Cobb County students shared their personal experiences with racial discrimination on Sunday during an event called Listening Journeys. It was the fourth such event since January and was held at Unity North Church in East Cobb.
The event was organized by a group called Stronger Together, led by Cobb County school counselors Jennifer Susko and John Nwosu, parent Stacey Richard, and Dr. Jillian Carter Ford, an associate professor of social studies education at a local university Their goal is to make changes in the Cobb County School District regarding how it handles racism and diversity.
Susko, Nwosu, Richard and Ford began to meet last summer at the Smyrna library every two weeks and students soon began to join them. Those meetings led to the creation of the Listening Journeys events which give students the opportunity to share their experiences anonymously from behind a screen since some say they fear retaliation in school.
Susko said that many students have privately shared stories of feeling discriminated against and undervalued in school. Then, in 2017, a North Cobb High School student posted racist threats on Snapchat and a black student was called a slave by a white student during a Civil War activity at Big Shanty Elementary in Kennesaw. Both events caused a large stir in the community, and that was when Susko embarked on her plan to address the Cobb school board regularly during public comment, asking them to rethink diversity issues in the county. She said new members Charisse Davis and Jaha Howard, who were sworn in in January, have been supportive of the group’s efforts and that Davis attended one of the events last month.
Attendees viewed a portion of “America to Me,” a documentary on the effects of race and privilege on education in Chicago, and a video compilation of speakers addressing the Cobb school board on racism and diversity issues over the past two years. The students were able to pause the videos at any time to share their perspective with the audience.
Regarding curriculum and teacher training, one student said, “These conversations aren’t being had enough, and there has not been a focus on the true impact of slavery when the reality is that it was a part of American history and society for 250 years. And so why is it summed up in a day in history class? And I think it’s important to know how to approach the topic because it can be very divisive or uncomfortable depending on who you are teaching. I don’t see that coming from the county – the training on how to approach certain topics.”
Richard said she got involved with Stronger Together after her then 6-year-old son was a victim of discrimination in his Cobb elementary school.
“I couldn’t get the school to listen. I couldn’t get the teacher to listen. I couldn’t get the administration to listen. I couldn’t get the board to listen,” Richard said. “I watched my son go from happy-go-lucky little guy, happy to go to school to, ‘Mommy I don’t want to go to school.’”
The group’s immediate goals are to encourage concerned stakeholders to contact the board and ask them to “listen to our students and respond to issues of racism in our schools instead of ignoring or denying the existence of the problem.”
Leaders have specifically requested a Culturally Responsive Teaching training by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings for all teachers and leaders in the district and the hiring of a chief diversity officer to move toward a more inclusive environment.