Young voices protest in ... wait for it ... East Lyme!
East Lyme – Garvin McAlister's words about racial injustice — "the youth has a chance to get us out of it" — echoed throughout the unlikeliest of places Sunday afternoon, the complacent village of Niantic, where many young people took to Main St. in protest.
McAlister, an NFA grad and college basketball coach, related his thoughts in a column here last week about the perils of growing up African American in the white cultures surrounding him. He would have been proud to see an awakening in a town of blissful privilege, a place where the white thing is the right thing.
"We're definitely aware that the sheltered nature of East Lyme allows residents, especially its white residents, to avoid problems like racial injustice because it doesn't influence their lives," said protest coordinator Ben Ostrowski, a young white man and former two-sport athlete at East Lyme High, Brown University graduate and PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon.
"You can read about it in the paper and see it on TV, but they have the convenient option of turning off the TV. At the end of the day, you can wake up and go anywhere you want. You can support all the protests from afar, sure. But until it's brought to you, well, sometimes you need that wakeup call."
The calls came from many young voices. They told stories of their school days at East Lyme and Waterford, relating almost pro forma acts of racism. They questioned school curriculum, citing a dearth of black history instruction. They sang "Amazing Grace." They raised money for the NAACP, ACLU, Black Lives Matter and the Police Accountability Act of 2020.
"It was like an out-of-body experience," said East Lyme grad Jordon Edwards, a former basketball player for the Vikings, who is biracial. "I've never done anything like that. At the end, I never felt that kind of joy."
Edwards told the crowd of a day in fifth grade at East Lyme Middle School when he was part of a schoolwide assembly for the DARE program. Police officers there asked for volunteers to show how they arrest somebody. Edwards acquiesced.
"A police officer held my hands behind my back and then said, 'we arrest people like you all the time,'" Edwards said. "I was in fifth grade. I wasn't sure what she meant. I do now. Nobody has any idea here about black culture. All throughout my time in East Lyme schools, we never learned anything about black history. The only teacher who ever talked to us about it was Ms. Jenkins (social studies teacher Stephanie Jenkins). That's it."
Waterford High graduate Luther Wade, an African American young man who played football and lacrosse, told a story about his lacrosse teammates calling him the N-word during his sophomore year.
"They just kept saying it to me," Wade said. "My coach (Chris Landry, now Waterford's athletic director) noticed one day in practice I wasn't myself. Coach Landry was great about it. When I told him what they were saying, he was furious. He said, "either you address the team or I will.' So I took the opportunity to tell them how much it hurt.
"The team received it well," Wade said. "I honestly think it was their lack of education that made them think it was acceptable. Nobody ever taught them black history. We certainly weren't taught any at Waterford. There was one African American teacher when I was there. One. It's hard for anybody to advocate for racial equality when nobody has to ever see it or feel it."
And so we ask administrators as well as the Boards of Education in East Lyme and Waterford: When will black history be part of the curriculum? Positive Step No. 1 emanating from Sunday's protest ought to be an awakening in both school systems to teach black history. They do in other school systems around here. Lest we forget there's an entire museum devoted to it in Washington, DC.
Wade, who also attended Saturday's protest in New London, said, "New London's message was different. It had demands for reform. In East Lyme, it was more educational and a chance for people to listen."
But will they listen?
And frankly, will the young people who participated Sunday continue to build the bridge between idealism and realism? Will they attend the next school board meeting and ask about black history in the schools? About providing the resources necessary for minority students? Will they bang the drum for more affordable housing in each town?
"The allies of this movement need to support things that directly influence their lives," Ostrowski said. "It's easy to support police reform as a white person. They've never had to deal with brutality. It's never affected their lives. But things like tax-based reform and affordable housing — we need to be ready on those fronts as well."
For now, though, they've started talking racial injustice in East Lyme. That's a victory. So much for youth being wasted on the young. Ostrowski, Wade and Edwards — three young men who made names for themselves here athletically — sustain what Nietzsche once said: "The surest way to corrupt youth is to instruct it to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently."
East Lyme is richer for their decision not to merely stick to sports.
They reached out to everybody Sunday in a village more known for privilege. All conversations have to start somewhere. This was productive. Let's keep it going.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro