We Can Walk Together

Monica Belton, and her mission to instigate conversation, and ’embark on a campaign to strengthen the resilience factor of BELONGING.

By Jessica Berg

In the Historic Ashburn Colored School, a one room school house built sometime between 1887 and 1892, which was used to teach Black students in Virginia during segregation, I met Monica Belton.

Image of the Historic Ashburn Colored School by Jim Barnes of the Washington Post

Monica, a School Social Worker, a certified trauma professional in education, and founder of R.E.C.E.T. (Resilient Experiences for Children Exposed to Trauma), was facilitating a workshop on racial microaggressions.  

Sitting in the late July heat in a building with no air conditioning or indoor plumbing, it was hard not to notice the tangible symbolism of this building. A monument to the divide in the equity of education in Loudoun County, and though the doors to the school closed in 1958, this divide in education for minority students still exists 62 years later.

Monica, the child of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, grew up in black community in Union Township, New Jersey and at the age of 12 she decided she wanted to go to a summer camp. Monica has an energetic tenacity, so her parents eventually agreed to send her to the wilderness camp, and not knowing much of the nature of this particular camp, when Monica arrived, she soon learned it was a program for at risk girls.

What happened to you?

It was this moment, this experience, this ‘shift in lens’ as Monica calls it, that set her on a path to understand emotions and behaviors of young people and ask, “What happened to you?” This question has guided her professional life, from navigating the trauma of severely disturbed children to a pimp that threw a glass coke bottle at her head when she was 8 month pregnant, she wants to understand the trauma that leads to these emotions and behaviors. She wants to empathize.

This moment and lens shift at a summer camp grew into returning to the camp every summer during high school to work. Monica later took position at similar wilderness camps in North Carolina and Georgia, except these were year-round, and she had to cut her own wood in the winter and feed it to a pot belly stove to keep warm.

After a few years in the wilderness, Monica moved west to Arizona, a place where no pot belly stove was needed to keep warm, and soon found herself enrolled at ASU, pursuing a bachelors and then a Master’s in Social Work.

Monica Belton

Monica remained in Arizona, working in alternative schools in a Social Worker capacity. A former co-worker, Sara Casey, who worked with Monica in the west valley of Phoenix says about Monica, “She brought enthusiasm and passion to her work every day. She went above and beyond countless times to support students, both academically and emotionally. Monica believed in every child and supported them in achieving their personal best.”

Phoenix was a tough area to work, and even tougher, as Monica puts it, to raise kids. Her two sons were growing up in an area where young boys of color are initiated into gangs early and often, she decided she wanted to move east. Loudoun County, a suburb in Northern Virginia, came offering with a job, and it is here where Monica has worked and lived for the past 11 years.

On its surface, Loudoun County has a great school system. It is a school system that prides itself on its academic excellence, graduation rates, college acceptances, and equity. On their website Loudoun touts:

From the 2019-2020 LCPS Fact Sheet

Loudoun’s 94 public schools offer more than 83,000 students an educational program that ranks among the best in Virginia and the nation. One of the fastest growing counties in America, Loudoun continues its proud tradition of quality public education, maintaining an outstanding record of student achievement despite the pressures of surging enrollment.

The student population has surged, and it has also become more with every passing year. According to the LCPS Fact Sheet for the 2019-2020 school year, the student population make up is 47% white, 22% Asian, 18% Hispanic, 7% African American, and 6% listed as multi-racial.

This matters. It matters because the diversity of Loudoun County students is not mirrored in the staff, administration, curriculum, and policies that govern LCPS. This disparity leads to a litany of incidents from racially insensitive lessons in elementary school to the lack of opportunities for Black students that are offered through programs like the Academies of Loudoun.

Parent complaints and an investigation from the Virginia attorney general’s office led LCPS to seek outside consultation from the Equity Collaborative. In a 23-page report stated, among other things:

  • Discipline policies and practices disproportionately negatively impact students of color, particularly Black/African-American students
  • Many English Learners, Black/African-American, Latinx, and Muslim students have experienced the sting of racial insults/slurs or racially motivated violent actions
  • People are unclear and fearful on how to participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially charged incidents.

The report led superintendent Eric Williams to issue a statement directly addressing Equity in LCPS at the start of the 2019-2020 school year saying in part:

LCPS is committed to providing a safe, empathetic, respectful and supportive learning environment in order to empower every student to make meaningful contributions to the world. When students and staff experience racial insults, slurs, and/or other hate speech, we lack the positive culture and climate that supports students’ growth.…

Every individual is valued in Loudoun County Public Schools. Let’s celebrate the diversity that helps define us as a school division. 

Then, in the spring of this year, all students, staff, and the rest of the world were quarantined at home when George Floyd was murdered on May 25th, 2020.

