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ON THE SCENE: By any measure

Students were admirable in sharing experiences as non-whites in Keene

April 27, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF - Columnist , Lake Placid News

By any measure, CorrieAnne Stoner and Miles Warner of Keene are two very exceptional youths deserving our highest praise and support.

On Thursday evening, April 19, they displayed a courage no less than any World Cup downhill racer in the starting gate of the most notorious run on the circuit. In many respects their courage was of a higher level because they had no years of practice and coaching to prepare them for their undertaking of educating their schoolmates, teachers and citizens of their community on not only what it's like to be a child of color in in the Adirondacks, but how their own actions and inactions greatly add to the challenges they face.

Consider the heightened awareness about racism in the media, exemplified by the incident at the Philadelphia Starbucks, the too many examples of black Americans being shot by police, the national outrage to the Charlottesville march by avowed racists, and locally, the Snapchat that shook SUNY Plattsburgh and the North Country. Against that backdrop, these two seniors laid out for the Keene Central middle and high school students and their faculty, and later the community at large, a history and reality of racism in America.

Article Photos

Photo provided — Naj Wikoff
Miles Warner, left, and CorrieAnne Stoner, right, pose with their diversity mentor Rebecca Haslam on Thursday.

They discussed how racism is manifested and its emotional impact, providing personal stories since third grade for CorrieAnne. They shared how they have been treated at times quite badly, and many times inadvertently in hurtful manners by their own schoolmates, teachers and the residents and visitors of Keene. Collectively between the two presentations, they reached one-fifth the population of Keene, no small undertaking by any measure.

Their presentation was months in the planning, not a last-minute response to the SUNY Snapchat, which ironically was written by a friend and recent grad of Keene Central. That event, which stimulated two community forums on racism, if anything underscored the need and beneficial timing of their presentation. Keene Central provided Miles and CorrieAnne with a mentor, Rebecca Haslem, who teaches at St. Michael's College, facilitated Vermont's NEA Racial Justice Task Force and in 2015 was named Vermont Teacher of the Year.

"I am so impressed by Miles and CorrieAnne," said Haslem. "They are so brave and courageous to do this. They have their whole hearts in the work because it's personally relevant to them. It's also very relevant to the community. Miles and CorrieAnne have done far, far more on their own than any help they needed from me. People tend to think of racism as KKK members marching in the street, but what it really looks like in 2018 is typically more subtle acts of bias. The Starbucks example is not very subtle. Typically, it's things that get passed off as jokes, and that are built into policy and practice that we don't tend to question."

"I am very proud of them," said school guidance counselor Jatha Johnson, who worked closely with Haslem and helped Miles and CorrieAnne practice their presentations. "Their poise was remarkable. I think they spoke better than some adults I've seen addressing challenging topics."

Their presentation included two videos by recent graduates of Asian heritage who shared that they, too, had experienced racism growing up in Keene and continue to do so while in college. A third video featured Maria Gates, who got caught up with a group of SUNY Plattsburgh students who shared racist jokes in a bit of one-up-manship, for whom she ended up becoming the poster child for such bad behavior, with devastating results. CorrieAnne knew that by no means was her friend the ugly person portrayed but in many ways a victim of a community norm gone too long unchecked. Thus, she sent Maria a needed lifeline of love and understanding, and provided her friend an opportunity to speak directly to her hometown community and apologize for actions and the hurt caused.

That, too, took a courage and level of forgiveness by CorrieAnne that few manifest. No slouch, Miles shared personal stories of what it's like for him at times to walk along Main Street (Route 73) in Keene hearing car door locks click and at times rude comments from patrons on the AuSable Inn deck, to seeing people cross the street to avoid passing near him. He literally put listeners in his shoes, resulting in gasps from the audience shamed that a local boy, loved by many, could be so badly treated without their awareness.

Their message was heard loud and clear. "I want to thank Miles and CorrieAnne for their emotional and powerful presentation," said John Haverlick, co-president of the school board. "There are all kinds of emotions that your presentation has stirred up for me. I'm certainly left with some uncomfortable feelings of my complicity in some of the areas that you've touched on, and perhaps how insensitive and complacent I've been. I feel like I know all of you but haven't known you after you have disclosed tonight about your own experience of growing up in this community. I feel like there is a lot of work that I've got to do to go forward. I hope my friends and neighbors will also take that with them, and will support me in learning, growing and getting better."

No less impressed were their classmates.

"Hearing about their daily life and how it affects them was definitely eye-opening," said Josh Baldwin, a fellow senior. "Going forward I definitely will watch what I say to everybody and make sure it's acceptable. If I do see things happening that aren't acceptable, I will step in and either resolve the conflict or tell them they are doing the wrong thing."

"I'm glad that they held a community as well as a school presentation," said Lura Johnson, a junior in school. "I thought tying in the incident at SUNY Plattsburgh was really good as it allowed the students and the community a better understanding of what really happened rather than just the rumors that were going around. Their sharing their experiences was eye opening, as I've never had anything similar as a white girl living in this area."

Miles and CorrieAnne are willing to share their presentation with other schools, though they want those schools to have their middle and high school students complete the survey on racism conducted at Keene Central and Mineville CV-TEC. Their participation will enrich their research and enable Miles and CorrieAnne to reflect back that school's student attitudes and experiences as part of the presentation. In the meantime, Haslam will return around May 18 to conduct a sensitivity training session for the Keene Central staff and another for members of the community.

"I am extremely proud of CorrieAnne and Miles knowing how much heart and thought they put into preparing their presentation" said Amy Stoner, CorrieAnne's mom. "I'm very thankful that so many people cared enough to come out and listen, learn and take a hard look at our behaviors. Maria is a trooper. She was there. It was hard for her to come, but she wanted to be supportive of Miles and CorrieAnne and, in her own quiet way, show up, be present and step out of the shadows. It was hard for her, but feeling the love in the room helped."



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