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Q&A with Rasheedah Na'Allah, Dunlap High senior and community organizer

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Rasheedah Na'Allah poses for a photo at WCBU.

Last month, many Peorians showed up at Bradley University to hear a panel discussion on racial disparities in education.

Who organized the event?

A senior at Dunlap High School.

For Rasheedah Na'Allah, the Bradley event is just one of many efforts she’s made to learn more about disparities in local education … and work to overcome them.

With the help of Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, Na’Allah submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for three years of data at Dunlap related to race-based suspensions. She surveyed more than 400 students about racial discrimination. She held a diversity symposium.

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Na'Allah describes what motivated her to embark on her research, and what she hopes for the Greater Peoria community in the future.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired March 8 on “All Things Peoria.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

Rasheedah Na’Allah: I am the youngest of four sisters. So, seeing what they've gone through, being Black, being Muslim — we were hijab — being all women. Just observing that I've already kind of understood that there was a problem there, as I got older, and kind of started piecing things together with things that I had went through, and you know, looking back at them and being like, ‘Hey, you know, that, that was racist. That was a microaggression.’ And getting older, I was able to kind of place what was happening more.

Hannah Alani: Was there one particular incident, or something that happened that inspired you to put in that FOIA request, and do the survey?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: So in high school, specifically, in my sophomore year, I had gone through something where I was targeted for my religion. So during 9/11, there was kind of a picture that was taken of me from my social media, and they had put like blurbs and like random bubbles around my head saying, ‘This is what a Muslim thinks about during 9/11.’ Like, it was a picture of me behind the burning Twin Towers of 9/11. And a smiling picture of me. So they made it seem as if we're happy, and they put a lot of really, really mean things on the picture. So dealing with that was definitely really hard. And that kind of led me to planning the assembly that I did, about inclusion and diversity and things like that.

But one of the things that stuck out to me the most, after I kind of dealt with all of that hurt, was how the administration had dealt with it. The student who had created the post was a white student. And (the administration) basically came back to me and said, ‘We can't pin it on him. There's not enough proof.’ So he basically went off scot free. Whereas some other students who had reposted it, some Black students as well, they got, like, three, two weeks in-school suspension. So that was one thing as well.

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Rasheedah Na'Allah
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…And just backtracking a little bit. When I was in second grade, I was on the playground once. And usually, you know, we just play and have fun. But that particular day, all the kids are running away from me. And I was really confused. Like, why are they running away from me? We usually have a lot of fun. I had walked up to one of my friends, and I was just like, ‘I'm really confused. Why are all these kids running away from me?’ And she had told me that they're playing the ‘dirty cooties game.’ So, you know, I was the only Black student in that class. They told me that I had ‘dirty cooties,’ and they had to run away from me, (or) they'd catch the ‘dirty cooties.’ And when I had gone inside and talk to my teacher about this, she looked at me and said, it's not her problem. So just, all of these things kind of leading up, and festering, not only led to me realizing that something needed to be done, but it made me realize that I'm not the only person who's going through this. There's other Black students in my middle school, in high school, that are going through the same thing, maybe even worse

… As I kind of went through high school and saw that the administration didn't really seem for us, they didn't seem like they wanted to validate how we were feeling and the things that we were going through at school … Just made me realize that, if the administration is not going to do it, somebody has to do it. So I really wanted to try and do my best to make the administration more aware about what was going on. And that's kind of what led me into making my report.

Hannah Alani: I wanted to point out, specifically, the statistics. You did submit a FOIA request for three years of data from the Dunlap district, and you analyzed that data. And you learned the following:

Black students make up 7% of the school population, but account for 29% of detentions.

And, Black students are six times more likely to get an in-school suspension, five times more likely to get detention and four times more likely to get an out-of-school suspension. I'm assuming those were all averages over the three years?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: Correct.

