Falmouth student challenges complacency around racial issues

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FALMOUTH — When Katie Han moved to Falmouth with her family 10 years ago, she experienced culture shock because other places she’d lived were much more racially and culturally diverse.

Now, Han, who is Asian American, has organized two racial awareness assemblies at the high school.

The events, held Monday and March 5, were part of her required senior project. But Han also planned them in direct response to discovery of a swastika carved into a table at the high school last fall, and several of her own experiences.

“I wanted to hold these assemblies to spark more discussion surrounding race and identity in the community,” Han said this week.

“Since Falmouth has such little racial diversity, I’ve found that people often become uncomfortable when race is brought up. I hope these talks will lead to more dialogue about topics such as implicit bias, white privilege, stereotypes and discrimination,” she said.

And it seemed to work.

Han said at each assembly, several students asked interesting questions, “ranging from topics of intersectionality to institutional racism,” as well as what people could do individually to combat racism.

“I think the talks were well-received overall,” she said. “Many students said they had a chance to think about topics that are not usually discussed in school.

Han said one student called the assembly “a splash of cold water in the face when (one of the presenters) was talking about just the small stuff she experiences that I, as a white girl, would never experience.”

To fully bring her message home, Han lined up a slate of guest speakers for each assembly, including Chanel Lewis, a community and cultural activist; Marpheen Chann, the southern Maine regional educator for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine; and Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law.

In addition, she also asked two students – Kameron Ali and Rose Riversmith – to speak.

Falmouth High School Principal Peter Badalament said he gave Han permission to organize the racial awareness assemblies because “diversity is definitely a topic always worthy of school-wide discussion.”

He said the assemblies were voluntary and, to his knowledge, no one objected to them. However, he did meet with one parent to discuss that person’s concerns.

Badalament said students did not miss any class time for the assemblies because they were held during the regular advisory period, which is provided as a chance for students to catch up on homework, work in groups or get help from teachers.

He attended the first assembly, which was aimed at freshmen and sophomores, and said he appreciated the message being shared by the speakers, which was all about “listening to others and remaining open-minded.”

As a follow-up, Han said, at the end of the month she will attend a training at the Racial Equity Institute in Portland, along with five other students and one teacher. In addition, she hopes the Civil Rights Team can continue this work in the coming years.

Han said the “the Falmouth schools community (is) often well-meaning, (but) has not taken enough action to raise awareness of these issues.”

She hopes the stories told by the speakers “will prompt people to become more open-minded to different points of view.”

In the current political climate, Han said, “racism is front and center. Living in a comfortable, homogeneous town like Falmouth, we cannot be complacent about racial issues.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Katie Han, a senior at Falmouth High School, organized two school assemblies on racial awareness. In a place like Maine, she said, it’s too easy to be complacent.

Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, speaks during a racial awareness assembly held Monday at Falmouth High School. She was invited to speak by student Katie Han.

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