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rendon Carolina was drinking from the water fountain when a white student walked out of the bathroom and called him the N-word.

Carolina, who was in seventh grade at the time, was confused by how random the encounter was.

“The teacher came out and saw us going at each other, then I got sent to the office,” Carolina said.

When Carolina arrived at the office, the principal was shocked to see him because he never got in trouble.

Carolina began to start having conversations about racism with his mother during this time. He didn’t understand her words then, but she continued to have those discussions with him as he matured.

Sultani Campbell, founder and CEO of Once Upon a STAR, checks in on the academic progress of his mentees. Campbell talks to one student about a report he received from school.

Mental health counselor Linzy Andre believes Black parents have conversations about race with their kids at an early age because of pain and fear. Pain from history, personal experiences, and racial injustice, and fear of their children potentially being in a situation with police.

“Starting to think about Black families who have that conversation with their children very early on, you have this child who’s learning to perceive themselves as ‘othered,’ and that’s a challenge to their sense of stability and security and potential for success,” Andre said. “Each [is something] I often end up talking to adult clients about, and they can also look at some point in their development where those three things were challenged very early on.”

Carolina’s mother’s words resonated with him when he watched the 8 minute and 46 second video of George Floyd’s murder.

“I was like, this is crazy. He wasn’t doing anything,” Carolina said. “They just pulled him out of his car, and he was crying the whole time.

“It was nerve-wracking for me to watch.”

Ffirahs Johnson, a Once Upon a STAR attendee, looks around during an instructional portion of the program. Once Upon a STAR has a vision to teach youth between the ages of 11-19 that success has little to do with circumstance and everything to do with effort.

An independent examiner hired by Floyd’s family reported he died of asphyxiation from sustained pressure on May 25, 2020. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd pleaded with him, “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin and three fellow officers were fired from the Minneapolis Police Department.

Carolina joined Once Upon a STAR, a youth mentorship group, in 2019 where a range of topics from dating to police brutality have been discussed. The group met virtually last year and had discussions about Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Sultani Campbell, Once Upon a STAR’s founder and CEO, has taught his mentees about being respectful and responding considerately if they encounter police along with never using violence as a solution.

“The main goal is to make it back home,” Campbell said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how tough you are, don’t let your ego get in the way. Do not respond with violence. They’ll always win. They have guns. They’re trained to use guns. They can legally carry that.”

Campbell has related similar messages to people the students are familiar with, like 26-year-old rapper King Von, who had chart-topping hits like “The Code” and “Crazy Story 2.0.” Von was killed in Atlanta in 2020 during a shootout involving two groups of men.

Campbell loves having conversations with his mentees, which is why he’s transitioning the group from one day a week to two days a week.

“I don’t really find any conversation hard,” Campbell said. “I’m willing to talk about anything with the kids. I understand how some of them might take it, but I’ve been through so much that I don’t feel like a lot of these conversations are hard. I feel like these are necessary conversations.”

Once Upon a STAR’s founder also tells students about his personal experiences. One was a run-in he had with a white police officer when he worked security at a drugstore. In that role, Campbell didn’t have to wear a uniform. He had to bring two Black teenagers into the security room because they were caught stealing. When the officer walked in, he immediately assumed Campbell was one of the suspects.

“You see the first Black kid as soon as you opened the door, and you just assumed it was him because I had a hoodie on,” Campbell said.

Once Upon a STAR program students participate in a team building exercise utilizing cups, rubber bands and strings. The students used the strings to stretch the rubber band wide enough to fit around the cups and move them to the opposite end of the gym, where they stacked the cups into a pyramid.

Joe Gregory, the vice president of programs for the youth mentorship group 100 Black Men of Syracuse, has also had conversations about racism with his mother since he was young.

“When we were punished, sometimes it was physical, but she would say, ‘Listen, I’m doing this because I don’t want you experiencing this from the police,’” Gregory said. “In other words, for you to behave and follow the rules was a way to protect yourself.”

Gregory believes racism could’ve been a factor in how teachers guided him and other Black students when he was in high school.

“A lot of times, we were not encouraged by our teachers to pursue certain careers,” Gregory said. “Even for me myself, the jobs I ended up having were not the aspirations I had as a child. I didn’t have any mentorship.”

Deconstructing the Divide

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Stepping Up for Justice
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He believes those teachers lacked understanding of Black people and their capabilities. This is why he and 100 Black Men of Syracuse are starting a mentorship activity where students will be able to shadow professionals in their desired careers to display representation in action.

“Being able to see someone in a position of power that looks like you allows you to believe that you can get to that position too,” Andre said. “And very often there are very few people that look like you and me that are in those meaningful positions of power.”

Moving forward, Andre believes conversations about mental health and race can be a great start for healing.

Avatar for Caleb Britt

is a broadcast and digital journalism master’s student and a contributor for The NewsHouse.

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Avatar for Caleb Britt

is a member of the 2021 Military Visual Journalism Program and is a contributor for The NewsHouse.