Story of the year No. 9: Sparking a community conversation about race

  • Samuel Alicea of the Merrimack Valley high school football team has taken a knee in two games this season. Alicea agreed to be photographed after practice earlier this week. (GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff)

  • State representative Caroletta Alicea, her grandson Samuel and their dog, Ella, sit in Alicea's Boscawen home. The family is advocating for better awareness about race relations in their community. (ELODIE REED/Monitor staff)

  • Samuel Alicea, 16, has a conversation with another audience member during a presentation at Merrimack Valley High School on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (ELODIE REED/Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 12/26/2016 10:41:50 PM

In the midst of this summer’s police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, the Alicea family yearned for dialogue about race in their rural, largely white community.

They got it in the form of a “Community Conversation” presentation at Merrimack Valley High School in November. The Boscawen family of three makes up one-third of the nine residents of color in a town of about 4,000, and while they were grateful for the night of open discussion, it remains to be seen whether this conversation will continue.

The Alicea’s quest for dialogue, among the Monitor’s top stories of the year, began in July, when Merrimack Valley School Board member and state representative Caroletta Alicea asked for an assembly about race relations within the schools. She and school administrators weren’t able to work something out before the beginning of the school year.

That’s when her grandson, 16-year-old Merrimack Valley junior Samuel Alicea, decided to begin kneeling during the national anthem at his team’s football games.

He got the idea from several NFL players, like Colin Kaepernick, who peacefully protested the inequalities that people of color face in the United States by taking a knee during the national anthem on game day.

Samuel said that instead of getting the chance to talk with his fellow students about why he took a knee, he was largely isolated in school. While some supported him for exercising his First Amendment right, others criticized Samuel for what they felt was his disrespect toward military members who had died for their country.

In the driveway next to the front porch where a large American flag hangs, the Aliceas found their car windshields cracked by BB pellets in October.

At the high school, Samuel heard that other students wanted to beat him up or even shoot him.

School administrators, in the meantime, kept a close eye on Samuel in the hallways and in the cafeteria. They also offered him a chaperone for safety, though he declined.

The Aliceas ultimately decided to remove Samuel due to concerns about his safety, and he started at Tilton School on Nov. 8.

Just a week later, the family finally received a formal opportunity to talk about race with their school community. The community conversation was held Nov. 15 at Merrimack Valley High School.

Superintendent Mark MacLean invited author Clinton Graham to share ideas from his poetry book, Progressive Perspectives. At the end, Graham opened the floor to audience questions.

That was when parents began asking how to address racism in school, and when community members started thinking about how to better promote acceptance, not just tolerance, of people with different perspectives.

Though the event was sparsely attended, the discussion was robust. At the end, Caroletta Alicea stood up and tried to hold back tears as she thanked everyone.

“You’re here because you care,” she said. “For me as a black American living in New Hampshire . . . you’re here because you want to start the conversation.”

A month later, the Aliceas are waiting to see if that dialogue will be kept up.

While Samuel is doing “great” at Tilton School with “remarkable peers,” Caroletta Alicea – who is the only black member on her school board – said she received little feedback from fellow school board members at their most recent meeting on Dec. 12 regarding the “Community Conversation.”

“I shared (again) my desire to discuss with anyone who had questions or wanted information regarding what happened as well as my (family’s) choices,” she wrote in an email. The response from other school board members, Alicea said, was “dead silence.”

Alicea said it felt like because Samuel was no longer in the school district, it was like he and the issue of race were “out of sight out of mind” for the school board.

A call to school board chairman Mark Hutchins was not returned.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, or on Twitter

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