Lidia Yen working to address racism, inequity in Concord schools

  • Concord activist Lidia Yen (right), pictured with Samuel Alicea, is organizing to address racial discrimination and injustice. Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/22/2021 12:00:16 PM

Lidia Yen already had two jobs when the American Friends Service Committee announced an opening for a community organizing intern in their Concord office.

The 22-year-old worked as a caregiver to senior citizens and also supported new refugees and immigrants through the resettlement process in New Hampshire. But as a member of Change for Concord group, a youth group led by AFSC, Yen knew the position could be a chance to dig deeper into her growing interest in activism and racial justice. She applied, and started the job in August, amid a growing national discussion about racism.

Yen had to work hard to manage three jobs, but she was driven by her desire to help those most impacted by injustice. In her role, she collaborates with community partners, students and other stakeholders to advance campaigns for racial justice and equity in New Hampshire, especially in the Concord School District. Yen was also just hired as a Community Listener with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to research barriers to opportunity in the state.

Originally from South Sudan, Yen has emerged as one of the young leaders driving systemic change as New Hampshire reckons with its own legacy of racism and white supremacy. Here Yen spoke with The Granite State News Collaborative about her own experiences of racial discrimination and the changes she is working to bring to New Hampshire. (Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How did you initially get involved in activism in Concord? Was there a moment or experience that motivated you to start organizing in your community?

A: When I was first invited to a Change for Concord meeting in 2018, I didn’t really know what the group was about – I just wanted to do something. As I became involved, I started thinking about my experiences and realized that some of the things I experienced were not okay. They were discriminatory, and I only realized it after having these discussions in the group.

Here’s an example: as a student at Concord High School (CHS), I was given a packet to fill out for a movie, while other students just had to take notes on the movie. At the time, I wondered why I was given a packet and the others were not. When I went to the Change for Concord meeting, I realized that I had experienced discrimination. The teacher automatically assumed I didn’t speak English well, and that I was an English-Language Learner (ELL) student, which was not true. So he categorized me and didn’t really speak to me personally or try to get to know me, he just assumed.

It’s just not right to assume something about someone based on their race or ethnicity. Before you say something or do something or assume something, do your research or talk to the people who are affected. Ignorance really does hurt people, and if you continue to be ignorant, then you’re part of the problem.

Q: Now you lead the Change for Concord group as a community organizer with AFSC. What are some of the initiatives you’ve been involved with in this role?

A: When I started, we talked about different social justice issues all over the world, but we began focusing on the Concord School District.

One of the early issues that popped up was the camera issue. Students at CHS were being required to turn on their webcams during class unless excused by their parents. We felt like that wasn’t equitable. There are various reasons why students wouldn’t want to turn on their cameras. So we wrote a letter to the principal, and the principal ignored us for two weeks. Then we had a partner organization send him an email, and he responded to them. We have still not received a direct response to this day.

We started discussing more issues that the Concord School District has had in the past and what we can do about it, especially around racial issues and discrimination. We’ve been doing a lot of research, posting on social media and conducting outreach. I try to reach out to students at CHS, and we have a lot of connections with alumni. There was an alumni petition posted in June after the Black Lives Matter rally in Concord, which demanded changes from the Concord School District. Over 1,700 people signed it, including students, parents and community members.

The Concord School District created an anti-racism coalition with community members, which is now working to create a mission and vision, and to involve more students in the project. At Change for Concord, we have continued to look at Concord High specifically, trying to determine how we can make those changes addressed in the alumni petition.

Q: What are some of the main things you’re hoping to see change in the Concord School District?

A: First, we want to remove the school resource officer. These are police officers that are supposed to serve as a kind of counselor for students, but they do not have any additional training to play that role. We know this will be difficult, but we’re not going to give up.

We also want the school district to have measures put in place for anonymous reporting of sexual assault because there has been a big issue with a former staff member, Mr. (Howie) Leung, who was accused of sexual assault of students. This went on for years with the Concord School District keeping it under wraps and not doing anything about the situation. A lot of community members feel very passionately about that issue, and we want the school district to have something put in place for the students to report sexual misconduct between staff members and students.

Another issue is the curriculum. We want to diversify it. This is one of the things that Concord High School students have talked about. We also want to diversify the staff, because Concord High is very diverse in terms of students, but definitely not in terms of staff. We feel it’s important to diversify the staff so students can have more connections with the staff and see people who look like them. Those are some of the major things we want to change.

Q: How has your work as an activist changed since the uprisings over the summer after the killing of George Floyd?

A: For the past two years the Change for Concord group worked on issues like having lights put in Keach Park, so community members can play outside longer. The area around Keach Park is very diverse. All of this work focused on helping minorities, but we didn’t really work on broader issues of racism until after I got into this role. I really came in not knowing what to do, other than having my own experiences to speak from.

Throughout this process, I learned that racism is a lot more prevalent in Concord than I thought it was. Discrimination is everywhere, in the healthcare system, in the schools, everywhere you go. I learned about examples of undocumented immigrants who have been refused medical care in New Hampshire, even though they are human beings just like us. That was very surprising. I thought it was illegal to do something like that, but they did.

Recently, when the homeless encampment was being evicted, I went there to protest and I heard stories from the people there. I myself have almost become homeless multiple times throughout the summer because of the COVID pandemic. Homeless people – they’re not different from us.

People are ignorant of issues that don’t affect them, like racism and discrimination. It’s frustrating that they don’t see what they’re saying or doing is wrong. That’s something we have to deal with on a daily basis.

Q: How do you hope Concord, and New Hampshire more broadly, will change in the coming years to make the state more diverse and inclusive?

A: There are a lot of changes that need to happen in Concord and with the state as a whole. Concord has a lot of issues that are rooted in racism. People are treated differently based on their skin color or ethnicity. What exacerbates the problem is there are a lot of people who say, “Concord doesn’t have these problems. We’re not experiencing these problems at all. Why don’t you focus on other problems instead?”

But many of the problems are connected. We need affordable housing, a livable wage and more diversity in order to solve some of the issues we’re facing now. Focusing on one thing and not paying attention to the others leads to discrimination against a group of people, and that’s what we’re trying to change. I know it’s impossible to get rid of racism completely, but we want to change things so that people don’t get treated differently based on their race or ethnicity in the whole system.

This article is part of a multiyear project exploring race and equity in New Hampshire produced by the partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.




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