Catholic high school students address racial inequity

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Brother Rice High School students created this Google “jamboard” to visually express what they need to improve racial equity in their school.

Student representatives from 25 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago came together to address  racial inequities in response to last summer’s murder of George Floyd and its aftermath.

In partnership with DePaul University, students and school advisers from archdiocesan and independently run high schools gathered online in a series of virtual meetings to identify challenges in their respective schools and potential solutions to achieve racial justice and equity. Students presented their work to Cardinal Cupich on April 16 during an online meeting.

The group, comprising eight students and two staff advisers from each participating high school, began meeting online in February to discuss problems and solutions in their schools with the goal of promoting equality.

During the monthly meetings, each school was asked to create a vision for racial justice represented in “jam [vision] boards” with each school developing individual commitments to racial justice and equity for their schools.

Between the monthly meetings, school groups met on their own to work on their plans before presenting to Cardinal Cupich.

In the first gathering, which included over 200 students from the schools plus advisers and DePaul faculty, facilitators worked with students to come up with a definition for racial justice. The definition they created reads: “Racial justice is the systematic fair treatment and representation of people of all races based on understanding, empathy, and awareness, and that results in acceptance as well as equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.”

In student discussions, three themes surfaced that were used to guide recommendations: curriculum and culture, diversity among faculty and staff and safe spaces for students to engage in conversations about race, culture and social justice.

During the meeting with Cardinal Cupich, students from each school read short statements on how their schools will commit to making their communities more racially just in the future.

Students will meet one more time before classes end this spring. Next school year, the group will meet quarterly and in-person, depending on COVID-19 protocols.

It was a revealing experience for Nazareth Academy sophomore Aliyah Alikhan.

“Being a part of the Student Advisory Committee for Racial Justice and Equity has opened my eyes to much more then I could have imagined,” Alikhan said.  “Being able to meet with so many other students and hearing all their stories allowed me to feel comfortable and even have a place to share my own experiences. It was truly impactful to see how open students were to talking about this topic. You could tell that it was a group of students devoted to making a change. I think this was good for Catholic schools to focus on this topic. I think it is something that needs to be talked about everywhere.”

Through the process, students from Nazareth committed to improving racial equity in their school by providing the school community with more education about racism, microaggressions and the impact of insensitive language, jokes and comments, she said.

“This can help to change the culture in our school by making sure we educate everyone so that they will eventually be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand how certain things impact and or offend others,” Alikhan said.

The whole process, from start to finish, was about hearing from the students and giving them space to work for change around racial equity, said Deanna Burgess, assistant professor of counseling and special education in DePaul’s College of Education, who was one of the facilitators.

“The first thing I noticed was that we as facilitators did a lot of the talking within the full group setting initially, because we weren’t sure if the students would feel comfortable speaking in front of 300-plus people on this Zoom,” Burgess said. “But when we did provide space for them to share, there were dozens of students that used the hand-raising feature and jumped at the opportunity to share their experiences.”

That changed how facilitators ran the second workshop.

“We did prioritize the space for students’ voices,” she said. “The high school students really understand racial inequity and other forms of inequity that are present and really can speak to, in a thoughtful way, ‘This is what needs to change for our learning opportunities to be better.’”

Across all of the schools, the students talked about their sense of community, the importance of faith and wanting to provide a welcoming environment for all members of their communities, Burgess said.

“I think that goes to show the level of commitment to the Catholic values and Catholic faith the students had across the high schools,” she said.


  • catholic schools
  • racial divide
  • high schools

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