrada said that education and discussion about human rights issues should be an important component of a high school education.
“[The SHRC has] brought to the forefront that we are having acts of hatred that are occurring in the school and that as teachers and students, we need to be addressing them, and that should be coming before the curriculum at times. Our curriculum in general also needs to take a more anti-racist lens,” she said.
Parlin said that the SHRC community is constantly developing and trying to pave the way for a better future at South.
“I hope that people will just see the SHRC as doing really important work,” he said. “We’re going to come across challenges, and we probably aren’t always satisfying everyone’s hopes, but we’re very open to hearing what they are, and we want people to be as involved as possible. We’re trying to be as transparent as we can and listen to the school community as much as possible.”
Joana Chacón de Entwisle, SHRC co-director and office coordinator, said that she hopes to see participation expand in the next few years to increase the committee’s influence.
“There’ll be a lot more student involvement in the future, and it’ll be a lot more streamlined in terms of being a group that gives voice to staff and students who belong to these different communities — African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans — really focusing on being an amplifier of those voices,” she said. “The committee is excited about the direction the school is moving toward.”
While the SHRC is still in its initial years, Gomes said that he is excited for its growth and development.
“I really want to see this grow, and I want students to feel connected to this and understand that human rights are important,” he said. “Whether it’s about the world, the town or the community, this is something that I want to continue to be a part of at the school. This is not an overnight process.”