‘Listening to understand’ – Belmont High School students deliver a new mascot

  • Belmont student Richard Johnson talks about the process of selecting and agreeing upon a new mascot at the high school on Monday, March 27, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The student leadership group B.R.A.S.S. at Belmont High School on Monday, March 27, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Belmont student Emilie DeFrancesco talks about the process of selecting and agreeing upon a new logo for the high school on Monday, March 27, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Belmont student Baidyn Lewis talks Monday about the process of selecting and agreeing on a new mascot for the high school. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The student leadership group B.R.A.S.S. at Belmont High School on Monday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Belmont senior Tanner McKim talks about the process of selecting and agreeing on a new mascot on Monday, March 27, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The new mascot for the Belmont Red Raiders. COURTESY—Belmont High School

Monitor staff
Published: 3/29/2023 4:23:14 PM

It was like eavesdropping on a conversation between United States senators.

“Patience.” “Compromise.” “Listen to others.”

But these weren’t U.S. senators or even New Hampshire state representatives. These were students at Belmont High School. And over the last three and a half years, they worked tirelessly to address a complex issue that has been lingering in their community: changing the school mascot.

These student leaders – in the school organization BRASS (Belmont Representatives Advocating for Student Success) – spearheaded this effort, hoping to remove the Native American head mascot for the Red Raiders and replace it with something the entire Belmont and Canterbury communities could rally around.

It’s not a conversation new to the discourse: the Washington Commanders did away with its old name and mascot in the NFL, while the Cleveland Guardians did the same in baseball.

At a high school with passionate alumni and differing opinions, making a swap was difficult, as evidenced by the three-and-a-half years it took to implement the change.

“We had to learn early on that this isn’t a competition between good and bad people, that one side or the other isn’t the right answer,” said senior Tanner McKim, one of the founding members of BRASS. “We had to find a middle.”

The middle ultimately became a red fox mascot, while Belmont will keep its team name, the Red Raiders. It’s a satisfactory compromise: Alumni retain the school name they’re passionate about, and the students and community members have a mascot more suitable to their ultimate goal of unity and representation, something this debate put to the test.

“When we first started this process, there were a lot of people who were like, ‘No. There's nothing that you can say to change my mind,’” said junior Emilie DeFrancesco. “But then once we started talking to the student body more, we went up in front of the whole school with slideshows multiple times, and we expressed, ‘This is why we want to change it: We have groups of Native Americans coming up to us and telling us it is disrespectful. We are evolving, and we are realizing that what we had before was not the best way to unify our school as a whole.’” 

It started to sink in.

“Once we started doing more of that, a lot of people were coming around to the idea of, ‘Oh, OK, so maybe this wasn't the best thing, but we could find something better,’” DeFrancesco said.

Unity and representation

One of the early steps in the process involved an unrelated, informal survey in one of the school’s social studies classes that asked students if the mascot should change.

Word of the survey quickly reached the Belmont community Facebook page.

“It kind of just blew up there,” junior Richard Johnson said. “It unintentionally blew up. (Our) group saw it and quickly realized, ‘people feel strongly here about this.’”

But people felt strongly in both directions: Some felt adamant the Red Raider name and mascot should remain, others that it was past time for a change.

Instead of diving into those weeds, though, BRASS used the disagreement to harness their argument precisely for why such change was necessary.

“We saw this backlash and the competition and this fighting between people as something that was a problem in it of itself,” McKim said. “This fighting was the reason this needed to change. … It was really important to realize that everybody has their own opinions, but what it comes down to is these opinions are clashing, and maybe we can find something that we can all agree on.”

External support from faculty, the school board and other groups in Canterbury and Belmont also helped spur BRASS in a positive direction. 

As the students emphasized, though, they needed to be the ones leading the charge for this to have any chance of working. They were the ones talking to and educating their peers about the mascot; they were the ones who took the conversation in a productive direction; they were the ones showing up at board and town meetings to move this across the finish line.

Yet, as current or former student council members representing their peers (as is required for membership in BRASS), providing an accurate reflection of the school’s voices remained most important. Pushing personal viewpoints was outweighed by the desire to harness what the student body felt should happen.

“We weren’t presenting our opinion,” said junior Cate McDonald. “We were presenting the data that we collected from the student body and were just the group that’s presenting that information for them to review. That really drove our process.”

