Perspective of a middle school girl leader:
“I thought it was unjust and I don’t like injustice. … We all knew the background and it was wrong, but no one thought we could do anything. … A lot wanted to do it, but thought we were just kids and we could not change anything. I thought I might as well try.”
Olivia Bordon shared these thoughts with me at the end of the 2016-17 school year. She was a student at Alexander Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where students learn “Minnesota history that is not white washed,” explains art teacher Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl.
Their lessons came from newer textbooks and included classroom visits from Dakota elders and local history experts. Discussions were held about justice and fairness as they learned that Alexander Ramsey was the second governor of Minnesota and the first governor to send troops to serve the North in the Civil War. He negotiated treaties with the Dakota (also known as the Sioux) to give up their land in exchange for money, food and supplies – that were repeatedly not delivered. He told the legislature, “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
A troubling question that came up for students was: Why did their school continue to be named after Governor Ramsey, despite contemporary values? Conversations rippled through the school and the community. The November 2016 elections empowered some students. Dare to Be Real, a school anti-racism student leadership group, helped build momentum for a campaign to rename their school. They found adults willing to support them.
Some students called themselves the “re-namers.” They held community events, led classroom conversations and conducted surveys of students, parents and community members, asking opinions about if the school should change its name – and if so, to what? They asked if the name of their school should be inspirational.
According to Cedarleaf Dahl, girls were a big part of the leadership of the movement. Some came to a weekly lunch meeting the entire school year. “They started to see early on that people were taking this seriously. They were learning how to run this campaign,” she observed. “They talked about how to be accountable to their peers and how to have tough conversations. There was a core group of eighth grade girls that carried this campaign. They will be movers and shakers in high school and beyond.”
After the end of a student-led process that lasted the full school year, the Minneapolis school board met in June 2017 and voted on the proposal to change the name. It was the night before the last day of school. The teacher mentors planned a year-end celebration of the work, whether it passed or not. On that last day of school they learned that returning students in the fall would be attending Justice Page Middle School, named after Alan Page, Minnesota’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.