In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a group named John Jay United For Racial Justice formed on Facebook and acquired 652 members in a little over a week. John Jay alumnus, Jeremy Zitomer, who graduated from the school in 2011, said he formed the group after an initial post on his own private Facebook page June 5, asking people from John Jay to join a group in order to facilitate conversations on racial equality in the Katonah-Lewisboro community.
Mr. Zitomer said at the time of the post, he had no clear vision of where it would lead, but thought it was important for people to begin talking. Mr. Zitomer said that his personal experiences as cisgender gay man have informed much of what he has done in his life, including involvement in sensitive conversations about race, sexuality and inclusivity.
Mr. Zitomer said his senior year at Yale University was punctuated by a string of racist incidents, leading to his involvement in many difficult talks led by activists on campus. He added that that experience enabled him to become more comfortable initiating such conversations.
Alumni involved in the group spoke at a staff development meeting last Friday, June 12, hosted by John Jay teachers Candy Wilmot and Victoria Weiss. Additionally, alumni and current students worked together to write and sign an open letter to the administration.
During the June 12 meeting held virtually via Zoom, over 200 alumni and current students joined to speak and listen about experiences at John Jay. “All of the language I heard from students on the call is stuff I remember happening in high school either word for word or in spirit,” Mr. Zitomer said.
John Jay alumna Mina Shah, who graduated in 2012, is also part of the Facebook group. She spoke at the June 12 meeting on her experiences as a woman of mixed white-brown race at John Jay. Ms. Shah echoed Mr. Zitomer’s sentiment, stating that for people who knew how difficult it was to feel marginalized in the community, the experiences shared in the meeting were not surprising.
“It’s disappointing that it was surprising for folks, but my hope is that people will be more reflective and conscientious about how their actions affect other people,” Ms. Shah said.
In addition to the staff development meeting, student and alumni expressed their concerns about the racially insensitive atmosphere at John Jay through an open letter. The letter called on the administration to provide “meaningful education about racial injustices from our past and our present.” It stated: “We ask to leave the school knowing our full history, so that we can change society for the better.”
The Katonah-Lewisboro School District Board of Education, along with John Jay administration, responded to the open letter. The response thanked students for raising issues about the education of their students. The response also recognized that more work is needed to address issues such as racism and inclusion, and highlighted some of the initiatives already taken by the district.
In addition, administration members said they have contracted with the director of the Center for Strategic Solution at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University to work with administrators to develop additional programs.
“We know we must determine how to embed deeper conversations within the curriculum so that they are experienced by all students and not just those who select particular courses,” BOE and administration said in the response.
Mr. Zitomer said he appreciated the many initiatives outlined in the administration’s response and felt like there was a genuine sense of concern for racial injustice and anti-black racism in the community.
However, Mr. Zitomer added that he is still wary from his past experiences that the supportive words will not lead to substantive actions. “What’s most important isn’t that initial statement but the work they do over the next couple months,” Mr. Zitomer said.
Moving forward, he said he would like to see anti-racist education be the centerpiece of the district’s initiatives. Mr. Zitomer said in addition to education, housing and law enforcement in our community must also be points of focus. This broader effort, Mr. Zitomer said, will bring to light more areas where the community can improve.
Ms. Shah said it’s too early to say where these initial steps will lead but noted she would like to see anti-racist pedagogy in the curriculum, multi-directional learning and further development in the network between alumni and younger students. “It’s really important to center the issue in the protection and support of black lives,” Ms. Shah said.
Mr. Zitomer said the Facebook group is still in its early stages, and in the coming weeks members plan to reassign leadership roles in the group and create a vision that aligns with the movement for black lives and other priorities from black voices in the community. Members of the Facebook group continue to facilitate virtual conversations including one planned for today, Friday, where participants plan to discuss how to reshape the group. Additionally, members of the Facebook group were planning to speak during the KLSD Board of Education public forum held yesterday, Thursday, June 18.
“This moment is a real call to action for all of us and it’s a real call to humility for all of us, myself included,” Mr. Zitomer said.