English teacher Danielle Ohlson, adviser for It’s REAL (Rights, Education, Advocacy, Leadership) at Newark High School, said Sodus High School Principal Arkee Allen’s recent grade-level presentations on implicit bias were a “great conversation starter” for the school community.
Allen frequently speaks on implicit bias because of his background and obstacles he overcame and has helped others overcome during his educational career so far. He presents at various events and school districts in the region.
Ohlson said after Allen spoke at Newark’s Superintendent’s Conference Day earlier this year, several staff suggested he return and speak with students. It’s REAL invited him to do so.
Open to any student regardless of race, It’s REAL focuses on cultural identity and issues facing students and communities of color. The group meets weekly to plan activities, field trips and events such as Allen’s presentation.
“The members of It’s REAL worked closely with Mr. Allen, communicating over email to arrange the logistics for the event, and then met in person to plan the details of the presentation’s content,” Ohlson said.
Allen shared glimpses into his experience growing up poor in a dysfunctional home in “the murder capital of Rochester,” where teddy bear memorials dotted the landscape “where persons were found dead” and where, statistically, odds of young African American men like himself living long and/or succeeding in life were stacked against them.
Allen’s father died when he was 6. He recalled the deaths of two of his siblings and how his brother survived being shot several times.
He expressed gratitude for the life-changing impact of his mother and Big Brother mentor Art Alvut from Fairport, who over the years has become like a brother, and how attending West Irondequoit High School through the Urban Suburban program and his involvement in the wrestling program led to him attending and graduating from Columbia University on a wrestling scholarship, an idea he initially resisted.
While Allen said his young life was not easy, he told students adversity made him “better and more resilient.”
Using a personal illustration about implicit bias, Allen recalled being pulled over by the police when he and three white classmates from West Irondequoit were riding in a Jeep. While his classmates were calmly questioned by police outside the vehicle, he sat quietly inside waiting for them to speak with him. When they finally did, they shouted orders, roughed him up, pushed him to the ground and one of the officers put a gun to his head while screaming questions at him. Allen had no idea why, but later found out police were looking for teenagers matching their description that were involved in a grocery store robbery.
Allen stressed implicit bias is not just about race, but is a preference for or against someone, a group of people or something that operates at a subconscious level and people are not aware of. It is triggered automatically through rapid association of people/groups/objects, and their attitudes and stereotypes about them. He said implicit bias runs contrary to people’s stated beliefs and attitudes. In other words, someone can say they believe something and truly believe it, but behave in opposite ways.
“When you call somebody a racist, it cuts the conversation off and you can’t get anywhere,’’ he said. “You have now created an enemy rather than someone you can work with.”
“He presented foundational information about the concept of implicit bias and included multiple opportunities for active audience participation, including a Q&A session and an online survey that produced real-time results so audience members could immediately see and analyze the data,” Ohlson said. “Audience feedback about the presentation was overwhelmingly positive.”
“That was the best presentation we had all year,” senior Alessio Muto said. “I really got a lot out of what he had to say, particularly about how we need to stop calling people racist, because it’s counterproductive. It just divides people.”
Sophomore and It’s REAL member Elijah Griffin said, “I really liked the quote Mr. Allen used by Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ Also, when you call someone racist, it’s just adding on to the hatred that’s already in the conversation. It just adds on to the negativity. I think what [Mr. Allen] was telling us is to think before you speak, because you might end the conversation before you get to know the whole story.”
NHS special education teacher Billie Jo Ross, who worked with Allen when he taught math at WIHS, said, “This is a great opportunity for our school community to listen, ask questions and develop a deeper understanding of the implicit biases we all have. Mr. Allen has a wealth of knowledge and broad life experiences that can help others understand that every person has more than one story.”
“Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Allen as he and I collaborate through our regional principals group,” NHS Principal Tom Roote said. “For the most part, we have shared ideas on course offerings and trending student issues like vaping. My positive perceptions of Arkee advanced quickly when I heard him speak at the most recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration in Lyons. He was the keynote speaker. He has an incredible story to share that reminds us to not get lost in a single story. Instead, we need to consider other stories as we seek to shape a true understanding of the world around us.
“Arkee is a true treasure to our region, given his willingness to be vulnerable and share his wisdom made up of some newsworthy experiences that are both positive and, in a few instances, devastating. He is an incredibly resilient leader in our region and we were lucky to connect our students and staff to his work this year.”
Based on feedback, Ohlson and It’s REAL want Allen to come back to NHS and “continue the conversation.”