PERRY HALL — “No justice, no peace!” “Black lives matter!” – chants rang out in the streets of Towson as approximately a dozen Baltimore County students marched downtown near Patriot Plaza. Protest organizer Roah Hassan, a Perry Hall High School junior, led the chants with a megaphone, and held the rally to call for a centering of racial equity and representation in the education system.
“It is past time for students to feel safe, that their voices are heard and that their identities are celebrated,” Hassan said in her remarks at the rally. “The harsh reality is that people of color are not represented. I am tired of an education (system) that is meant to be a source of light but distorts events in favor of those in power.”
Altogether, the rally, which featured several guest speakers, focused specifically on police violence, perceived racial discrimination in electoral maps, and, perhaps most emphasized, racial inequality in education. Hassan, said that students of color are not represented in curriculum, nor is the history of racial injustice that explains systemic racism given enough attention in schools.
“Students who don’t learn that in school might not learn it at all or be prepared for diverse interactions that they might have,” she said, adding that, as a result, structural racism would continue to persist.
Hassan, a Muslim and Arab American and a child of immigrants, said that she had personally experienced racism in middle school, and that was what motivated her to start organizing protests.
“I have had other students call me a terrorist and tell me to go back to my home country,” she said, noting that she wants to fight for and empower other students like herself. “We are fighting for the young people who are harassed for their identities, and we will not stop until we properly address that.”
With that in mind, she said, “this isn’t just my rally; it’s yours.” Hassan then gave the floor and asked her fellow students to share a few words; nearly everyone, including another Perry Hall student Jeancarlos Diaz and Eastern Tech student Sabrina Thaler, talked about racism in school and in society and / or how to stand up to it.
“I have had students say that my mother is most likely an illegal immigrant because of my last name,” Diaz said. “I want this rally to not only be a call for action but a call for unity among all students in Baltimore County.”
“I am white and privileged that I can go about my day and not be scared for my life. But so many of my peers are people of color who have to go about their day in fear that they will be killed or discriminated against,” she said. “We have to question our prejudices and consider our biases.”
Addressing the students at the rally, Hassan said, “All of you are fighting for what matters and supporting one another, and that is what the movement is about.”
The open forum was an intentional effort by Hassan to “democratize” the rally and give every student a “safe space” to speak, she said in an interview the day before. Hearing other students’ stories and experiences drives her passion for education and her work to make sure that every student is treated equally and fairly in the classroom.
“Every student is worth a valuable and representative education,” she said in the interview. “We need to create a beneficial, educational environment for everyone.”
Hassan had organized a Black Lives Matter protest last year in October, and this was a “continuation” of that, she said, with more of a focus on local issues. Her interest in political activism started in middle school, and she said that she plans to remain involved and keep organizing for better representation.
“When we have systems that represent us, then we are able to make positive change that represents everyone, not just majority groups,” she said. “I want to make sure that black and brown communities are represented, and that everyone is included.”