Parkland High’s Mandela Society takes on racial issues

Parkland High’s Mandela Society takes on racial issues
June 18
00:00 2015

In photo above: Members of the Mandela Society pose at Parkland Magnet School: (L-R) Stevie Dupree-Parker, Shawn Brim, Advisor Tripp Jeffers, Diana Chew, McKinley McNeill, Nonnie Egbuna, Phyllis Elliott and Andra Woods. (Photo by Todd Luck)

Parkland Magnet High School’s Mandela Society is teaching students to talk about the difficult topic of race.

The club originated when student Nonnie Egbuna wanted to start a club to focus on race and social issues after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where residents rioted after an unarmed black teen was shot dead by police.

“I realized that there were so many students who were passionate about issues involving social justice and racial awareness,” she said. “I realized there really wasn’t a safe place or a really open place to really talk about these things.”

She approached Teacher Tripp Jeffers with the idea last December. Her concerns also covered international issues, such as the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Jeffers said it made him think of Nelson Mandela, the late South African president. Mandela, a former political prisoner of the white Apartheid regime, was known for uniting his country after Apartheid ended.

“And then I thought how powerful Mandela himself would be as a symbol of struggle, of overcoming oppression, and the officers and others seemed to like it, and we’ve run from there,” he said.

The club’s first meeting was in late January, the day there was a school-wide trip to see a special showing of “Selma,” a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Media Coordinator Sandra Brown organized the trip for about 400 Parkland students. She participated in King’s March on Washington in 1963 and wanted to make sure students knew about the struggles of that era.

“Our children have no idea how far we’ve come,” she said. “I know they have a good idea of how far we need to go.”

Jeffers, who has taught a civil rights history unit for 21 years, said he used it as an opportunity to discuss the civil rights on both the trip there and on the way back. After the movie, Jeffers and dozens of students posed for a photo holding signs that said “Black Lives Matter,” which has been the mantra of the movement against police brutality toward blacks that emerged after the shooting in Ferguson and other recent incidents.

The first meeting of the Mandela Club was held later that day. It was a packed room with 30 to 40 diverse students attending, Jeffers said.
The next day, he found his door vandalized, with “Black Lives Matter” signs stuck to it, with the word “Black” marked out on each and other races or the word “All” substituted in, along with a letter with some statistics in it.

He used it as a teachable moment to show the club the national debate around the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” He said he doesn’t agree with the critics. He said because the phrase emphasizes African-American issues, doesn’t mean it discounts those experienced by others, any more than saying “Save the rain forests” diminishes other types of forests.

Teaching people how to talk about race and how to handle dissenting points of view is a big emphasis of the club, he said. Topics involving race are discussed during meetings, and this year’s headlines have given them much to talk about.

The club’s secretary and treasurer, Phyllis Elliott, said the club taught her it was OK to discuss difficult subjects.

“I think it’s brought more unity among the members of the group and our friends outside the group,” she said.

Mandela Society Vice President Andra Woods has a sister attending Harvard University who sings in that school’s Kuumba Singers, a diverse choir that sings Negro spirituals. The choir was started as a safe way to celebrate race on the predominately white, affluent campus. The Mandela Society hosted them in a local concert in March, which raised $1,000 that was split between the choir and the club.

Upcoming projects for the club include working with SciWorks to update its exhibits on black scientists. Next school year, they’ll be preparing instructional packages on discussing race in the classroom for Parkland teachers and creating cards to distribute at lunch with information on racial injustice. Jeffers said he’s hoping to bring speakers in and get prominent locals to participate in a panel discussion on race. He’s also hoping to have a silent protest on lives lost to police violence.

Assistant Principal Alecia Harvey said the club shows the diversity of the school. She said its members are “change agents,” who are proud of their history.

She said even when she began teaching in 1973, civil rights was a difficult subject to engage black students in because they had a sense of shame over what had been done to African- Americans.

“I salute the Mandela Society because these people are digging it up and digging it out and they don’t mind discussing and facing what is history,” she said.

The Mandela Society’s Twitter page is

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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