Joan Mesy, a senior at Sanford H. Calhoun High School, has experienced racial prejudice firsthand. As a freshman, she mentally struggled in the face of harassment by her peers, and as one of the few Black students in the school at the time, she had few places to turn.
“I was so angry. I was so upset, but it was like I never really understood why,” Mesy said, explaining that persistent verbal harassment left her depressed and isolated, with no Black peers or teachers to relate to.
The next year, she joined the International Buddy Club, a group for Calhoun’s international students to share their cultures, led by English as a New Language teacher Heather Glick. In the club, she learned to cope with and understand the racism directed at her.
Before she joined, “I really was not myself — I honestly was a completely different person,” Mesy said. “When I joined IBC, all that changed with the help of the officers and Ms. G. They really coached me, and it took hours and hours in room 235 — and boxes of tissues — to get me to where I’m at now.”
Mesy’s hope now, she said, is that no other students experience what she did — and if they do, they now have a place to share their stories. Along with fellow senior Eden Gould-Anderson, Mesy started the Racial Equity Club, a platform for all students to discuss matters of racial injustice.
“It’s a safe place that’s made to make you feel unsafe,” Mesy said. “We want to get kids exposed to talking about things they normally don’t, think about things they never have and see things from a different perspective from kids all over the community.”
“It’s a conversation-driven club,” Gould-Anderson said. “We’re going to touch on a lot of things that aren’t touched upon over the rest of the school year or [that] you just don’t have an opportunity to do so.”
Each week, REC members will hold a discussion about a general topic, such as stereotypes, and the members can freely share their personal experiences. The club is diverse in both gender and race, said Glick, the club’s adviser — roughly 30 students of varying backgrounds have taken part since the club’s first meeting on Oct. 9.
Creation of the club during a period of heightened racial unrest is no coincidence. Black Lives Matter demonstrations were held in Merrick this past June when thousands marched through the streets in honor of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer. Since the nationwide protests began while classes were being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mesy and her IBC peers missed out on being part of the conversation.
“It was so hard because we cared so much about this topic and we weren’t having the chance to talk about it,” Mesy said, “but we see that everyone in the community is talking about this. It was almost like even if you didn’t want to open your eyes to it, you were forced to.”
“I noticed that people wanted to know more, but there was no outlet for them to get that information,” Gould-Anderson said. “For us to set up a club in which people can come and learn and educate themselves is important — this will keep it relevant, not pushed under the rug.”
“It felt like an obligation to get these kids talking,” Mesy added, “to get them to understand different views of everyone at Calhoun.”
By shining a spotlight on how racism has affected them, the students aim to shift the culture at Calhoun, from the staff to the students. Mesy presented her story to faculty at the school as an IBC member, which helped raise awareness of what students like her may go through. Glick was also part of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, which assembled representatives from each school to hold presentations about culture and race.
“I just feel a huge responsibility to these students to help make sure the staff addresses the things that affect their lives every day,” Glick said. “If you’re a Black student at Calhoun — even just a Black person in America — it affects you every day.”
As a Girl Scout, Gould-Anderson has made the goal of her Gold Project a curriculum proposal for the district, which she crafted over the summer with the help of Glick, Mesy and three other teachers. The course proposal is for a Black history class, titled “The Black Experience: Power, Justice and the Art of Resistance.” She will make her case to administrators in the coming months.
Before the pandemic shut down schools, IBC also planned to host workshops at the district’s middle schools — nicknamed “wokeshops” — to help advance cultural pride and inclusion.
“It feels amazing to be able to take everything I’ve learned over the past couple years and give it to other kids,” Mesy said. “There are a lot of freshmen or underclassmen who are also young Black girls, and I remember what I felt throughout those years. I want to let them know what could happen in life.”