The board ultimately decided that after over three years of debate, it was time to change the mascot. Though the name, Red Raiders, would remain.

“This isn’t a group of kids who identified a problem and just chose a solution,” said Belmont High School principal Matthew Finch. “It’s a group who identified something that they could work toward and took three and a half years to come to a solution that they believed is the right outcome.”

Portrayed with an act of violence

As the head male speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, Paul Pouliot has devoted his time to education about Indigenous history and culture.

The mascot debate is one he’s all too familiar with, having spoken at numerous board meetings – including in Belmont – about why it’s necessary to remove this Native American imagery that often portrays Indigenous people as violent warriors.

“It’s alright to be aggressive with animal imagery – so bears and wolverines and bobcats and stuff like that. That’s fine,” Pouliot said. “But don’t try to make it that we’re predators or we’re constantly warring with people. That’s what we want to eliminate.”

The stereotype was reinforced in American culture during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when colonists disguised themselves as Native Americans when they dumped English tea into the Boston Harbor. Soon after, the fraternal organization the Improved Order of Red Men formed across the country. Up until the 1970s, these white-only organizations modeled themselves on these misconceptions of Native American culture.

“They did all these things that kind of personified all Indigenous people as warriors, and that got into sports and into schools the same way,” Pouliot said. 

Today, the organization is far less prevalent across the country, but as Belmont’s mascot debate shows, breaking through the stereotyping of Indigenous people is still a work in progress.

One key suggestion Pouliot makes to schools considering changing their mascots is to preserve some of the history of the school’s past, don’t just throw it away and erase any trace of it. That includes old photos, uniforms or even the mascot.

“Put it in a place of history and preserve it,” he said. “Because if you don’t, you forget it. We hope that reconciles hurt feelings by older alumni that see their mascot disappear (because) it still has a place of honor in history, and it’s somewhere on the campus.”

As for the way the Belmont students handled the process to choose a more appropriate school mascot? Pouliot said it probably couldn’t have been done any better.

“They did a very good justice by keeping the name, that way they don’t have to change anything else, and they’re just changing the actual logo to a fox,” he said. “Perfect solution in my opinion.”

A whole lot of pride

This arduous task of replacing a mascot steeped in controversy brought with it valuable lessons for the BRASS students as they guided this long-lasting and impactful change on their school’s community.

Lessons on the value of persistence and preparation on one end, but also lessons on the most effective ways of uniting a majority around a collective goal.

“You can make a compromise, and I think that was one of the biggest things we took away from this whole experience is learning to work with each other and learning to make compromises where compromise is needed,” said junior Baidyn Lewis. 

Added Johnson: “The big part for me was just patience. This whole thing took three years. It was very slow, very, very gradual. But it was really the only way it could be done. We couldn’t rush it. It taught me that it was worth all the time and the effort.”

While taking a deep dive into Native American history wasn’t a prominent feature of BRASS’ campaign to change the mascot (they preferred to focus on simply finding a solution that would promote their goal of unifying their school), there was a lesson in empathy to be had as well. 

“I think it’s definitely important to respect different cultures because even if you don’t necessarily understand as an individual why it could be offensive, it’s important to understand why it could be offensive to (others),” said DeFrancesco.

The old logo is still visible in a few spots in the school’s gym and on older team uniforms. But as the school phases in new uniforms over the next few years, they’ll have a red fox adorning them – a mascot the entire school and community can feel proud of, fulfilling their goal from the outset.

“It’s a whole lot of pride in the way they’ve handled themselves,” said Finch, the principal. “The fact that they have served as ambassadors of the school in such public settings and now in the media – regardless of what a person’s opinion was on if the mascot should’ve changed or shouldn’t have changed – this group of kids has really conducted themselves well.”

It was an education within an education.

“I know I’m proud of them, and I think our entire community is proud of having students who can act upon their beliefs to the degree that this group has chosen,” he said.


ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL is a sports reporter for the Monitor. He graduated from Northwestern University in June 2022 with a degree in journalism and spent his last two years as sports director for the campus radio station, WNUR, leading coverage for nine different sports. A New York native, he's a diehard Yankees and Giants fan much to the displeasure of most of the newsroom.

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