In the second piece discussing East Lyme perspectives on equity, alumna Serena Valentin discusses her experiences with racism growing up in EL and advocating for Black Lives Matter
Serena Valentin was one of two in-
person spokespeople for the East Lyme for
Black Lives Matter group at the Board of Ed meeting Aug. 17. Tensions were high, and between school being on the brink of reopening and the pressure to release a BLM statement, the discussions were long and tough. One thing the East Lyme for BLM group had on the agenda was to propose a statement the school could put out concerning Black Lives Matter. “It was just a statement about student safety and about how racism isn’t tolerated. It didn’t even have to explicitly say ‘Black Lives Matter’ because people have a political connotation to that. There was some discussion about it, but it needed review. That created a little bit of frustration because it was another delay on doing anything about it and letting the students know that racism isn’t tolerated,” said Valentin. Feeling the need to implement measures quickly, Valentin understood the importance of keeping a clear head to push the agenda forward. “I took the time to say ‘I appreciate what you’re doing. I appreciate you that you’re working with your law firm to rewrite these policies on anti discrimination and the minority recruitment plan, because that is something that they’re doing. I appreciate that you put this on the agenda for this meeting.’ If I didn’t make an effort to show respect, no one would listen. Then the whole conversation would be pointless,” Valentin said.
Valentin joined East Lyme for BLM because she cares deeply about the issue, but she also personally cares about East Lyme’s growth. She grew up as part of the community and knows its dynamics intimately. “I have been going to ELPS since the first grade. It’s not like I’m just making all of this up. I have the experience of growing up here to know that there are some shortcomings. It’s not like I’m just coming in from the outside and being like, oh yeah, this is probably something East Lyme should do,” she said.
With this background, she has her own experiences with racial tensions through her high school years. “We all kind of knew and joked about the fact that there were only maybe eight Black people in our class of like 250 and we acknowledged it, but it wasn’t something that we thought was an issue. And back then nobody thought it was weird or a problem,” Valentin recalls. “I’m half Hispanic and half Middle Eastern, but especially in the winter, I can pass as White. It’s a different experience when you don’t have that shield to blend in. It didn’t occur to me that anything is different about being a Black student in East Lyme until I talked with some of those kids years later,” she said. Valentin also experienced “minor” issues with racism from classmates. “There were minor things, like if someone mentioned Mexicans, people would look at me even though I’m not even Mexican, and people called me a terrorist now and again, but nothing super direct and aggressive,” Valentin said. Even though this sounds like an overt act of racism, Valentin makes the point that “jokes” like that were part of the social dynamic of ELHS at the time.
Outward racism wasn’t the only issue at ELHS Valentin remembers. She also noticed an acute whitewashing of culture throughout the community. “Growing up in East Lyme with all white people made me not really identify with the cultural differences that I had at home. So I wouldn’t really even talk about it. Like, this is where we eat. This is what we do for holidays. This is how life is different for my parents. Nobody asked those questions because in East Lyme, you just act like everyone is white and don’t ask questions.” “Instead of celebrating the differences that people have to offer, they just kind of ignore any differences and just hope that everyone else will ignore them too,” Valentin said. “That was the culture that was created and encouraged by the students and staff, which is why those jokes seemed normal. There were even certain popular kids who were blatantly racist and then someone would excuse it as their sense of humor.” Even though it’s been four years since Valentin graduated, she has a vision for improvement at ELHS. “Racism is not a Black people problem. It’s a white people problem. They created it. And they’re the ones who have to change in order for this to get better. Every student has to hold themselves accountable and hold their friends accountable. It’s so easy in high school to just let things slide because you don’t want to be that person who calls people out. People want to be liked, but acting like that is not cool anymore. It just isn’t,” Valentin said.