This murder was not the first gruesome display of unchecked racism in our country. It was not the first time the murder of a Black man by armed police officers was caught on tape. But it is the first time so many people were forced to watch a man being murdered, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, because of the color of his skin

The murder of George Floyd marked a tangible shift in the Black Lives Matter movement and the conversation of race in this country. This shift is what brought me to the Historic Colored School in Ashburn on a summer night in July.

Monica, like so many other citizens, women of color, and educators, was fueled by the images of George’s murder, and her first thoughts went to the children, the young students, and especially students of color, and thinking what their reactions were.

How was this trauma going to affect them? How they were dealing with being Black in America in 2020? What were their experiences in a school system that claims to promote equity? What was LCPS doing to ‘engage in the disruption and dismantling of white supremacy, systemic racism’ as their equity statement asserts?

Logo From recetnow.org

Monica, still fueled by the same energetic tenacity she had at 12, and now with years of knowledge and experience, wasn’t going to wait for another statement from the county, she was going to act. R.E.C.E.T. was formed from this moment in history.

When talking about children and childhood traumas, Monica stated, “Children only have so much of a lens,” they are seeing this murder, but they don’t have the framework to process it because they themselves are still developing as humans. It affects them.

Monica, through R.E.C.E.T., aims to and push the conversation about race in this county and in the country forward. We need resources to help our children heal, and as educators we need to understand the experiences and trauma that some of our students enter our classrooms with. We need to ask, “What happened to you?” instead of perpetuating the cycle at the hands of a system that claims to ‘celebrate diversity.’

“You can only be heard by people who are listening.”

Monica is providing the safe space and the resources; we need to show up and be allies.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Black people make up 12.7% of the population, and Virginia has the 9th largest African American population according to the Census Bureau. 12.7% of the population should not carry the burden of fixing a system of racism that they had no part in creating.

I asked Monica about reaching people who hesitant or unwilling to reflect on their own participation in a racist system, and she said, “You can only be heard by people who are listening.”

Monica exudes compassion and understanding. I sat with her and Wendy Caudle Hodge, former Chair of MSAAC, for two hours in the Historic Colored School talking about microaggressions, asking questions, listening, and understanding.

I call on you to do the same. I am asking you to show up and listen because if we are going to create a better county and country for our children, students, and community, then we need to work to change it.

Monica Belton

And, as a school system in Loudoun County, we need to be accountable to all of our students. We need to reflect on the education system’s role in enabling systematic racism to continue before we can claim to be actively dismantling it. We need Monica’s workshops to take place in every school building. We need to have the tough conversations. We need to address our own bias and complicity in continuing a cycle of inequity. We need to be actively anti-racist.

Monica is a powerful voice in our community. We need to listen.

To learn more about Monica, her organization, and ways to become an ally, check out:

To the Friends who Stayed Silent

A letter from a young activist.

Introduction from the Editor:

I was introduced to Henri Somadjagbi, a recent graduate from Clayton High School in North Carolina, when he joined Allies for Black Voices to discuss his massive social media platform and his use of it to ‘take action and do his part,’ for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Seeing the power of the next generation and their ability to organize, vocalize, and make a difference was moving, as a high school teacher and an activist. One of the most poignant moments was when Henri was asked if he lost friendships because of his more recent vocal activism.

Image from the Instagram of @jberg33

He responded, “Actually, yeah…a lot.”

He continued to explain that his anger arose from friends and classmates who partook in the products of Black culture, from music, to style, and slang, “Yet when we need you, you don’t want to speak up.”

“I spoke, and so much happened. I lit that match.”

Henri Somadjagbi

Under the surface of Henri’s measured response, you could sense the frustration and sadness, but also the very mature resolve in understanding that some friendships don’t withstand true tests of this magnitude.

When he created a post, directed to those silent friends, he received responses and comments asking him if he was going to let something like this ‘ruin our friendship.’ His reply:

“Yes. You are supposed to be my friend… You have to see my color…that’s what this whole fight is about. This is something that is a threat to my life. You have a voice too, you make a big difference.”

In that moment, from the voice of a young 18-year-old, wisdom and insight into the reality of relationships and the fight for equality in this country became sharply clarified. If you do not speak up and stand as an ally, it is your loss, not Henri’s.

From the Instagram of Henri @henrisomad

Below is a letter I asked Henri to write for the site, unedited:

To the friends that stayed silent,

When the black lives matter movement began, I immediately decided to take action &’ do my part. I consistently shared everything and anything I could on all my social media platforms to inform my supporters, friends &’ family.

