OES, It’s Time For Action

Viraj Shankar

It’s a painful, yet critically important time to live in America right now. These last few days have shown us that systemic racism and inequality are problems that are far from being over. As the nation continues to reflect, protest, and demand action, I urge everyone at OES, especially the OES administration, to look inward, and see if they really are using their power for good. 

Multiple students and alumni have recently expressed frustration that OES’ response to this historical moment was insincere. I share this frustration. As a school that prides itself on being progressive, diverse, and inclusive, it is certainly disappointing to not see the administration take a more forceful and authoritative stance on the issues of inequality and structural racism. 

Acknowledgement is important, and I am glad that OES has acknowledged that racism must not be tolerated. Mo Copeland’s letter to the community explaining that OES has failed in the past is a good first step. But saying that racism is bad is not enough. This is 2020, not 1960. George Floyd was just one of many lost to police brutality. It’s important to identify the structural issues behind these problems, and then present tangible solutions to help solve them. The school should acknowledge that White privilege is real. Police brutality is real. Structural economic inequality is real. These all exist because of centuries of White privilege, racist immigration policies, slavery, disenfranchisement of voters, segregation, and corporate and institutional bias. OES, as a predominantly White and wealthy institution, has largely benefited from these biases in the past.

A sad reality of all of this is that OES holds a disproportionate amount of power in our community. It is an affluent, White-majority school in a city which is already more than 70% White. With this power, however, comes opportunity, and a responsibility to leverage power to stand up for those who have less.

It’s past time that we use our power for good. OES has power, privilege, resources, and facilities that can help bring about racial and economic equality. We can make meaningful social change, but it has to start with action. Targeted policy, as well as recognition of our failures, is the best way to move forward and show that we are a school that doesn’t just denounce racism, but does everything under the sun to enact change and make differences in our community. There’s a reason people say that actions speak louder than words.  

Students crave courageous leadership at this moment, and when we don’t have it, it is incredibly frustrating. I want all the administrators at OES to understand that this is an opportunity. You should be encouraged that so many students have been so vocal about expressing their opinions, as it shows just how much they care about these issues. I encourage the administration not only to self reflect, but to see how you can be a guiding force for education, activism, and financial support for justice in the future. Students look to you. Show them that you are leaders capable of making change. 

OES students, it’s absolutely critical that we keep fighting for change from within. Demand that the school take concrete steps not just to vocally show their support, but to divest from donors and organizations that run counter to ideals of racial and social justice. Push for policy change which will educate and encourage student activism. Start more clubs, activities, and organizations. Make sure the school moves towards action. 

Education is what we do here. It is a powerful tool for social change. Fight for changes to the curriculum which can help educate and inform everyone on the history of racism and inequality in the United States, on our complicated Oregon history, on the racial wealth gap in the United States, the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States, and the history of redlining in Portland and other cities. Encourage and work with faculty to help develop an anti-racism curriculum for all students that can be taught in all divisions. 

Service is another powerful channel that can be used to confront racism and inequality. Demand a deeper commitment to community engagement and service learning, and urge the school to put more emphasis on social and racial justice. A more comprehensive approach to service can serve as both a medium for education and direct change, and can have a real impact on our local communities.

Finally, reflection is key. We must understand that students are structurally a part of the problem as well. OES has a profoundly racist history to grapple with, and being complicit on racial incidents that happen means that we are not doing all we can to root out racism and bias at our school. 

We are at an inflection point. It has become clear that those at the top are increasingly disconnected from the voices of the student body. That it took an event of such immense magnitude to spark a dialogue between the administration and the students on these issues is disappointing. We need to bridge the gap between the adults in the highest circles of power and the student body. Electing a student representative to the board could be a way to help ensure that the community’s voice is being heard. Mo and Peter, I urge you to reflect on how you can be more active and engaged with students. Bringing change has to start with understanding different perspectives. 

I am heartened by students demanding meaningful change, because it shows that, despite all the issues our school faces, the student body remains committed to the ideals of OES. We all care about our school, and we want to make sure that we do all we can to improve it in every way possible. 

The new editors of The Dig have shared some great resources on how to get involved, which they have included in their editorial statement. Donations, activism, education, and protests are all great ways to move from words to action. Do not let this become a passing moment in time. Commit to keep making change, over the summer and into the fall.

OES can be a place of inclusion, diversity, and progressivism. But we have to work for it. Change doesn’t come easily. Students, put more pressure on the administration to make changes. But use this moment to show that you are leaders as well. Highlight the path to racial and economic inclusion. That is how, together, we can truly make a difference. It’s time for action.