Bucks County Herald
“Why be a bystander when you can be an up-stander?”
This was the message of Jayla Johnson, a junior at Council Rock North and Voices of Equality club president, speaking at the Jan. 15 Martin Luther King, Jr. Teen Peace and Social Justice Summit. The event, in its fourth year, was arranged by several community-based organizations including The Peace Center. A diverse crowd of over 400 students and administrators from Bucks County schools, and community volunteers, filled the Central Bucks South High School auditorium. Also in attendance were Pastor Robert Hamlin of Second Baptist Church of Doylestown, Kristie King of Jack and Jill Bucks County Chapter, and School Superintendent John Kopicki.
Johnson and Truman High School senior, Rose Harmon, were invited to share their personal encounters with racism, in an effort to spur dialogue among their peers on how to combat otherwise destructive attitudes within their schools and local communities. Harmon spoke about arriving to the United States from Liberia at the age of two with her grandmother. Her earliest memory of racism among her peers was at six years old, when a young boy on the playground told her, “My parents don’t want me playing with black kids because they steal.” Johnson recounted her school administration’s more recent refusal to punish a student for wearing the Confederate flag to classes one day during Spirit Week, when students were offered the chance to wear their choice of clothing. According to Johnson, the same administration later refused to allow her to organize a Black Student Union chapter.
Before breakout sessions commenced, Dr. Joe Davis, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant, Missouri school district, gave a profound and moving keynote speech. He emphasized the power of pursuing education, as well as putting one’s self into new and different environments to build greater understanding amongst each other. Finally, echoing a thematic message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Davis said, “Love is the greatest force on earth….It can turn anger into joy. It can transform violence into forgiveness.”
The more unscripted moment of the evening occurred when students reconvened in the auditorium to present their ideas on how to foster healthy and constructive discussions in addressing the root causes of racism and other types of discrimination. Representatives from each small group stood in a line on-stage and held their paper lists facing outward for their peers to see. As they walked up front and spoke aloud from their piece of paper, the mediator paused as an organizer approached the stage. Due to a bus scheduling mix-up, many students would have to leave early. The mediator asked for those with the most important issues that were not yet addressed to step forward. Without hesitation, every student on stage took a step forward, raising their hands in solidarity to a cheering crowd. It was a moment of unity and, despite the normalization of hateful rhetoric between communities across the US, it was possibly a symbol of how Bucks County’s youth can be the change and choose love.