The National Federation for Just Communities works closely with students. This week it hosted its annual Spring High School Youth Leadership Conference. WBFO's Senior reporter Eileen Buckley met with three Buffalo high school teenagers at Temple Beth Zion where they discussed racism and segregation issues.
"When I was a child, I was a very highlight color. My mother, who's an African-American, she was a darker color then me, so a lot of times, as a kid my mother would face racism, asking her, 'Oh, is this your child?' or 'Whose child is this?' when I was her own child. I used to get called names like 'Oreo' because of my light skin," declared Mariama McCoy, a senior at International Preparatory School at Grover Cleveland High on Buffalo’s west side.
As she described the power of facing racism in the local community, McCoy told us she has learned over time the prejudice and hatred is not only against her, instead she describes it as “self-affliction” hate.
“You speak proper, or you speak white. It’s because a lot of times a lot of children don’t have the same opportunities as the other ones, so because of that it’s more of a retaliation toward each other instead of aimed at me,” described McCoy.
“What is it like to be an African American teen in Buffalo, New York, right now?” asked Buckley.
“I always worry about who is for me and who’s against me, because a lot of times there’s always this one voice that’s always heard, and it’s not the minority. It’s not the people of color, those who stand. I read this one article that said white people use your white privilege, so that the other minorities can speak up – that’s the thing about it – when you acknowledge your white privilege, when you acknowledge you have this white privilege, you’re able to open doors so that the other people can get their voices heard,” responded McCoy.
“My grandmother didn’t want to tell me about this, but she put signs up on the door saying ‘We don’t allow racism in this house.’ And I’m like, ‘Why did you put that sign up? Who are you referring to? Who’s saying something?’ because I’m the only black person in the house. ‘Well, Jen called you the N-word. She doesn’t like you’,” explained Caleb Graham.
Another International Prep senior, Graham joined our conversation about racism. Graham now lives with a white woman after his family could no longer care for him.
“She’s a white woman, who took me in. I always avoided speaking to her about racism and segregation and privilege because I was scared. I was scared about, what if she has a complete opposite opinion then I do,” described Graham.
Graham has also faced racism as an African American.
“You had asked me if I ever experienced racism and I did. It was at my house – it was at my home. We have a white lady, she’s our neighbor. She’s the daughter of the lady I’m living with, but then she called me the N-word. She’s like ‘Yeah, I said it.’ Her excuse was – ‘But I didn’t mean it like that. We don’t know what the N-word really means. I meant it in the sense that you are not smart. That you are stupid,’” recalled Graham.
“I have to just do things ten percent harder in order to reach that goal,” stated Emily Jimenez, a high school senior at Buffalo Seminary. She said she's never experienced racism, but as a minority she is striving for "equity."
“Being at a school where it is like predominately white or like a bit more wealthier then me living on the west side, you can definitely see different experiences in lives of people,” explained Jimenez.
Jimenez, Graham and McCoy were among several other students who were recently received Community Leader Youth Awards from the National Federation for Just Communities. We asked all the three what solutions would make a difference in fighting racism.
“What can we do better? We need to be able to move people out in the city out to the suburbs and just have a conversation with them and just have conversations with them and people into the suburbs into the city and take us out there. We need to open up dialog – somebody has to be brave,” replied Graham.
“I think we’re probably going to be the ones to helping make that change and like raising children – like it’s been so much stuff. It’s been like history has been made – so we like we’ve gone since little babies – like 9/11, been through the increase of mass shootings, been through like increase of the Black Lives Matter Movement, like civil rights coming back to that,” responded Jimenez.
“Listening and understanding. Having empathy for one another – because we’re all – at the end of the day – we are all made of blood. We have muscles – we’re all going the bleed the same blood and if you acknowledge that, then that’s the best thing you can do is show your humanity for one another,” declared McCoy.
They also point out that disparities remain in the city as the downtown region gleams with new economic development, parts of the east and west sides remain in poverty.
“And one thing I always see, and where I live, is the poverty rates or how my community is affected by the things that are pushed upon them. Systematic oppression that’s happening from like where grocery stores are laid out to where the next corner store is to, to how the streets may look to how if there’s a bump in the road that has not been fixed for like six months,” McCoy stated.
“I don’t want to throw Mayor Brown under the bus or anything, but I have been living in Buffalo for a long time and I don’t understand why the east side has been in the shape it has been in since I was a little kid,” replied Graham.