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Student-Led "Lift Every Voice" Presented at Chapel Hill High School

In celebration of Black History Month, each of the three large high schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools developed and presented student-designed programs, and on February 15 at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS), “Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Black History and Future” provided a rich and powerful celebration of student and community voices.

After soloist Brent Harrison sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” emcee and student body president Nicole Bell welcomed the audience. A brief documentary by Jeneice Mason-Carter featured a number of CHHS students reflecting on their racial identities. “When people saw the video, I wanted it to spark conversation, because as a whole, we will never combat racism if we can't talk about it,” Mason-Carter said. “I would like to say that my goal has been reached. Ever since showing the video, I have had many open conversations concerning race with people of different ethnicity backgrounds.”

Next up was a performance by the a capella group, Lucky 13, singing the Stevie Wonder song, “Isn’t She Lovely.” Then the young women who formed the program’s leadership committee took turns at the microphone, sharing original spoken word poems about their visions of being students of color today, and looking ahead. “We see no stop signs in our future,” said one student. After the individual pieces, they blended their insights into a choral spoken word reflection on how they and others perceive black women’s hair.

CHHS panel at BHM The planning committee worked for weeks with English teacher, Michael Irwin, to create an event that reflected the arts focus at CHHS, as well as the school’s pursuit of opening more conversations about race and identity. “Student leaders are on a fast track to shifting the culture at CHHS,” said Irwin. At the beginning of the year, MSAN students—during A Week of Action—spoke about the importance of making our school more inclusive for all students, and this program was one small way that they showed up to make that vision a reality. The leadership team not only met to logistically plan the Lift Every Voice program details, but they also simultaneously expressed their views on race and humanity through video production, singing, and poetry performance. They balanced vulnerability and pride in a collaborative leadership model that provides us all with a lot of faith in our future.”

Pierce Freelon at CHHS The keynote speaker was Pierce Freelon, black activist, arts educator, musician and founder of Durham’s Blackspace, an Afrofuturist creativity hub for teens in Durham and Chapel Hill. He told the audience that he had discarded his notes for the talk he planned to deliver, after spending that morning in a Raleigh elementary school and watching a fourth grade girl “throw up the Nazi salute.” He said, “We need to keep reminding kids that the salute represents genocide.” He used the verb “invisibilize” to talk about how many people are marginalized by race, gender and sexual orientation. “All oppression is connected,” he said, “and all liberation is connected.”

The final portion of the program was a panel of people from CHCCS leadership and CHHS teachers and students. English teacher Kim Jones described how she chose to teach in a majority white district after graduating from Wake Forest University, “So that all the students who go on to Duke and Harvard and other top schools have my face in their minds.”

Joanne McClelland, English and AVID teacher and a 1974 graduate of CHHS, said that even after teaching at her former high school for 24 years, “It still feels like I’m tested about my knowledge. And I still have colleagues who don’t want to talk about race.”

Principal Charles Blanchard encouraged the audience to really listen to the messages delivered that day. “Everyone in this room should be part of the equity team,” he said.

Lee Williams at BHM CHHS In citing the top scores among CHCCS students year after year, Superintendent Dr. Pam Baldwin noted that the district places 57th in North Carolina for African-American student test scores. She called for continued work toward a more equitable playing field, saying, “If it can’t be done here, we’re in trouble as a country.”

Committee leader Corrina Johnson said, “My aspirations were to let minority students know they have a safe space at CHHS, and that their peers have like-mindsets. I was very proud with how the assembly turned out, because so many people were inspired to think outside the box about the issues surrounding race. Some teachers are talking to their students about how they want to make more inclusive content in their class because of our assembly. I am glad we were able to inspire all.”

Emcee Bell added, "It is super important to give people of color a platform for them to share their stories, thoughts and feelings. I really hope that all the students, faculty and staff that were able to attend were inspired by the performances and overall message."

The leadership team of Lift Every Voice was Nicole Bell, Jeneice Mason-Carter, Anna Rogers, Alyssa Coleman and Corrina Johnson.

Photo credit to Kyla Willoughby.