The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, Fenwick High School alum Brooke Young talks about the racist culture within the school and demands for reform.

As the world waits with bated breath on the judicial system’s slow response to the senseless murders of innocent Black bodies, minority students wait for predominantly white institutions to speak up about the global racial injustices that have become woven into their core, allowing hatred to fester. Black and Brown bodies are not only awaiting the world to wake up and realize their humanity, but also for the areas that we visit, frequent and contribute culturally toward.  There’s an urgent need to provide effective change, not performative advocacy.

Fenwick High School, a private Catholic college prep institution in Oak Park, Ill., has a population of 2,000+ students. Its student body only has a 5% Black and 2% Latinx populations. In the current state of affairs where Black Americans are protesting the response to racial injustice and violence at the hands of the police, on June 7 Black alumni at Fenwick called for the institution to make permanent and effective changes after the school released a video on June 2 that did not provide reassurance that change would be enacted.

In Fenwick’s initial June 2 address about the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, Fenwick encouraged students to hear a message from President Fr. Richard Peddicord. In a six-minute video sent via email to both alumni and current students, Fr. Peddicord reminds the Fenwick community that racism is at the core of many of our systems and leans on the understanding that students are “one” as a school community. While Fr. Peddicord is correct in his statement — that we need to operate as one student body — this cannot happen until we prioritize the restructuring of more than 90 years of oppressive and systematic racism within Fenwick.

We learn early that vultures can be found in the places that we once found beautiful, and there were a flock of vultures at Fenwick High School, according to accounts from current students and alumni. They have taken to Instagram and other social media platforms to create profiles that highlight the reality of what minority students endured and continue to endure during their time at Fenwick. These experiences were provoked by both faculty and students. One student of color from the class of 2011, detailed the following account:

During my sophomore year speech class, one of the students in my class (who was Black) was caught chewing gum and the teacher pointed at him and said “Now you’re going to work on my plantation.” I felt so ashamed because even though it wasn’t said directly to me it was an all-too-familiar feeling I seemed to only have while at Fenwick. Prior to Fenwick I had never experienced racism in any form, so when I was faced with it every single day, it was new to me and at the same time I had no clue how to defend myself or my classmates against it.”

Another student of color from the class of 2021 reveals more about the way in which academic teachings are rooted in racist ideology to this day:

In my social studies class, there was one African-American female and the teacher made white students, and herself included, repeatedly say the ‘n’ word. Even after expressing how it made all of us uncomfortable. A student was referred to as ‘Aunt Jemima’ and other derogatory terms, while all the other students told the teacher to stop as it was highly offensive and inappropriate. An Asian student was also subjected to racism as the teacher performed `Hiroshima’ on the student.”

While these are only two of 155 posts on the Instagram page @Beinabipocfriar, they denote the egregious behavior and lack of support from staff. One begins to wonder what Fenwick is doing to ensure that these stories are a context from which to learn and the foundation for establishing a system of checks and balances. Within the video, Fr. Peddicord mentioned that Fenwick is in the process of establishing a task force to address the social and racial inequalities minority students face at the institution. Viewers of the video were informed they would be able to have an opportunity to join the Task Force as well.

A group of Black alumni from the classes of 2003 and 2009 took the opportunity to express its interest in taking charge of the new task force. I graduated from Fenwick in May of 2009. On June 7, we sent the following demands via email to the institution to ensure the continued safety of the school’s minority community, including:

* Donation to Chicago Bail Funds

* Creation of a social justice and reparational scholarship for Black students

* Revised community service requirements for students

* Creation of a critical consciousness and social justice course with a capstone requirement

* Schoolwide curriculum changes

With more than 900 signatures from alumni and current students, we demand Fenwick respond with actions that will tear down the socioeconomic barriers and racial inequalities, plus provide school-wide cultural awareness for everyone. 

The school’s minority community deserves more than explanatory justice that provides excuses at the feet of injustice. We deserve full autonomous control over the social movement for change because we have been disenfranchised for far too long. Fenwick has shown a historical trend of complacent ignorance that brews a culture of racism. At this point, the minority communities of Fenwick’s current student population and alumni have begun a campaign to advocate for ourselves, as we cannot entrust this responsibility to any one person or group of people that currently serve the school.

As an alumnus of Fenwick, I take personal offense to the institution not disbanding racist rhetoric, support and rooted practices. This is a charge to our community to encourage change at Fenwick. At a time where Chicagoland students are academically displaced, we actively call on our community to take the following actions:

1. Read @beingabpiocfirar and read the very real accounts of students at Fenwick, both past and present.

2. Email the inclusivity team (@inclusion@fenwickfriars.com) in order to ensure we ignite change that is long lasting for our minority students.

3. Defer enrollment to Fenwick and enroll in other culturally aware institutions. Refrain from donations to the school’s endowment funds, as the current donations serve to undermine the push of equality for all students.

Performing the physical act of denouncing racism is not enough. We must see the full exertion of the machinery in an institution in order to eradicate hatred and inspire change. Fenwick has existed since 1929 — allow 2020 to be the year that almost 100-year-old practices are eradicated.

Headshot of Brooke Young
is a resident of Chicago’s Austin community. She has served her community in both an advocate for quality education in under-services communities and an activist for change for the West Side community.