Tensions were running high at Twin Cities Academy after the presidential election in 2016. Students of color at the charter school in St. Paul found themselves on the receiving end of insults. Fights between students broke out. Alex Miles, then a freshman who had attended the charter since sixth grade, had never seen anything like it at his school.
"We would hear, 'Go back to your country.' Or there were some students who were chatting about the wall and stuff back when that was a huge thing," said Miles.
"But it just made us feel really uncomfortable. And nobody should have to be uncomfortable at school."
So before Miles graduated last June, he made sure he did his part to address equity and bias loudly and up close.
He tackled school policies that ignored or inordinately impacted students of color, including bringing up a need for more warnings for students before they were sent out of class. He became active in the reignited Racial Justice Club, often leading discussions on racial disparities, gun violence and police brutality, and attending meetings with police.
With friend and fellow student Emmanuel Glass, Miles co-hosted an annual, club-organized cultural day promoting the rich and diverse traditions of classmates.
And he was heard.
In October, 18-year-old Miles was honored with a Facing Race award from the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation.
"We really want to honor those who are challenging absent and harmful narratives and building solutions and pushing for justice and equity," said Nadege Souvenir, senior vice president of operations and learning for the foundation.
"And so the awards allow us an opportunity to both celebrate particular individuals and then all collectively learn from those who are really doing the work."
Former Minneapolis NAACP president and fellow Facing Race awardee Leslie Redmond also praised Miles.
"I would say that I am so inspired by Generation Z," said Redmond, founder of Don't Complain, Activate, which encourages everyone to get involved in social justice work.
"They are not waiting for the baton to be passed to them; they are lighting their own path or paving their own way."
Miles, who is taking a gap year before college to work and make music, hopes progress continues at Twin Cities Academy as students return to school this month, whether virtually or in-person. Other schools are also taking up the racial justice challenge.
Among them, Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield has a diversity club which, in part, provides feedback to the administration on ways curriculum can better showcase the positive contributions of people of color.
Osseo Area Schools offers Racial Education Awakening Liberation (R.E.A.L.) Talk, a districtwide, multiracial, multicultural student leadership group to help middle and high school students develop and understand their own cultural and racial identity and learn about other cultures and races.
Edina High School and Spring Lake Park High School, among others, have Black student unions where students have a safe space to talk about issues and work toward change.
"Just having that compassion and trying to understand each other can go a long way, because people just want to be understood," Miles said.
That didn't seem to be the case a few years ago. Some of the tension at Twin Cities Academy led to physical fights between students, Miles said. For a time, he feared that some students might take things further.
"I remembered what it felt like to have a safe space," he said, recalling the school's Racial Justice Club, which started in 2015 but was inactive by Miles' freshman year. The club planned events for a group called Black Friday, which offered students of color a place to talk about their experiences in a welcoming environment open to any student.
"We felt a need for [the Racial Justice Club] again," Miles said. As the club restarted and grew, so did its outreach.
"We started with a lot of class discussion, but eventually the club really evolved into even dealing with policies within our school," said fellow activist Glass.
Students of color, Glass noted, had been disproportionately sent out of class while white students often received warnings for similar behavior. In one instance, Miles said he was suspended after he was thought to have "a threatening pose," while white students received slaps on the wrists for worse behavior.
A 2017 school walkout also provided the administration with a list of demands put together by Racial Justice Club leaders.
Club co-founder Awazi Jaafaru said this included a demand for policies that ensure fair repercussions, as well as demands for mandatory ethnic training for faculty and administration, an ethnic studies course and a safe space for students to go during the school day.
As part of its community involvement outside of school, club members met with St. Paul police, city representatives and local politicians to discuss violence in the community and how policies can negatively affect people of color.
This exercise was somewhat of a healing moment, offering students and community members an opportunity to reach out to city leaders they normally might not have access to, said Twin Cities Academy teacher and club adviser Andrew Ng.
School behavior specialist John Dabla agreed. "We are a college prep school and so we definitely strive for our students to be scholars and definitely strive for the best for them. And so I think it's always important for us to have those conversations with our staff and our students. And one thing that I really appreciate about Racial Justice Club is that they face the conversation head-on with their teachers."
The club also hosted social events, including an annual cultural day with dancers, poets and singers. Twin Cities Academy junior Shina Xiong has performed traditional Hmong dance as part of culture day for two years. Xiong said she thought seeing different cultures helped open everybody's eyes.
"Sometimes some students come up to me and just ask, 'Are you that girl who did that dance in culture day, that Hmong dance?' and I just feel like having people come up to me and just asking me questions about dancing and stuff, it makes me feel really happy," Xiong said.
"Because people are asking me about my culture and they want to know more."
Club member Anna Runquist remembers students bringing food to share, as well as live music and spoken word performances.
"I don't think that I've ever experienced something like that, where you're presented just a wide variety of different cultures, and especially that it is presented by your peers, which was so great," said Runquist, who is white.
"Everybody is very accepting and I think it's pretty powerful to be able to experience it," she said.
As school events moved online, the club continued to welcome virtual speakers, such as Monteria Robinson, whose son Jamarion was killed by Georgia law enforcement officials in 2016. It will also work with the student leadership council to plan a virtual culture day where students can send in videos of performances, cooking tutorials and more before they are edited together and sent to the entire school.
The club continues to analyze and discuss school policies, as well as data on relevant topics such as student disciplinary disparities in Minnesota. As part of its work with the school administration, the group is working with teachers to create an equity commitment statement.
Miles recently spoke to the club about his Facing Race award, encouraging them to keep going.
"For a long time, we've been misunderstood in this country," Miles said. "And we've just got to practice loving each other."
Imani Cruzen is a Twin Cities freelance writer.