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Michelle Ng remembers a time when she was about the same age as the middle schoolers she teaches at MAELS, a NYC Outward Bound School in Staten Island. A peer made a comment toward her that, from an outsider’s perspective, may have seemed harmless, but made her feel terrible.

“I couldn’t explain why it felt terrible, but it did,” she says. “Those feelings sit with you as you grow up, and then as an adult, you realize that it’s racism. Racism eats at the core of your identity.”

Today, as a math teacher and Crew Leader, Ng is committed to helping her students understand and dismantle racism in all forms — including microaggressions masked as well-intentioned words.

This year’s events in particular sparked a need for the MAELS community to address racialized violence across the country. Ng, along with Assistant Principals Dina Klein and Tina Marie Marra, School Psychologist Olga Rodriguez, and several other teachers organized two town halls, the first in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder, and more recently, a March event to raise awareness of an increase in violence toward the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

“Of course, we shouldn’t need a tragedy to take action. Solidarity can’t be trendy,” says Ng. “That creates more harm than good.”

Ng says that although most students were hesitant to speak up and express their thoughts in front of a crowd, holding the town halls were a necessary way to begin creating the space needed to foster ongoing conversation. 

“In some households, there’s no space or time to have emotions,” Ng says. “We wanted our students to know that it’s ok to feel things, even if they can’t articulate those feelings yet.”  

Knowing that Ms. Ng and others at MAELS are working to create an antiracist community has reassured me that MAELS is a school that goes beyond just surface-level solidarity — it’s a school that spreads information and takes action, says Summer, a 7th grader at MAELS. We need to bring attention to things like police brutality, sexual violence against Asian womxn, Asian hate crimes, harmful stereotypes and racism.

To help ensure that the MAELS community continues to build on its antiracist work, Ng has begun designing engaging Crew lessons that explain and celebrate cultural traditions like Lunar New Year. She also worked with Ronald, one of her 8th grade Crew students, to research and write a lesson on Holi, a Hindu celebration often called the “Festival of Colors”.

“Teaching about others’ backgrounds, faiths, and cultural traditions will lead to a more understanding and respectful society with fewer conflicts,” says Ronald.

“Racism runs so deep, and a lot of it is completely invisible because it’s been normalized,” Ng says, noting that an upcoming MAELS community meeting will dive into the forms of racism that aren’t so blatantly violent, like microagressions and stereotypes. “But you don’t have to know everything to get started. Continuously ask questions about how to make things equitable for people of color. Keep an open heart and an open mind. If we’re able to do these things, we can dismantle racism and really change the way things are.” 

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