One student response to turmoil is to “mix it up” culturally
By Mel Reeves
“We don’t feel safe,” said 16-year-old Kowsar Mohamed, a Somali student at South High, during a recent press conference addressing the reasons for a Feb. 14 fight in the cafeteria of the school involving Somali, other African Americans, and Native American students. Her classmates surprisingly pointed out that their sense of insecurity extends to the Minneapolis police stationed at the school.
“We were mishandled by the police,” said student Halima Abumunye. “I felt disrespected by the police. I was kicked and maced.” Other students who spoke insisted that one of the officers called them “animals.”
Previous news reports have described a melee between African American and Somali students involving a few hundred students, but students insisted that it was a food fight that got out of hand. The students and Minneapolis School Board Member Hussein Samatar seemed to downplay the tensions between the Black students and focused on the need for the South High administration and “all” the students to become more familiar with Somali culture and the needs of the African immigrants.
According to Mohamed and some of her fellow students, tensions have been brewing for a few years. “We don’t have a voice in the building,” explained sophomore Anisar Ahmed, who pointed out that there are only two Somali staff at the school, and the school has never gone out of its way to make them feel comfortable.
Approximately eight percent of South High’s population of 1,700 students is Somali. Samatar, who is Somali American, said that while the numbers [of Somali students] have gone up, the cultural competency has gone down.” Concerns were raised by Somali parents and activists about how the students involved in the food fight would be disciplined.
Ralph Crowder III, a community activist and parent of a Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) student, asked MPS spokesperson Stan Alleyne how the district planned on handling the discipline, especially in light of the way of the district handled the discipline of Washburn students who were responsible for the mock hanging of a Black doll recently.
Alleyne, while pointing out that privacy concerns kept him from speaking on specifics, assured parents and students and community members that MPS would look into the situation. When pressed, he assured the audience that the district would be fair.
Macalester College Professor Emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati may have summed up the perceived conflict best when he said in a Star Tribune interview that it “was laden with mutual ignorance.” El-Kati indicated that Black students may have resentment about not being respected by society in general, including the newly arrived Somalis.
“Black people are already here. They’ve seen everybody come here and everybody seems to get a break,” El-Kati said. “They see how other people are celebrated when they do the slightest good thing. Black people have done many good things in this country for which they’ve never been saluted,” he said, noting especially the forced labor that helped build America’s material success.
Students from an on-campus group called Students Together as Allies for Racial Trust (START) last Wednesday opened dialogue among their fellow students. They held a forum in which students were encouraged to come up with ideas and solutions that would help dissolve tensions and create more unity at the school.
The students in attendance courageously implemented one of the ideas, which was to sit in the cafeteria with people of cultures outside their own on what they were calling “Mix-it-up Mondays.”
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.