Brand Soe was ready to make peace.
Three years ago, he got off a Roseville school bus with a bloodied nose, outnumbered in the latest of a string of fights that had bedeviled district administrators. He vowed revenge. But days later, he had decided: It was time to stop fighting and start talking.
Now, community leaders and educators are trying to start a larger conversation about defusing tensions between African-American students and youths from the Karen community, recent refugee arrivals from an ethnic minority group in Myanmar. The clashes have flared up in east metro schools and neighborhoods in recent years.
It’s a difficult conversation — about bullying, race and the ways cultural misunderstanding breeds hostility.
“When you don’t know something, it causes conflict,” said Tia Williams, a community organizer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association in St. Paul. “Kids will find ways to be cruel instead of asking questions.”
Students at Roseville High School have modeled such dialogue: There, black and Karen students such as Soe launched a group that has fostered interracial friendships and intervened in altercations.
Community leaders have drawn parallels to earlier conflicts involving recent Hmong and Somali arrivals, hostilities that festered for years and, some believe, helped fuel the rise of some inner-city gangs. The Minneapolis School District just settled a federal complaint alleging it failed to intervene in tensions between African-American and Somali students at South High School that culminated in a 2013 cafeteria fight involving more than 200 students.
With these conflicts in mind, the nonprofit Karen Organization of Minnesota recently started reaching out to city and African-American community leaders such as Williams. The group advocates for more than 8,000 Karen who have settled in the state over the past decade, most of them in the east metro.
Students lead way
In 2012, Roseville High educators were grappling with almost weekly fights between black and Karen students in hallways, on school buses and after school. The conflicts had become a major learning distraction and a safety concern.
Soe fought at the high school and in his Maplewood neighborhood. He had started fighting as an eighth-grader, without fully understanding what the fighting was about. He knew this much: Karen families like his had been banished brutally from Myanmar. Confined to makeshift Thai refugee camps, they endured more suffering. The time had come for kids to band together and stand up for themselves.
But by the time he was a junior, Soe was tired of the cycle of reprisals and the constant vigilance: “I did not want to see anyone else get hurt.” He approached teacher Kelly Tennison with a proposal. Later that year, black and Karen student leaders first came together to start a conversation about easing the tensions at the school.
George Thaw Moo and Williams, the Frogtown organizer, met with the same goal in mind earlier this year. It could have been a tense encounter.
Moo, a Karen refugee, has been pushing his sons’ school, Como Park High in St. Paul, to hire more security officers and intervene more forcefully in bullying involving Karen and black students. At Como, says Principal Theresa Neal, teens have clashed twice as students streamed out of the building at the end of the school day. Some Karen students have told teachers they don’t feel safe in school restrooms, and a couple of parents have asked that their kids be transferred to a different school.
Williams, who is black and has two daughters in the St. Paul district, is wary of perpetuating stereotypes of African-American students, especially boys. She had recently attended a meeting with the Karen residents of Frogtown’s Como Place apartment complex, organized by City Council Member Dai Thao. The residents told of fights, petty thefts and vandalism, and their stories were charged with anger at black neighbors.
But the conversation between Moo and Williams proved constructive. Williams spent time that weekend researching the Karen online, and she felt a kinship with their history of facing racial discrimination in Myanmar in Southeast Asia. She and Moo shared a belief the two communities had to get to know each other.
“We believe most of these conflicts are the result of misunderstanding,” Moo said. “The African-American community doesn’t know the Karen community. The Karen community doesn’t know the African-American community.”
Not that different
At Roseville High School one day, black and Karen student leaders hashed out their differences and painted four peace-themed murals that kicked off the African-American Karen Alliance. Soe discovered that he shared a love of sports and music with some of the black teens he had fought: “We found out we are not different that much. We’re almost the same, except for the color.”
Lance Gardner, then a junior, learned Karen kids had gone through many hardships; they were quick to rally around a peer in trouble.
Led by Tennison, the group, since renamed Multicultural Leaders, has regularly visited other district schools to mentor younger peers. The initiative has led to a dramatic reduction in fights at the high school, administrators say, even though work remains at the middle school and some elementaries.
On a recent morning, members of the group, which now includes Latino, Bhutanese and white students, spoke about how a field trip to counsel younger students sparked flashbacks to their own middle school days. They remembered fights they had started because a fellow student seemed to “look at them funny” or spoke what they assumed was a put-down in a foreign language.
Then, said senior Erick Minero Jr., “It would just be a chain that kept going, and it was hard to break. You didn’t want to be the weak one.”
Community leaders are talking about how they can interrupt the cycle of reprisals. After the meeting with Como Place residents, Thao, the council member, reached out to Tyrone Terrill, an African American community leader, asking him to host a similar meeting with young people who might have been involved in the incidents there.
Williams and Moo envision regular neighborhood meetings that bring young people and elders from both communities together. Meanwhile, Moo, the head of the Karen parent organization at Como Park High, is talking to his counterpart in the school’s African-American parent group, Walter Gates.
Neal, the principal, says the school is responding by encouraging teachers to forge stronger relationships with Karen students. She says she hopes to better understand a conflict she believes started in the community and “seeped into our building.”
Chong Bee Vang, the head of the Karen Organization of Minnesota, says he sympathizes with parents who argue their children, with limited English and experience navigating the U.S. school system, get a raw discipline deal in altercations. But in St. Paul, slightly more than 1 percent of the 2,000 Karen students who attend the district have been suspended in recent years — the lowest suspension rate of any major racial or ethnic group. He also encourages the parents to talk with their kids about how fighting back affects younger peers and neighborhoods.
Many Karen parents bristle at the suggestion they say administrators have made, that students involved in school conflicts are gang members. But Vang worries Karen gangs could spring out of these youthful conflicts, a concern shared by St. Paul police, said spokesman Paul Paulos.
Moo acknowledged the outreach won’t be easy: It takes time to build ties across racial divides; discomfort with the issue and a language barrier complicate that effort.
“The solution isn’t just about making arrests,” said Thao. “It’s about coming together to share our experiences so our communities are not hurting each other.”