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Monument graduate Liam Forland’s ‘Let’s Talk About It!’ — Facing up to racism

“The impact that [Liam] has had on the kids is truly remarkable. They have grown tremendously as young men and learned so much about themselves and the world around them." -- Monument Valley Regional Middle School educator Kim Cormier

Great Barrington — When Liam Forland moved from Georgia to Great Barrington as a freshman in high school, he experienced what he calls culture shock. “It was a lot different, a lot more diverse in Georgia,” recalls the recent graduate of Monument Mountain Regional High School. In short, “there were a lot more people looking like me [in Georgia].” Over the course of his high school career, Forland recounts experiencing multiple racist incidents  —something he calls a “recurring pattern among students of color at the high school.” Last fall, in an effort to connect with and mentor other students in the district who undoubtedly faced similar challenges, Forland launched Let’s Talk About It! at Monument Valley Regional Middle School. Despite graduating June 3, Forland — who is headed to Dartmouth College in the fall — saw his commitment through to the end, joining a core group of sixth-grade boys on Tuesday afternoon to reflect on their year together.

Liam Forland, founder of Let’s Talk About It!, at his recent graduation from Monument Mountain Regional High School. Photo courtesy Liam Forland

Forland was motivated by a singular goal: He wanted to give students a chance to talk about their concerns, fears and questions with someone they could relate to. As a young man of color himself, Forland’s main objective was simple: “To make sure kids feel like somebody has a voice for them — someone has their back — which is something I didn’t feel I had at the high school.” That said, Forland was confident he could provide this support for younger students. He took his experience with the Students of Color Association, a group that arose at MMRHS following a lynching threat against a young black member of the football team, and built upon it. Forland calls SOCA “a really great experience” for students to talk about racial issues and their experiences at the high school despite the lynching threat being “the blowup of it all.” In the eyes of many students, community support arrived too late; for Forland, it was a clear wake-up call that change was desperately needed in the community.

Let’s Talk About It! arose, in Forland’s words, “to legitimately talk about some of the things these students are experiencing at a younger age” than he was when he first encountered racial incidents at school. When he began doing research for a science paper on students who experience racist incidents at a young age but have no outlet to discuss them, the idea for this group took shape. “It has such an impact on every level [of their development] as they get older,” he explained. “It’s not good to keep these things in,” he added. A core group of sixth- and seventh-graders agree.

“Liam is super supportive of us — he lets us talk and doesn’t steal the show,” said one student. Another chimed in, “He’s pretty great — actually, really great.” One student got really specific: “He doesn’t ‘teacher’ us — something that can be annoying in the way that [teachers] don’t let us talk.” Another member of the group cut straight to the chase adding, “[Liam] always supports everyone’s opinion — and everyone gets to say what they think.” While Forland recognizes the impact he has had in his role of mentor, he is not pausing to rest on his proverbial laurels; in fact, he wants more. In Forland’s opinion, change comes when teachers “[Gain] the connection and the trust among students of color.” Which translates to, among other things, severing the practice of turning a blind eye, and tolerating both a lack of communication and discussion. While there are many positives to come from living in a close-knit community like the Berkshires, those community ties that can lead to “disqualify[ing] an [individual’s] action,” to use Forland’s words, need to end. Sadly, “this is what students of color are experiencing,” he reports.“We shouldn’t hide it, we shouldn’t cover it up or sweep it under the carpet,” he adds emphatically.

Kim Cormier, a member of the sixth-grade team at MVRMS, served as Forland’s advisor and someone to bounce ideas off of, but the initiative was his own. “The impact that [Liam] has had on the kids is truly remarkable,” said Cormier. “They have grown tremendously as young men and learned so much about themselves and the world around them. They look to Liam as a role model and mentor and, as a result, they have become more confident in who they are,” she added. This has ultimately had a direct impact on the students at school both academically and socially. “If you have a problem, Ms. Cormier is the person to go to,” emphasized Nate, a sixth-grade member of Let’s Talk About It! “She teaches us the important stuff and makes it fun,” another student chimed in, adding that they studied civil rights in her class.

Monument Valley Regional Middle School teacher Kim Cormier accepts her Berkshire County Educator Recognition Award at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams in May. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hills Regional School District

Not surprisingly, Cormier is exactly the type of ally Forland counts as integral to the experience of students of color. He underscored the fact that “this kind of work requires leadership in the white community.” He went on to emphasize that: “it would have been impossible to do this important work without the strong partnership of Kim Cormier and Ben Doren. [As] a student of color in a predominantly white community, starting a group like this was risky. I didn’t know how the community or the parents would respond,” Forland explained. “Kim and Ben wrapped so much care around this idea, removing every obstacle, and really made me feel supported so that I was able to do my part.”

What began as monthly meetings in the fall evolved into more frequent meetings come spring — every other week — at the request of students. And the format was simple: Play a little basketball to blow off some steam, share a snack together and move on to the real substance. Open discussion — an opportunity to talk about what’s happening in the community, in students’ lives, and whether or not anyone has experienced any racially charged incidents. “It breaks my heart but, every single time, they do have something that’s come up, whether it’s on the basketball court, which seems to happen often, or whether it just happens at school,” reports Forland. But in this setting, there comes an invitation to have a conversation: What happened? How did it make you feel? How was it dealt with? Forland points to a tremendous evolution in the middle schoolers since the start of the school year. “They’ve really progressed,” he said. “They are understanding, at a young age, how to deal with racial issues that happen to them,” he added. “We come together, they talk, [and] we deal with the issue,” he says, almost in celebration.

One really cool experience came when Forland invited a local police officer to a meeting. For young men of color, who often mistrust and dislike the police, an honest conversation ensued about how to make the community better. Recently, the group watched a video about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public in April and is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African-Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. There are often games, like a simulation Forland set up where students lined up in random order various distances away from a trash can and, with a paper “ball,” each student tried to make baskets. “As you would expect, those really far away missed and those really close made it,” Forland explained. “The idea behind [the exercise was] to show that we are not all put in equal situations; the end goal is that it’s harder for some individuals to achieve as opposed to others,” Forland pointed out. And, true to his mission, he and his group members are talking about it — because it’s real and because it’s true.

For now, Forland has another tall task at hand: finding a replacement for next year so that Let’s Talk About It! will continue despite his moving on to college. Recognizing that students are more likely to speak up and be open with a peer mentor, he has tapped two students at the high school — one rising sophomore and one rising senior — in hopes that the pair will carry on the work begun this year. “It has been wonderful to watch this program take shape, and I deeply admire and respect Liam for his dedication and passion,” said Cormier of her experience working with Forland. “It has been such an exciting year launching the program with [the middle school students], and now having the opportunity to reflect on it,” Forland added. Perhaps, for the sake of us all, the very change Liam Forland was hoping to see in the community is in fact unfolding before our collective eyes — this from a seemingly simple gesture, the effects of which will have far reaching consequences.


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