Hannah Alani: Did those findings surprise you?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: They surprised me beyond belief. I knew that there was a problem in our schools, I knew that there were large disparities, but I didn't know how large they were. So seeing the numbers and seeing how they correlated … It surprised me, it definitely shocked me. But it also sadly made some sense. With our demographic at school, I think that, at least for my own district, and I'm sure other districts as well, sometimes it's put in a light that we should feel lucky to be more of a quote unquote, ‘diverse school.’ We do have a larger percentage of Asians at the school. You know, maybe somewhat of a larger percentage of Black students at the school as well. But you know, one thing that isn't brought up enough is the fact that although our school may be more ‘diverse’ than other schools, how are those students who are diverse feeling at school? Do they feel welcome? Do they feel heard? Do they feel as if they are on the same level as the white students at school as well?

Hannah Alani: You didn't just collect data, collect raw numbers. You also did lots of interviews. You had a survey that you put out in the summer of 2020, in which 400 students responded, and I'm going to read off some of those statistics as well.

Of the 400 students who responded to your survey, 12.6% said that they had never seen discrimination at Dunlap.

Of those that had seen discrimination, 69% said that the situation wasn't acknowledged, 59% said that while the situation may have been acknowledged by the school, no action was taken. Of the students who witnessed discrimination at Dunlap, 48.5% said that the discrimination was from a teacher. And then almost 82% of students who said it was from a student to another student, … Did those numbers surprise you?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: It didn't really completely surprise me, just because I knew that we had a big problem. I knew that a lot of students were really just hurting. I had seen it firsthand. I think probably the most surprising statistic was the teacher-to-student, because I had dealt with teachers who were very discriminatory and had progressed or projected a lot of microaggressions. But I didn't think that it was also something that was, you know, something that was at the level that it was. Seeing that was definitely surprising. I know a lot of teachers get things like implicit bias trainings and sensitivity trainings. But it's really just a question of, do those really work? Are teachers going to actually receive the information that's being given to them? If they don't want to hear it in the first place? There's only so much you can do. So that was that was one thing that I had to ponder about … that was a big point I wanted to get across in my report.

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Rasheedah Na'Allah
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Rasheedah Na'Allah, right, is a member of the Dunlap High School color guard.

…One thing I didn’t mention, I was kind of able to form my report with the help of one of my classes as well. So you know, I had the idea of making this report for a very long time, but I had come across a capstone class, where it kind of helped it pushed you into being able to kind of do any research that you wanted. Being able to be in that class definitely helped. They required you to have two experts. And one of those experts was Mayor Ali. And she was actually the one who had mentioned the FOIA request to me. She had told me that this research was necessary, very necessary. And she had given me different resources as to how I could get it done in an efficient way that made sense … So that definitely helped a lot. I definitely view her as a mentor for that. Another expert was a company called Springpoint Schools. They basically go into different schools around the country, and they implement different practices of equity at those schools. They just really help with, you know, getting more diverse teachers, and helping students who have behavior problems, and a lot of different things as well. So having those two experts, as well as even my sister, really brought all of those things together.

I wanted to make something that showed my community that there was a problem that needed to be fixed. But I didn't quite know how I wanted to do it. So having all of those people around me, and all the support that I had, definitely made a big difference in what I was able to do.

Hannah Alani. Yeah. How did the Bradley event go? For our listeners, who weren't able to make it, or maybe didn't even know about it. … Tell us a bit about what the event comprised of, who you brought in to speak how, who showed up, what the conversation looked like?

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Rasheedah Na'Allah
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Rasheedah Na’Allah: Yeah, so the event went really, really well. I didn't expect as many people to come as they did. And there was a great turnout, which made me really happy. So my panel comprised of me, and then a professor from Bradley, Dr. Juan Rios Vega. And then a community organizer, as well as someone who is really, really important in the community, Chalma St. Louis. And we also had a sociology professor who studies this and has written books on this as well, on racial disparities in the education system, Dr. Amanda Lewis. So she was our keynote speaker, and then everybody else was a panelist. So we had her speak. And she gave her insight on how she's been studying this, and the problems that we have at school.

