THE CANDIDACY of Barack Obama added a new term into the American lexicon — community organizer.
Not many people were sure what a community organizer was. But the guy was smart, respectful and he had that hope thing going for him. So the country elected him. Twice.
This week, much of Manchester learned we have community organizers of our own.
That’s when a contentious Manchester school board voted 7-6 to override Vice Chairman Art Beaudry, who had arranged the membership of an ad-hoc committee to work out the details of student representation on the Manchester school board.
The slim majority voted that a community organizer should be on the board. And that community organizer would come from the appropriately named Young Organizers United (YOU).
It was a victory for the group, which for two years had been community organizing — petition drives, lobbying, making public comments, Right to Know requests — for student representation on the board.
The minority-heavy organization has been around for about nine years and is an arm of the left-leaning Granite State Organizing Project, a group of faith, labor and civic leaders who push issues such as housing standards, immigrant advocacy, living wage and educational parity.
Grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the New Hampshire Endowment for Health help fund YOU.
This week, I met with eight high school students who are part of the core group of YOU. All are young black women who attend Central High School. They were either born in Africa or are children of African-born parents.
Nearly all have grown up in the city from a young age.
They have embraced their role as community organizers and spoke frankly about the school board debacle, their school, race, and their next project.
Here’s what they had to say:
• “We did this because we don’t want our siblings going through the same (school) problems we’re going through,” said Yar Leek, a Central senior who plans to attend New Hampshire Technical Institute and pursue forensic science. Those problems include textbook shortages, overworked guidance counselors, and the Manchester leveling system, which segregates high school classes on four levels based on academic rigor. Most minorities are in lower level classes, which they see as discriminatory. (In a report earlier this year, Manchester schools reported dismal rates of minority participation in high-level classes at Central and Memorial; black participation at West exceeded expectations.)
• “They (teachers and guidance counselors) don’t encourage us to go to a higher level, they tell us to go lower. There’s no tutoring, no guidance,” said Hepay Juma, a Central senior who plans to attend NHTI and pursue general studies. But if “other students” want to jump to a higher level, they get help, she said. What do you mean by other? I ask. White, she said.
• “We should have more colored teachers in the school district. We can relate to them more,” said Zeynab Osman, a junior. I flinched, she didn’t, at the use of the one-time pejorative “colored.” That is how she describes blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
• “I’ve seen more black janitors than teachers at Central,” said Charity Kabari, a sophomore who has the early support of her peers to represent YOU on the ad-hoc committee. She is soft-spoken and not the first to jump into a conversation, but when she speaks her colleagues grow quiet and listen.
• She also addressed the lack of diversity in the YOU organization itself. “These questions are never asked about groups of white people,” Kabari said. “People always say ‘diversify.’ But whenever it’s a group of white kids, it’s not brought up to them.”
• “It just seems the black women in our schools are more interested in making changes,” said Ange Nish, a sophomore. She believes the school board feels threatened by YOU’s presence at meetings, their criticisms of teachers, and their agitation for change. “They (school board members) are not used to static,” Nish said.
• Several said they feel pressure to stay quiet and don’t feel welcome in New Hampshire, despite all the Stay, Work, Play rhetoric out there. “They want us to stay here, but we won’t stay if things don’t change,” said Fatuma Mohamed, a senior at Central who plans to attend NHTI to study health sciences.
Change. With the spunk, determination and community organizing skills of Mohamed and her peers, nothing could be more inevitable.