Terence Georges, the son of a Haitian immigrant, said that while he had learned about Black history in school, he didn’t really appreciate it at the time.
“If it’s not being spoken about at home, then it’s just a subject that comes and goes like many others. Unfortunately for my sister and I, my mother worked two or three jobs to take care of us.
So she didn’t have much time to have conversations with us about Black history,” he said.
It was the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 that prompted a wake-up call.
“I received a wellness call to see how I was doing in the wake. And then boom, I realized — I never checked in on any of my family and friends to see how they were doing in these miserable times,” he said.
Georges, an area car sales manager at Enterprise, shared his story with the juniors and seniors at Waterford High School as part of an assembly on Black History Month on Wednesday morning that brought together local leaders in two panel discussions.
Andre Hauser, principal at the high school, said that the assembly’s motto, “Black History is Everyone’s History,” underscored the importance of focusing on Black history at the school.
“Honing that, exposing our students to the full diversity of their community, is essential,” said Hauser.
The speakers included local community activists and leaders, along with multiple employees from Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which has a Black Enterprise Action Team. Human Resources manager Shawn Fleming explained that the team was dedicated to both developing leaders for the company and giving back to the community. Kevin Booker Jr, a former common councilman in the City of New London and owner of Booker Empowerment, organized the event.
Several of the speakers connected back to the civil rights movement and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery, a pastor and licensed psychologist, said she was born 45 minutes from where King was killed. She later on became the pastor of a church named after King — the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, MA — which, she said, was burned last year in a hate crime.
Another speaker, Debbie Phillips, said she remembers students walking out of Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford in protest after King’s murder. Phillip said that her former math teacher, Euncie Waller, created a scholarship within a week of the death of King, which has awarded thousands of dollars to seniors in southeastern Connecticut. She is currently trying to get the Multi-Magnet High School in New London named after her teacher.
Other speakers, like Georges, referenced the death of George Floyd and the 2020 protests as an impetus to learn more about Black history.
Philip Sarubbi, also a manager at Enterprise, said that after having discussions with Black colleagues, he started to understand how knowing the history helped explain the current struggles that Black communities confront.
“Housing discrimination, employment opportunities, and the wage gap between black and non-black workers– to truly understand the why’s behind all of this, we have to understand the history,” said Sarubbi.
Matthew Rivera, executive director of The Dream Support Network in Hartford, talked about the importance of being able to find success in one’s own home community. Rivera said he grew up in the Bronx, and that he attended an all-white high school, which he said gave him the opportunity to do what many in his family and community didn’t — graduate from college. He said that the people in his community were intelligent and resourceful, but simply didn’t have the opportunities to thrive.
“I think freedom to me means not having to leave my community in order to be successful,” said Rivera.
Mental health also entered into the discussion. Patrick Richards, a rental manager trainee at Enterprise and immigrant from Jamaica, said that despite the image that Black people give of being tough, or strong — a way of being that, he said, extends from slavery until now — certain situations are anxiety-provoking for members of the Black community.
“We’re still traumatized, mentally, just to be honest. When a cop is following us, we have anxiety. In certain conversations, we have anxiety,” he said. “When it comes to black wellness and health, I just think it’s very important for us to find avenues to speak about how we actually feel.”
Many speakers brought up the importance of having conversations with people who come from different backgrounds.
“I feel like it starts with one experience, and I’m actually going to challenge each person in this room to just reach out and start a conversation with someone who has some type of diversity, that you’ve never spoken to before,” said Georges. “And if you do that, you’d be so surprised at what you may hear, what you may see, what you may learn and what you may create.”
“I think the biggest challenge is just the fear of having that uncomfortable conversation,” added David Christian, also a manager with Enterprise.
Curry Avery said that when she does trainings on “dismantling racism,” she asks the people of color to imagine what would be different for them if they were white, and the white people to imagine how things would be different if they were people of color.
“It is an amazing conversation starter, because what it does is, it puts you in the mind of the other person and you begin to see how much you know, and how much you don’t know,” she said.
Students asked questions about the difference between equity and equality, if it was possible to collaborate with someone who wasn’t interested in learning about the racial history of America, and what to do if someone was making racist remarks in front of you.
In the junior and senior assembly, several of the students expressed frustration with peers who were talking or laughing during the assembly, an attitude that they said was “part of the problem.”
“No matter how much effort we put in or how we try and make it digestible, we will still always lose some of you and we will gain some of you. And that’s just how it is. I’m tired of fighting,” said one student.
“The few of us who do care are going to fight for the rest of you who don’t,” added another.
Booker told students that they needed to step out of their comfort zone and actively work toward change in their communities.
“You really have to start thinking — am I going to be a problem, or a solution?” he said.
After the assembly, Christian said that the responses of the students demonstrated an ongoing need for these dialogues.
“Just to see the raw emotion, it just goes to show that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Christian.
Rivera said that while their testimonies might not impact the students immediately, their words would resonate later on.
“Sometimes the best seeds you plant will not bear fruit for years and years to come,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was edited to include additional biographical information and comments from Booker, who was the primary organizer of the event.