Central York students share messages about breaking the silence during MLK event

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

For more than a decade, Central York student Renee Ellis felt pressured to stay silent about the issues affecting her.

When it came to a ban on diversity resources brought on by her elected school board, however, she knew she had to speak up. 

Renee Ellis joined three other Central York peers Monday morning to discuss the importance of breaking the silence on racism and prejudice in their community during a panel hosted by Crispus Attucks York for its annual Martin Luther King Day of Service.

This year's theme of "Break the Silence" tied directly back to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a 1967 speech in which he protested the Vietnam war and addressed racism.

The 45-minute Zoom session served as a platform for the youth advocates — Renee Ellis. Edha Gupta, Christina Ellis and Olivia Pituch — to answer questions moderated by Crispus Attucks Early Learning Center Director Irene Hudson.

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“You are the change we need that’s going to make a huge difference in our community,” Hudson said. “We know you’re going to do great, we’re so proud of you to be here to share your experiences.” 

All four students, members of Central York High School’s Panther Anti-Racist Union, served as key advocates last year after school board officials voted to ban a four-page list of diversity resources composed of books, articles and videos made for and by creators of color.

In response, the Panther Anti-Racist Union came together to protest the board's decision through demonstrations before the start to each school day. In less than a month, the school board reversed its decision.

Members of the Panther Anti-Racist Student Union prepare to speak at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Bill Kalina photo

Renee Ellis said that not speaking up creates the cycle of harm to continue. 

"Especially in the African American community, we've been pressured to be quiet," she said. "You're not supposed to speak up about certain things." 

Renee Ellis called upon a specific example recently in which she completed a social studies project about her family history. To her dismay, much documentation and history couldn't be found. 

"I traced back seven generations and that was it — it was all cut off," she said. "Now, we're breaking that cycle to not let our history die." 

Other members of the Panther Anti-Racist Union joined in with their own personal stories. 

Panther Anti-Racist Student Union organizer Edha Gupta speaks at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Gupta is a Central York High School senior. Bill Kalina photo

Gupta, for example, talked about how her experience as an Asian American activist was drastically different from her peers. 

"As the 'so-called' model minority in this country, it is not something you see often for Asian-Americans to be in the media or protesting," Gupta said. "Because a lot of the injustices that we do face come from casual racism or microaggressions." 

Like Renee Ellis, Gupta felt as if she had to stay silent in the face of racism in her life. 

"This year, I really broke the silence as an Asian American woman speaking on issues that I have been dealing with all my life," Gupta said, adding that she was often ridiculed for the food and dress of her culture. 

Pituch also spoke on her experiences protesting last year as a member of the LGBTQ community. Though many of the resources on the banned list focused on voices of color, a small portion of resources also centered on LGBTQ issues. 

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"When the book ban was announced ... I had come out as being part of the LGBTQ community," Pituch said. "Because I was so new to the community, (the ban) really hurt a lot."

Pituch added that her motivations to speak out came from a place to protect those who couldn't have a voice — like closeted peers who might still be questioning their own identities. 

Christina Ellis, too, spoke on her specific motivations for speaking out against the ban: to protect the children growing up who need these books to ignite their futures. 

"If you tell kids from a young age that they will never be more than just another number in the system, that's who they're going to think they are and that's how they're going to teach their kids — it's a generational thing, " Christina Ellis said. 

Introducing books to children from a young age featuring role models of all races, however, is all it takes to create a spark.

"If we don't let kids have that space in classrooms, if we don't let them ask questions, make mistakes in a safe environment and build themselves up — you're going to have this continuous cycle," Christina Ellis said. "You can be whoever you want to be in life if you just put yourself to it, and we're just trying to help them do that." 

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.