Highlighting Westfield’s minority experiences

Kathryn Bartlett, R2 Features Editor & Long Form Investigative Editor

Each February, WHS celebrates Black History Month with an assembly, providing an important space for discussion of issues related to race and diversity. But what is it like for students, faculty and staff of color in a relatively homogeneous town like Westfield?

According to the NJ Department of Education, minority students make up only 15 percent of the WHS population as of the 2017-2018 school year, and only 2.4 percent of the total student population is African American. While understanding that no one person’s experience as a minority is the same as everyone else’s, Hi’s Eye sat down with some members of the school’s African American community to discuss their experiences.

Sophomore Celia Frank has been attending Westfield Public Schools for the majority of her education; she moved to Westfield from Roselle Park, a town that is significantly more diverse than Westfield (only 36.8 percent of students there are white).

She shared one memory that she remembers as negative: “I was on the playground during recess at Jefferson [Elementary School] right after I moved here,” explained Frank. “I asked a kid if I could play with him and he said no because ‘Black people have boogers.’ That’s the only time I’ve really felt like an outsider.”

Although she was never treated like this again by her peers, Frank does also remember feeling different, wishing she could look more like most of the other girls who had long, straight hair that could be worn down.

“As I’ve gotten older, my identity has definitely grown,” said Frank. “I haven’t felt that way in years.”

For Allied Health High School senior Debbie Obiajulu, who attended McKinley Elementary School and Edison Intermediate School, moving to a significantly more racially diverse school has given her a different perspective.

“My experiences in Westfield were largely positive,” said Obiajulu. “Even though Edison [Intermediate School] wasn’t very diverse, I made a lot of really good friends, and the education system definitely set me up for success going into high school.”

However, Obiajulu does remember recognizing that she was an outlier throughout her time in Westfield schools, and felt like that was pointed out on a regular basis. She would get frequent questions about her hair and why she did not wear it down; someone once even asked her why her palms were white.

“I was also told a lot that I ‘acted white,’” said Obiajulu. “But I had the same experiences growing up as everyone else in this town so I act the same. It’s not like I step out the door and start acting differently.”

Obiajulu remembers those things as relatively small and even a bit funny, but found the slavery unit in history class to be more intensely uncomfortable as the only African American person in the room. “People were shocked when I knew what ‘lynching’ meant, but to me it’s not strange,” explained Obiajulu. “I’ve been told stories about my family’s own personal history regarding slavery and the Civil Rights Era.”

‘I had the same experiences growing up as everyone else in this town so I act the same. It’s not like I step out the door and start acting differently.’”

— Debbie Obiajulu

One of the times Obiajulu felt that her discomfort was most intense was after Mix-It-Up Day, Edison’s annual effort to help students make new friends. She was asked to be in a group picture for the yearbook and agreed, not thinking much of it. Within a few days, the picture was everywhere, on the school and district websites, on teachers’ doors and in multiple news sources with an article titled “Edison Intermediate Breaks Down Barriers.”

“You would’ve thought they’d just integrated the schools,” said Obiajulu when remembering the article.

That was not the end of the photo; Obiajulu recalls being at the annual Black History Month assembly, which was “one of [her] least favorite days of the year,” when the picture showed up again.

As Obiajulu recalls, the winner of the annual Martin Luther King essay contest, who was white, came to the front and read his essay about “what MLK means to me.” Then they started a powerpoint, filled with stock photos of things like “hands of different skin tones in a circle together.” The last photo on the slideshow was the one of Obiajulu from Mix-It-Up Day. She was the only African American in the photo.

“While the photo was up, I heard someone a few rows back ask, ‘Is that Uzi?’” Obiajulu recalls. “There are only about ten of us in the grade. You really can’t tell us apart?”

Senior Marc Chin, who moved to Westfield from Rutherford, NJ in second grade, has found his background to be a positive way to connect to others. Originally from Trinidad (he lived there until he was five), he is of Indian, Chinese and Ethiopian descent. “People will ask about my background, I get to explain it and we usually end up getting to connect over an interesting conversation,” explained Chin.

However, Chin also finds that people often make incorrect assumptions about his ethnic identity, asking if he is adopted because of his Chinese last name. “It isn’t a huge deal, but it does get pretty annoying,” said Chin.

One change Chin does wish to see, however, is an increase in the number of minority teachers at WHS. “When I reflect on the impact our late principal made on the school community, I think that Dr. Nelson was able to offer a different perspective that is more relatable to students of color,” said Chin. “But I think a more diverse faculty would not just help minority students; it is important that everyone learn to look at history from a number of different viewpoints.”

Senior Uzi Ijoma feels similarly. “One negative to my experience as a student in Westfield is the history classes,” explained Ijoma. “I don’t think we learn enough about how discrimination still exists today; teachers tend to make it seem like all the issues are in the past while they’re still happening today. I think learning about black history and culture from a black teacher would definitely be beneficial in helping to fix this.”

Some faculty members have recognized similar issues, and have made efforts to change it. Media Specialist Lesley Cora remembers noticing “a void” in the recognition of Black History Month when she started working at WHS seven years ago. She expressed her concerns to Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson to get the annual Black History Month Assembly started, which now features a performance from the WHS chorale and student speakers.

In conjunction with Dr. Nelson, Cora in 2016 was also responsible for starting the Diversity Committee, which welcomes any students, teachers and faculty who wish to get involved. According to Cora, the group works to “bring diverse programming into the building.” They are responsible for the annual Black History Month assembly, as well as the Cultural Identity Night that happens each spring, which gives students a chance to reflect on their cultures and share with each other.

