Kiairrah Graham, 18, was scrolling Instagram ahead of her remote high school history class when she first saw the video of George Floyd being killed. While the Brownsville student knew police brutality existed, she’d never witnessed it like this. “My heart broke for him, and to hear him crying out for his mom made it even sadder,” she said. 

The video’s impact on her and Brooklyn Collegiate Preparatory High School’s other 289 students — most of whom identify as Black — could not be ignored. 

That day, the history lesson was paused to talk about the video. And since then, Brooklyn Collegiate has tried to be a model for other schools in caring for its kids among the racial justice movement — holding online forums, conversations about history not covered in the school curriculum and supporting a student-led anti-racism taskforce, spearheaded by Graham.

“I always felt like there was something missing when we were reading history books.” Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

Creating a space for grief

On June 1, Brooklyn Collegiate hosted the first of several ‘safe space’ virtual forums for students to talk about how they were feeling. 

Community school director Rosana Shields, a licensed mental health counselor with Counseling in Schools, said they initially organized a 30-minute Google MeetUp, not knowing if anyone would log on. But about 120 students, teachers and parents joined and they talked for almost two hours.

Teachers and students were free to share their experiences of police brutality and racism in and out of Brownsville — a neighborhood with disproportionate rates of poverty, where many of the school’s students live in housing projects or shelters.

At first, people were simply processing their emotions. “And then it took a shift to students wanting to take action,” Shields said. “They spoke about the school curriculum and wanting to learn more about Black history. And Kiairrah really took the lead.” 

Graham is going on to study pediatric nursing. Photo: Jessy Edwards for the BK Reader.

Finding her voice

Motivated to action, Graham organized an anti-racism taskforce to meet Wednesdays and discuss race and the importance of knowing the past.

“I’m actually just realizing I really love history,” she said. Throughout school, she’d often stay behind class to ask teachers about what wasn’t in the curriculum. “Because I know all history is not in the book, some is gentrified.” 

Community school director Rosana Shields says the school is like a family.

Graham and other students are currently working on a video featuring young people, teachers and various local politicians, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City councilwoman Carlina Rivera. Graham hopes the video will show the world that the youth understand what’s going on societally, and what they want to change. 

Meanwhile, following students’ calls for more on Black history, Shields has been given the go-ahead to start a Brooklyn Collegiate after-school social justice club in September.

Graham credits the school for giving her a space to express her pain and grow her voice.  “I feel like if I was to keep that in I wouldn’t have the courage to speak to you now, or speak to other people about what was going on or to make the video.”

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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