Some of the problems that she mentioned were even things that a lot of us didn't even realize, either. So having her talk and go into detail about the history of, why the schools are why they are right now, was definitely very powerful. Having her, you know, share how she was able to get all of this research was really important as well. … She had actually gone into one school, and it was kind of like a case study that she did, where she looked into all the disparities at that school, and was able to pinpoint all the problems, and worked with the administration to make that better. So being in a specific school and seeing these problems, and then also seeing how they were able to minimize these problems was something that was important for us because then it showed us, you know, how we could do it in our own setting. So that was really, really important, and a great conversation.

And then, amongst us panel members, we were able to kind of bounce off of the conversation she was talking about with our own experiences and our own research. And we were able to share, you know, our own testimonies as well, which helped with, you know, bringing all of that together, and finding a solution that would really, you know, start to help our schools get better.

Hannah Alani: This whole project that you embarked upon, and all the research that you did, and the interviews and the survey and the class project, and this event that you had Bradley … it all kind of started from a place of hurt, that you had had these things happen to you. ... How do you feel now? It seems like the community has responded really positively to this, but I'm curious if that's the case? And if you … are you glad you did this?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: Yes. So, I'm very glad that I did this, I feel grateful for the response that was given from this event, I think that being able to have that platform was really important for not just me, but for others around me. To see a student who had dealt with it … dealt with that situation firsthand, was something that I think made it more impactful. I think that it was really important that the event happened. I'm grateful for the turnout, like I said. I definitely do think that there's still work to be done. I think that having a conversation and having great responses is very important. And I'm very happy with the response. I do think that seeing what will happen in the next steps is even more important to me than the event. Because, you know, ultimately, me planning this event and making the report and making an assembly we're all amazing things. And I am glad that I did them. But they don't really mean much to me unless I see that it was received, and it is going to help foster change. I think that you know, when I see change happen, I think then it'll kind of hit me that, you know, I had a small part in that.

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I definitely do want to see more responses from schools, and I definitely do want to see meetings happen at schools where we can actually visualize a plan that they have began to form that will make sure that students feel that they are heard, and feel that they are no longer going to be placed in the background. Especially Black students. I think that they need to feel that they, you know, have been listened to. Basically, I think that, you know, once these things start to get implemented at school, and in our community, I think that it will become something of more importance.

Hannah Alani: But I'm sure a lot of our listeners are curious… What's next for you? Are you going to stick around Peoria?

Rasheedah Na’Allah: I am definitely looking forward to college. I'm looking forward to studying something that I'm really passionate about around people that are also passionate about the same thing. I plan to go into sociology, and I'm going to minor in entrepreneurship, or something along the lines of business. I'm very excited, and I most likely will be in Chicago. I really love the city. And I love being in a place that is very diverse. And I will see a lot more people that are like me. I think being in an environment like that will encourage me to do more. And also encourage me to not give up as well. There has been definitely many experiences and aspects where, you know, doing all this work has been rewarding, but also it can be exhausting. You know, when it seems as if you are the only one who is fighting for something that seems like something everybody should also be passionate about. So that aspect has definitely been tiring. You know, sometimes it feels like you're the only one who's standing up for yourself in situations where you are discriminated against, even though others may see it, and they know that it's wrong as well. So, you know, being in an environment in college, where I'll be able to have that community that understands and loves to study this aspect as well. … I think it'll be very fun for me, I think it'll be very stimulating, and I'm really looking forward to it.

In addition to her work around racial disparities, Rasheedah Na’Allah is the founder of Dunlap’s Muslim Student Association. She was appointed to the Peoria County Board’s Racial Justice and Equity Commission and has served as Dunlap’s representative at the 2020 Illinois Senator Youth Leadership Council. She recently earned the “Biggie Award” from Big Picture Peoria for her contributions to “Giving Voice.”

Dunlap High School Principal Scott Adreon told WCBU the school is working to address racial disparities, particularly in the area of suspensions. Dunlap has hired a wellness counselor, instituted a mentorship program and implemented restorative practices such as learning circles.

But Adreon also said change doesn't happen overnight, acknowledging the experiences of Na’Allah and other students.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.