Photo by Lesley Cora
WHS students and teachers enjoying a performance at the 2018 cultural diversity night

“What our students see in their everyday lives is not reflective of the world we live in,” said Cora. “We live in a multi-cultural society and as educators, we have a responsibility to broaden our students’ horizons. I feel that we are certainly moving in the right direction; the important conversations have begun.”

Longtime Westfield resident Ron Allen provides a longer-term perspective on WHS. A Westfield native, Allen attended WPS through his graduation from WHS in 1979. “For the most part, people got along because of the school district’s attempt to level out the minorities in each school,” said Allen.

Allen explained that there was another elementary school called Columbus on Windsor Ave., which served a predominantly minority student population. The school closed in the ’70s, and the students were then sent to Lincoln, Jefferson and Tamaques Elementary Schools. In the mid-1980s, Lincoln was closed, and its minority students were sent to elementary schools on the northside. 

There was a third minority area around McKinley Elementary School which Allen attended. In order to integrate the middle schools on the north side of town, the McKinley students who lived on First Street went to Edison while those on West Broad Street up towards South Ave. went to Roosevelt. “There was some discrepancy about this decision,” said Allen. “Some minority parents didn’t like having to transfer their kids.”

After McKinley, Allen attended Roosevelt Intermediate School. “McKinley was probably the neighborhood with the best mix of minorities, and we all got to know each other’s cultures so [conflict] didn’t really happen,” explained Wilson. “I had more conflicts at Roosevelt, where there were kids from Washington and Wilson who really weren’t exposed to minority students. [Tension] was definitely there, but the teachers and administration worked hard to make sure everyone got along and was comfortable.”

At WHS, Allen does not remember experiencing a lot of prejudice. “I had five older siblings and a number of cousins who went through the high school before me so a lot of the teachers knew my family, which probably made going to WHS easier for me in some ways,” said Allen. “I also played sports throughout middle and high school which was another thing that helped. I do know of friends who had some run-ins at the time, though.”

After completing school, Allen worked on the Westfield Police Force for 26 years; he was on the juvenile detective bureau for 22 and a half years and was the first school resource officer to work at WHS.

“We live in a multi-cultural society and as educators, we have a responsibility to broaden our students’ horizons. I feel that we are certainly moving in the right direction; the important conversations have begun.”

— Lesley Cora

Throughout his time working in the high school, Allen recalls how the African American students would congregate in the hallway by the nurse’s office between classes throughout his time working with youth. They would be told to go to class, and would claim that their teachers didn’t care if they were late. 

“While this is not true of all minority students, there are certainly some that come into the schools from a district that is not equivalent to Westfield and they feel lost,” explained Allen. “Their Bs in other schools turn into Ds and Fs when they get to Westfield and it turns them off.”

One program that Allen thinks is effective in combating this issue is the PAL mentoring program, which he helps coordinate. It provides both minority and white students, who may not otherwise be able to afford tutoring, with free extra help in subjects they may be struggling with.

While programs like PAL mentoring are certainly making a positive impact, there are a number of other changes Allen hopes to see instilled. Specifically, Allen and Dr. Nelson had been working together to create a WHS group in support of African American students. It was set to be implemented this year, but the project got put to the side with Dr. Nelson’s passing. Allen hopes it will become a reality at some point in the future. “It’s unfortunate, but you often need it to be African Americans who go out and push for African American kids,” explained Allen.

The current School Resource Officer Ricardo Johnson, also a 2008 WHS graduate, had his own perspective on growing up in Westfield. Johnson remembers feeling isolated as a young child. “When I was at Jefferson, I felt uncomfortable being the only black kid in the class,” said Johnson. “I was quiet and didn’t want to draw attention to myself by raising my hand even when I knew the answers. I’d really stick to myself for the most part.”

This changed as Johnson progressed into middle school, and he credits this largely to the impact that sports had on his experience. Johnson wrestled and played football throughout middle school, and also joined the track and field team in high school. “I got to the point where I just stopped thinking about color and focused on my teams,” said Johnson. 

Physical Education Teacher Jay Cook, a 2002 Westfield graduate, found that activities had a similar impact on his experience as a WHS student. “I think there’s something to keep everyone included and involved in the school community, whether it be sports or other extra curriculars,” said Cook. “Obviously, the numbers portray Westfield as very white, but I think it’s something outsiders probably think about more than I did.”

Nevertheless, Cook did find himself thinking about race more as he left Westfield to attend college at Montclair State University. “I was exposed to people from other parts of New Jersey and other states, and their views weren’t always the same as mine,” explained Cook. “That was when I really began seeing how focused people are on race.” 

Since coming back to Westfield to teach physical education in 2015, Cook has not seen much of a change from when he was a Westfield student. “There has never been a time where a student or faculty member has treated me any differently because of my race,” explained Cook. “One thing that I think is great about the body of our school is the way it tries to expose people to a variety of different ethnicities, beliefs and perspectives.” 

Officer Johnson summed up both WHS’s progress and the work still to be done: “The school has definitely done a lot to support and celebrate Black History Month in a positive way,” said Johnson. “But if it’s not taught in schools, people forget. We can always educate ourselves and become more aware.” Nonetheless, recent efforts to bring this issue to the forefront are encouraging. Diversity, tolerance, and appreciation for difference enriches us all.