New program at Redwood seeks to SOAR above prejudice

Audrey Hettleman

Students Organizing Against Racism (SOAR) is a new program that was brought to Redwood this February. Consisting of students and faculty alike, SOAR aims to educate its members on how to recognize racism as well as on how to address it. The new program has had two meetings so far and plans to hold two more by the end of the year, including one on April 6.

Drama teacher Erik Berkowitz, an advisor for the program, says that SOAR will be focusing on how these issues impact the Redwood community.

“The students who are involved are going to be exploring the systems that are inherent in our Redwood culture and start looking at how we might be able to change some of those things,” Berkowitz said.

The program originally recruited about 75-80 sophomores through faculty nominations. After being nominated by their teachers, these students were invited to partake in a day-long diversity training run by the Anti-Defamation League.  

Information for the training was also provided on posters throughout the school, allowing access to students who weren’t nominated in the first place. Although sophomore Blake Caindec is not a current member of SOAR, he attended Beyond Diversity and learned a great deal about how to detect and address racism.

“[The workshop] was during school as an [all-day] class and it took up periods two to six. [We] learned about racism, how bad it is, how to defend against it, and how to stand up for ourselves,” Caindec said.

Because SOAR eventually intends to extend its teachings outside of its members, Berkowitz said that sophomores were the targeted demographic because he believes they are the students who can impact the most people at Redwood for the longest time.

“We were looking at mostly sophomores because seniors were pretty much going to be gone, and then even juniors, by the time they were actually done training, they might only have a semester left,” Berkowitz said. He also added that freshmen would not be a good fit because they are still only just getting used to high school.

Berkowitz explained that after the workshop, the number of students attending each subsequent meeting dwindled. It was then that the advisors began talking with the students to make sure they were committed to the program.  

Sophomore Lili Gibson, a current member of SOAR, attended the next event, a workshop at Drake High School run by the Pacific Educational Group. Their program, Beyond Diversity, has taught students around the globe about racism and privilege for over 25 years. Dr. Lori Watson, an Equity Transformation Specialist with the Pacific Education Group, facilitated the workshop.

Gibson enjoyed discussing important issues with a wide variety of people at the workshop.

“We had a two-day training at Drake [at the beginning of March] with kids from all over the district. I got to meet really amazing people who had a lot to say, and I got to hear what kids who go to different schools had to say about similar topics that we all relate to and what it means to be a high school student in this day and age,” Gibson said.

Sophomore Lili Gibson, a member of SOAR, poses for a photo.
Sophomore Lili Gibson is participating in the SOAR program.

As of now, only 17 Redwood students, most of them sophomores, have chosen to continue with SOAR.

Gibson believes that SOAR’s main goal is education. At the Beyond Diversity training, Gibson said Watson taught them that knowledge of race is necessary before exploring the prejudice that goes along with it.

“She taught us that before we can talk about racism we have to understand what race means, and that race isn’t biological, it’s psychological and social. For example, I’m half black and half white, and I would say I identify more with the mixed person experience, rather than one or the other. I learned that you have to understand what race means before you can talk about racism and racist people,” Gibson said.

SOAR is still in a developmental stage, so the tactics they will use to accomplish their goals is still uncertain, according to Berkowitz. As for his wishes for the program, Berkowitz says that he hopes to both educate and create a school-wide dialogue about racism.

“I hope that we can utilize the strengths of many passionate people. [I hope that] we can begin to feel comfortable having difficult conversations with each other without fear or judgement because we’re never going to change the systems and the ways we treat each other unless we’re willing to engage with each other and have difficult conversations in a safe environment where we can disagree and still respect each other. That right there is the kernel of why we’re doing all of this,” Berkowitz said.

Gibson also said that the most important takeaway from SOAR is that conversations need to be created in order to begin to end racism, both at Redwood and in the broader community.

“The worst thing we can do is not talk about it. But if we’re not afraid to talk about it, then we can always have discussions and be willing to change it,” Gibson said.