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‘It’s my duty to educate myself, nobody else’s’: Youth Anti-Racism Education Project has international reach

The Anti-Racism Education Project, created by Sasha Ronaghi
The Anti-Racism Education Project, created by Irvine’s Sasha Ronaghi, recently launched its first virtual event.
(Courtesy of the Anti-Racism Education Project)

When trying to find direction and meaning in times of crisis, 17-year-old Sasha Ronaghi turned to books.

What started out as an idea for a virtual anti-racism book club with a handful of friends quickly became much different — and larger — than she expected.

In the last month, people from around the world have reached out to her through social media seeking a place to learn and talk about racism.

Now, the club has evolved into a free virtual project specifically for young adults, whether they come with minimal or expert knowledge.

The goal is to be an educational platform for topics rooted in racism like police brutality. They discuss current events and history relating to the Black community through books, films, TV shows, podcasts, music and art.

Ronaghi, who recently graduated from Newport Coast’s Sage Hill School, watched as civil unrest spilled over streets across Southern California in response to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

“As horrible as it sounds, it didn’t surprise me at all,” said Ronaghi. “This is the kind of the world we live in. What made this time a little bit different was just how much people talked about it on social media. I’ve been more into social media recently because of COVID-19.”

O.C. residents, largely teens and young adults, also organized numerous peaceful Black Lives Matter protests across the county.

“Typically I see these incidents happen, people talk about it for three days and then it’s over,” she said. “But this one was on everybody’s [Instagram] story. There are people in my high school that wouldn’t talk about diversity or have a political conversation, who posted about it.”

Unable to join protests in fear of infecting an immunocompromised family member, she started reading Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

Reading wasn’t enough. She wanted to talk.

“I knew if I didn’t create a book club or if I didn’t find a group of people to talk about this, it would be likely that life would get in the way,” said Ronaghi. “I’d get too busy and I would stop thinking about it.”

She posted about the club on her Instagram story on May 31, getting the attention of 11 people. A week later, more than 400 had reached out to join.

On June 7, Ronaghi hosted a Zoom meeting with about 80 people who were interested in organizing virtual events for what became known as the Anti-Racism Education (A.R.E.) Project. It lasted over 5 hours.

Since then, she’s described the planning experience as a whirlwind. There’s a time crunch because they want to launch before the month ends.

Some event organizers want to make documentaries and translate material into multiple languages. Others are helping build the website, maintain the project’s social media and create graphics.

Hannah Wang, 17, from New York, is Ronaghi’s co-lead organizer. She also manages the event organizers and hosts planning meetings, some of which run up until 2 a.m. for her because of the differences in time zones.

Wang and Ronaghi were going to be college roommates at UC Berkeley, but each committed to different universities last minute.

Wang launched a fundraiser benefiting Black Lives Matter organizations, but she didn’t think she was doing enough and joined the A.R.E. Project.

“I learn best through communication,” said Wang. “We aren’t experts on racism or the Black experience. It’s so important to educate ourselves and not be ignorant. We’re also really pushing for activism and special projects.”

One special project available to view on the group’s website captures the stories of students across the world who were on track to graduate but were killed by law enforcement.

Emmanuel Flores, 19 and from the suburbs of Illinois, uses his DePaul University account to coordinate the Zoom meetings.

“I personally hope I’m more confident in understanding situations where there is anti-blackness or racism,” Flores said. “As someone who’s from a very liberal city, I’ve been able to learn that myself. But I’m mostly looking for how to hold people accountable ... understand when [microaggressions] happen and how to appropriately call them out.”

Rémy, 17, from Belgium, declined to give his last name but said he is writing a code of conduct for the discussions.

He was shocked by how oblivious he was about events in the U.S. He’s interested to see the similarities and differences of racism between countries.

Clay Thornton, 17 from North Carolina, met Ronaghi at a student diversity leadership conference. Both participated in diversity advocacy initiatives in their respective schools.

Thornton will moderate some of the project’s discussions and was trained to be a dialogue facilitator by Essential Partners, a nonprofit specializing in community peacemaking workshops.

He said discussions are not about debating or proving one viewpoint is correct. It’s a way to understand the materials they’ve consumed for the month.

Participants will meet on Zoom to talk about the codes of conduct and how to communicate effectively. Then, they’ll break out into different video chat rooms.

The project is exclusive to 14- to 21-year-olds, mainly for safety reasons. Organizers didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a 14-year-old talking to a 30-year-old on the internet.

But Thornton sees youth as conduits of information.

“Young people are willing to reach out to their families and their friends who are older and have conversations with them about these topics,” said Thornton. “People are going to go to the family dinner table and talk about what they’ve learned.”

Ronaghi said the average age of participants is 17, and most aren’t located in Orange County. Participants come from 38 states and 16 countries.

Although she doesn’t track race and ethnicity, she noted most of the participants don’t identify as Black. Ronaghi, who is Iranian American and lives in Irvine, said she made it a point not to place the responsibility to educate on Black participants.

“It’s my duty to educate myself, nobody else’s,” she added.

She is starting her first semester at Columbia University in the fall and plans on growing chapters of the project in various locations.

But first, Ronaghi will have to see how the first round of virtual events goes.

June‘s assignments include poetry, a “With Friends Like These” podcast episode, the documentary “An Angry Eye,” an episode of the OWN TV show “David Makes Man” and Ibram X. Kendi’s article “The American Nightmare.”

The launch of club discussion meetings is scheduled for June 24 and June 28. Sign up for the group’s monthly newsletter for its schedule.

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