By Sylvester Brown Jr.
Those two words summarized the March 14 “Speak-In,” listening session at Sumner High School, hosted by U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis. During the candid, one-hour, live discussion with students from area high schools, Bush repeatedly reminded them that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, afraid, scared, or angry.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” Bush stressed after students expressed concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence and racism. Her advice was also apropos for Cardinal Ritter High School student, Kenneth White, who confessed, “I fear leaving my house and the dangerous things happening such as being robbed, killed, or more.”
According to Bush’s office, the event was designed to give students the chance to openly discuss issues that are affecting their daily lives. Bush and the panel of eight students addressed comments that had been submitted by high schoolers prior to the live event.
Dr. Kelvin R. Adams, Superintendent of the St. Louis Public School District, who introduced Bush, opened the session on a serious note. A Sumner High School sophomore, Terrion Smith, 16, of the 4700 block of Newberry Terrace in north St. Louis, had been gunned down over the weekend.
“This tragedy is the sort of thing that no child or teenager should ever have to cope with,” Adams said. “However, many young people in our region face these issues directly or indirectly. It is a problem that will take all of us to solve. I’m hopeful today we can play a role in finding a solution.”
Almost all the students on the panel raised their hands after Bush asked if they had lost a loved one or a fellow student to gun violence. Seven Robinson, a senior at Vashon, reminisced about someone he’d lost a few weeks ago.
When pushed by Bush to share who he talks to about his trauma, Robinson said writing about his feelings and talking with his mother helps. But, he added, “It’s like you’re numb. That person is gone, and you’ll never talk to them again. It’s like the water’s been cut off. You’ve never been taught how to feel when you lose somebody. I never got a chance to mourn, to feel sad, to cry. You just keep going on with life.”
Bush assured Robinson that she understood his pain.
“That’s the reality. We still must go on,” she said. “People expect you to show up at school, at work and take care of everything at home while you’re dealing with loss. But grief and trauma are real things; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real thing and that’s something we want to deal with. I’m not going to push it under the rug because so many of our students live with some type of trauma.”
Villa Duchesne student, Moriah Morrow, spoke to the stigma she feels exists in many Black households where issues of tragedy or loss are often not addressed.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting help, Morrow stressed. “When you have cancer, you go to an oncologist. If you’re sick you go to a doctor. When you’re mentally sick, when you’re struggling, when you’re dealing with trauma, it’s OK to go get help.”
Young people, Morrow continued, have “so much stress, so much built-up anger and resentment over stuff that has happened in our lives, and we never talk to anybody about it. I think that’s part of gun violence. You’re mad at the world and you’ve never felt safe enough to talk to anybody about it. So, you feel like you have to release your anger on everybody else.”
The students discussed other issues such as losing an educator or family member to COVID-19 and racism in society and schools. That topic motivated Bush to share a personal experience when she transferred to a majority white high school.
“The horrible way I was treated, changed me forever,” Bush said. “Because I didn’t get help, I went from being an “A” student to barely graduating. I got into some very ugly things because I didn’t get help. I need students to know that it’s OK to speak up about racism. If we don’t know what you’re experiencing, then how can we help?”
Zipporah Lawal, a Hazelwood East student, talked about the importance of the event: “Going off the theme, ‘it’s OK to not be OK,’ I think it’s important to do things like this that raise awareness about things we’re dealing with. Speaking out may help another person feel like, ‘OK, I’m not the only one going through this.’”
By the end of the session, Bush was in tears. Addressing the students, she said, “I need ya’ll to know that you’ve blown my mind today. You’ve given us so much to start chipping away at, so much that we have to change.”
Vowing that the listening session was not just a “photo opp,” Bush announced plans to continue engaging young people in her district. During the session, she unveiled a new program, “Congress in Your Classroom” designed to connect elementary, middle, high school and college students with the congresswoman and her outreach team.
“To give our youth the best future, we must do everything we can to support them in the present and address the traumas of their past,” Bush said in a press release.
“By bringing Congress to the classroom, we’re cultivating a new generation of changemakers in our communities who will know that their government works for them.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.