As I got farther into my activism, I realised many of my non-coloured friends weren’t speaking about what’s going on, and it left me very upset and disappointed. I made a statement saying “if you aren’t speaking about what’s going on &’ you’re non-coloured… I don’t want you apart of my life anymore” Everyone has the right to say &’ do what they believe in, you have the right to be silent if you choose to… but I equally have the right to defriend you if you’re quiet.

Some of the same people who were asking me questions such as “would you be mad if I said the N-word” &’ get upset with me when I say yes are now saying “I don’t see color” or statements that are viewed negatively towards black lives… others just didn’t care enough to reach out to me and say anything, or stay silent.

I felt hurt &’ betrayed. Some of my friends that I’ve had for two years now… relationships ended. On top of that I know many of them use the n-word in the dark where no one can hear them, but in the light when black lives matter you can’t scream “black lives matter”?

Having “friends” who love black culture, using black slang, &’ having me as a black friend &’ then being silent when MY life is at risk…is one of the most significant moments of betrayal I’ve ever felt. 

Henri

And, as Henri said, you have a voice and a platform. What are you doing with it? Are you standing on the right side of history?

Follow Henri:

  • Tiktok: @Henriidanger
  • Instagram: @henrisomad
  • Twitter: @Henriidanger

Check out the full Allies for Black Voices discussion:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiM3ESiX9Ek

And Visit the ‘Pick up the Battle’ Page on the side menu of the site to see where you can become an ally.

4 Students, 1 Summer Mission

I think it’s important to use the privilege and power that comes with my white skin to uplift those who our country has failed time and time again.

The Origin of Allies for Black Voices

By Grace Crangle

My name is Grace Crangle, I’m 19 years old, and I have lived most of my life in Northern Virginia. Once I graduated high school though, I decided that I wanted to see more of the world than just Virginia. I am currently a rising sophomore at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

I am majoring and Communication Studies and minoring in Film Studies in order to hopefully pursue a career in social media and/or the film industry. I’ve always had a passion for creating content that is not only important to me, but that is also important to others, and I hope to one day change the world!

I’ve always been very passionate about social justice issues like feminism and racial justice, but now that I’m a young adult, and with the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve realized that there is more than I can (and should) do than just post on social media about it. Two of my best friends, Roma Sharma and Nikita Sajai, felt the exact same way.

This was much easier said than done, however. Because we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we realized that not everyone was able to go out to protest, canvas, march, or attend events with a large crowd. Roma, Nikita, and I wanted to figure out a safe alternative to support the Black community while keeping ourselves and others safe.

We found that while we, as non-Black individuals, want to speak UP for the Black community, it is equally as important to not speak OVER.

The three of us decided to join forces with another mutual friend, Pooja Tanjore, and she got us connected with the Loudoun County National Organization for Women (NOW http://loudouncountynow.org).

Before we knew it, we were on a Zoom call with NOW members and figured out our plan: we were going to host weekly Zoom sessions led by members of the Black community in order to provide their voices with a platform and encourage our community to listen and learn how to be the best allies possible. We found that while we, as non-Black individuals, want to speak UP for the Black community, it is equally as important to not speak OVER. By providing a platform for these voices who are too often silenced, Allies for Black Voices was born.

As of now, July 18th, 2020, we are almost in week five of our sessions. I have put everything into creating our Instagram account, making the flyers each week, advertising the sessions accordingly, and recording and uploading the sessions onto our YouTube channel. I’m not going to lie; Allies for Black Voices has put a lot on my plate. With that though, has come one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

First Allies session with the captivating George Lee (https://georgeleespeaks.com/).

For the first time, I feel as though what I am doing is REALLY making a difference. It has been an incredible opportunity to make these connections and to meet so many inspiring Black leaders, business owners, social media influencers, and fellow activists. I think this kind of experience is so necessary, especially for myself as a white person, because of the privilege that comes with the color of my skin. If I really wanted to, I could just delete social media and never have to think about the Black Lives Matter movement ever again – simply because it doesn’t impact my daily life.

I think it’s important to use the privilege and power that comes with my white skin to uplift those who our country has failed time and time again.

My white skin is a shield from the racism, discrimination, and violence that Black people have to experience every day, simply because of the color of THEIR skin. For this reason, I think it’s important to use the privilege and power that comes with my white skin to uplift those who our country has failed time and time again.

Going forward, I’m not really sure where this project will take me. While our series is planned for the rest of the summer, we’re not quite sure what will happen to Allies for Black Voices in the fall and beyond. I would love to keep this going in some way, shape, or form, and I know that the rest of the team agrees. Personally, whether it’s with Allies for Black Voices or not, I want to continue to advocate for social justice.

I’ve considered politics, activism, and everything in between- all I know is that I want to help people. I want to live for more than just myself. So, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

Become an Ally and join this Thursday’s session at 4 p.m.
And continue to keep up with Allies for Black Voices: