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How Indiana Teens Find Resilience During COVID Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After a year of pandemic - being holed up, remote schooling or sometimes no schooling and rising protests - the natural resilience of children has been tested. The first part of our series on resilience, we go to Hammond, Ind., and the Charles N. Scott Middle School, where teens met both the COVID crisis and a national reckoning over racial injustice by lifting their voices.

JAKEELAH BLACKNELL: We've all heard adults tell kids, you have no reason to be stressed. You don't pay bills. You don't go to work. That's what I like to call toxic adulting. Although we might not pay bills or go to work, we go to school, and we deal with other issues. Just because we're younger does not mean our issues should be minor compared to adults.

SIMON: That's part of a spoken-word piece from arising ninth grader, Jakeelah Blacknell, who was asked to perform at a student voice summit for the education group Mindful Practices. Lydia McNeiley is one of her guidance counselors.

LYDIA MCNEILEY: They had the voice already, but they definitely found it, and they've used it. And, you know, I'm just so proud of them both.

BLACKNELL: My name is Jakeelah.

KELE ANN RANEY: Hi, I'm Kele Ann Raney, and I'm a student ambassador at Scott Middle School.

SIMON: Keeley and Jakeelah say that last year, their world was threatened by more than coronavirus.

RANEY: With everything going around, like the Black Lives Matter protests and just seeing people who look like you getting killed, it really hurt.

BLACKNELL: There was so much going on with Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. It was just a lot going on. I just felt worry for my own race. And, you know, it was just bad times for the Black community and other communities. So I just felt like I need to do something, which is why I joined the student ambassador program.

SIMON: As student ambassadors, they dedicated many hours to an anti-bias program from the Anti-Defamation League. They also had a chance to speak out and float their ideas for meeting some challenges head-on.

BLACKNELL: I just felt like it gave us a voice. It gave other students a voice. We were able to talk about things that we usually don't talk about.

RANEY: It gave us the opportunity to talk about how we felt and how we could change and impact our school and just show people how we felt.

SIMON: For Kele, it was also a chance for total commitment.

RANEY: A hundred percent of me went into this because I felt like this for a long time, how the students, not haven't had a voice, but they didn't really get to express themselves and talk about what really mattered to them. It was always just what the teachers wanted you to hear or do. So I felt like that really impacted.

MCNEILEY: They are young leaders, and that's exactly what they are. They're young leaders, and I cannot stress how proud I am of them. And it's just amazing to see them. And I can't wait to see how this - not only the ambassador program is going to grow at Scott but just these two lovely young ladies and the other ambassadors - how they're just going to go ahead and take what they've worked on this year and continue to grow it next year and, again, be that change that we need in our communities.

RANEY: I just want everyone to know that to give students the chance, like Ms. McNeiley was saying, give them the chance to get - show their voices and be heard because they - it might not always seem like we want to talk, but deep down, we really have something to say.

SIMON: And Jakeelah wants everyone to see how young people can survive during times of trial and also grow, change and reach others.

BLACKNELL: I think our generation as a whole, like, we're very different from other generations. Like, we're not afraid to talk to our parents or not afraid to do things that other generations will do. We speak our minds, and we have more confidence in our thoughts and our abilities. I think that's the biggest impact.

SIMON: In large part because their voices were heard. Scott is among five Indiana schools to be recognized as a No Place for Hate school by the Anti-Defamation League. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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