In a candid conversation, Vineyarders this week discussed the varied and sometimes contradictory issues facing Islanders who are minorities: being teased or ignored, facing low expectations or having suspicion cast on achievements, having to choose between their culture and fitting in with the mainstream.
While there were no easy solutions presented for these issues, the panel discussion Wednesday evening at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center featuring members of the Island African American, Brazilian, Wampanoag and Jewish communities was a chance to learn about the “difficulties and challenges of being a minority, and what we can better do to be allies for each other,” event organizer Max Jasny told the audience of about 50.
The discussion focused on Island schools, with Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss in attendance to listen and answer questions. Topics ranged from how schools address Jewish holidays to a lack of diversity in the high school faculty. Most panelists said race is not discussed enough on the Island.
“It is so rare that we get an opportunity to talk to the community, and for the community to be able to understand some of things that are going on . . . in our schools,” said high school business teacher Leo Frame, who spoke on the African American panel. He said when he first began teaching in the 1990s, two football players came to him, near tears, upset about a “slave auction” football fundraiser in which students could bid on members of the football team. The principal stopped the event, but “one of the things it showed me was there was that level of insensitivity that went on in the school, and there was something that had to be done,” Mr. Frame said.
Senior Delmont Araujo noted high schoolers tend to socialize with those of their own race, taking what he called “the easy way out.”
“Sometimes I feel like diversity isn’t focused on enough,” said Doug Andrade, a junior. “I think diversity should be built into the fabric of the school.”
“My main issue is that in all classes except one I’m the only African American kid . . . I’m usually fine with this, but I started getting called an Oreo, which they meant as black on the outside and white on the inside, because I do go to all these honors classes,” said Sterling Meacham, a junior. He said he wondered if the school could look into why there isn’t more diversity in honors or advanced placement classes.
Mr. Meacham said he’s concerned about who he’ll turn to for guidance when Mr. Frame retires next year.
“I think people need teachers they can go talk to, someone of their race,” Mr. Andrade chimed in.
Elaine Weintraub, a history teacher at the high school, spoke about the “soft bigotry” and lack of full citizenship that she sees for Brazilian students at the school. To help incorporate more learning about Brazilian culture into school programs, last year she started a Brazilian history and culture class.
The panel of Brazilian students who participated in the event this week said language barriers can be hard for them, ranging from sitting in class and trying their best to understand what’s going on to not being able to ask questions and feeling intimidated about approaching groups of students. Ms. Weintraub said in her experience students want to be mainstreamed and form wider groups of friends. “It’s hard to learn English when you’re always with students who speak Portuguese,” she said.
“I’m not saying that everybody is racist against Brazilians,” said student Alexis Trinidade. “I have a few cases of Americans saying we Brazilians are meant to work for them and clean houses and we couldn’t do anything because we’re illegal and just Brazilians . . . not everybody says it but a few people have said that to me.”
Andora Aquino, a 2010 high school graduate, recalled that when she was accepted at Colgate University, there were “others who didn’t accept the fact that I got in there based on merit. It wasn’t just the students, either; it was their parents, it was adults I knew,” Ms. Aquino said. “That really hurt me and nothing was done about it. It’s these stereotypes that people have about these kids . . . if you think that they’re going to fail, they’re going to fail,” she added.
“Sometimes I feel as though we are invisible up there,” said Martha Vanderhoop, speaking on the panel of members from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). “I also feel a certain lack of respect for us as a people and as a nation, and a lack of respect for our culture and our traditions. We’ve been here an awful long time, but I think that people often don’t see us as authentic, and they don’t necessarily take the time to find out about us either.”
Adriana Ignacio, like Ms. Vanderhoop, recalled attending the one-room schoolhouse in Gay Head during her early years, and she said coming to Vineyard Haven for junior high was “quite a shock to my system.” At the high school she said:“I got very lost there, not paid any attention to, not given any guidance, just invisible.”
Some Wampanoags or Cape Verdeans might associate with African-Americans, she added. “It’s a lot easier. It’s a larger community, it’s a more recognizable community.”
Amira Madison, who attended Island schools and recently graduated from Northeastern University, spoke as someone who grew up thinking she was black, only to find that her mother was Wampanoag. She came to the Island when she was 11, and attended the Tisbury School, the charter school and the high school.
Compared to Boston, she said the Vineyard was less diverse and people tend to split up into cliques depending on race. “There is a break into the tribal people and the other people that live on this Island. The barrier needs to be broken, I think,” she said. But she also noted that she had “great mentors and great support on this Island.”
A panel of Jewish community members and parents spoke about the pressures that children face, with Jewish holidays often conflicting with school trips or the first day of school.
It would make a difference if teachers said Happy New Year to students after Rosh Hashanah, suggested Rabbi Caryn Broitman. Jewish students are also “othered” at Christmastime, she added. “It’s really hard to be Jewish when there’s so few of you,” she said, noting an assumption that “everybody should be or is celebrating [Christmas].”
Robert Herman spoke about his 11-year-old son Julian’s conundrum when faced with choosing between a sixth-grade class trip and high holiday observances for Rosh Hashanah. Speaking with humor, Mr. Herman said Julian wanted to go on the trip, a highlight of his middle school years and a chance to get away from his little sister. “On the other hand, the participation of Jews during the high holiday service and the observation of the days of awe are an essential yearly commitment to our religious belief, and as parents our obligation is to set an example.” Julian ultimately went on the class trip.
Mr. Herman said Julian is the only Jewish student in the sixth grade in West Tisbury. “He learned that those in the majority rarely face choices like these,” Mr. Herman said.
Taking the stage at the end, Mr. Weiss, the schools superintendent, said he saw the evening as a starting point for more dialogue on the Vineyard. “The most important thing that I learned tonight is the voices of our young people are going to help us move forward,” he said.
“I really appreciated their candor and their willingness to sit up here in front of adults and say what they said. We adults have to listen and help them change the future.”
He concluded: “I’m going to keep listening to young people. Rome, or Martha’s Vineyard in this case, wasn’t built in a day and it will take time.”