A new Facebook page is working to give voice to a group that has traditionally lacked a platform to reach adults in Maplewood and South Orange — students facing discrimination around race, gender and other issues at Columbia High School.
“The #mapsowhite project was created by Maplewood-South Orange ‘Mapso’ residents and Columbia High School alumni, Avery Julien, Felisha George, Jordan Fields and Shelly Strothers,” Felisha George explained in a Facebook message to Village Green.
“After coming together and discussing our experiences as students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and residents of Mapso, we recognized that Maplewood and South Orange profit from being perceived as diverse, but the bodies that create the diversity are routinely excluded from access to equal opportunity and treatment,” wrote George. “Despite the ‘stigma-free town’ signs that hang on telephone poles, and the frequent use of the phrase ‘not in our two towns,’ racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are a large part of a people’s experience in Mapso.”
One story — of a young woman alleging sexual harassment from adults at Columbia High School — prompted South Orange Village President Sheena Collum to reach out to George via Facebook to connect the young woman with outside authorities to report her story.
Another story, involving former CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron’s handling of a racially charged incident, elicited pushback from some community members. Some questioned whether George was using the page for political gain (George ran for Board of Education with Avery Julien last year and recently announced her intention to run again).
George responded on the Facebook page South Orange-Maplewood Cares About Schools: “MapsoWhite started before me saying I was running again.” She noted that she “also had a Facebook series last year called Mapso Unchained where I did the SAME exact thing, except they were interviews in video form. I started in 2016 with my brothers in a group called MWP where we also did interviews with youth in town. So before you tell me what’s political please understand I’ve been doing this for a while and my only intent has been to get these stories out.”
Other parents in the South Orange-Maplewood online community expressed a willingness to hear the stories, saying they presented a perspective that challenged their preconceptions about the school district and the community. “Read the stories. Listen,” wrote Ronni Schwartz on Facebook.
In her message to Village Green, George explained, “We felt it was necessary to show people that our community has a long way to go before we can truly be considered progressive. In addition, there is a need for youth advocates who are not adults. It’s unacceptable for us to advocate for our youth when it’s convenient for us. We need to constantly be in sync with them and protect them at all costs. Community members say they want to protect and fight for them but action is seldom taken. Students have been telling the same stories about mistreatment and discrimination for decades, yet this community refuses yet to listen to them. Instead, we invalidate their feelings, dispute their claims and make them feel unwanted. We must listen to our youth when they’re telling us something is wrong, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Discomfort cannot overshadow the dire need for change in our community.”
The #mapsowhite project consists of video interviews and whiteboard pictures “in which people share their personal experiences,” said George. Although one story initially contained the names of minors who were involved in a blackface incident several years ago, George removed those names and intends only to post the names of those minors who grant permission going forward.
Local leaders are taking note. In addition to Collum’s outreach, Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee hosted Julien and George on an episode of The Grassroots Collective radio hour this past Sunday. (Watch the show below.) During the interview, McGehee remarked, “Having advocacy for you as a youth is very important.”
McGehee also was very interested in hearing about Julien’s personal experience as a Black male in the school district. “For me, it was something that happened throughout,” said Julien, “the lack of my teacher [being] able to connect to me … and blaming me for that lack.”
“I think it’s a project that we need,” said McGehee. “They [these incidents] need to be brought to the surface and we need to heal.”
“When you hear about resistance to telling a story… I say keep on fighting and let the awareness be there,” McGehee added.
The #mapsowhite project is planning to host a forum at the end of the summer “so we can share the videos and pictures, and discuss how we can become a better home for thousands of young people,” said George. “In addition, we intend on creating a list of suggestions that the South Orange Maplewood School District and community can use to foster a more positive environment for youth.”
Contact #mapsowhite via email at [email protected], through Facebook at “Mapsowhite Project”, or on Instagram @mapsowhite