BY MIKE McINALLY
It was 2017, and Yannie Reyes-Alvarez, then a senior at Crescent Valley High School, was answering questions as part of applying for a new Corvallis School District initiative, Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE).
One question stopped her: Have you ever experienced racism in Corvallis?
For Reyes-Alvarez, the answer was “yes.”
“I was about 16,” she recalled, “and I was with my mom and a cousin who had just moved from Mexico. … This man and his girlfriend just came up to us and started yelling at my mom, telling her that she was stealing and that she was the reason why this country was the way that it was and to go back to her country. I just remember feeling powerless, completely, because I had never experienced something so hateful in my life. I froze.”
That incident inspired Reyes-Alvarez to seek a spot on the district’s first SAFE team, a group of diverse high school students charged with providing a student perspective on race and inclusivity in Corvallis schools. She made the team.
Since that first year, SAFE has grown. In the 2021-22 school year, thanks to funding from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation, the program has expanded to every district school. In addition, one teacher at each school has been appointed to focus on equity issues.
SAFE students meet at their schools and, before the pandemic, met monthly at the district office. (In the 2020-21 school year, most of the meetings were virtual.)
As the name suggests, SAFE offers students a safe place to discuss issues of race and equity.
Reyes-Alvarez remembers how the first SAFE meetings at the district office covered what she called the “basics. … We learned about microaggressions. We learned about implicit and explicit bias. We learned how to identify ourselves, because a lot of us hadn’t thought about that before.”
That issue of identity was important to another participant in SAFE, College Hill High School student Maria Coppola. She has a father who identifies as Middle Eastern North African. Her mother is white. Coppola sometimes has felt caught in the middle.
“SAFE has helped me feel more confident that I can be somewhere in the middle of white and not-white and still be whole and be worthy,” said Coppola. … “I would not be anywhere close to where am I right now without SAFE.”
Just as important to Coppola was the experience of seeing students of color on the Zoom calls that SAFE held during the pandemic.
“The first thing was just being on the call and seeing other students of color and just looking around and thinking, ‘Oh, we’re all kind of safe here … and we can share the experience of dealing with experiences of racism and discrimination.’”
Coppola said she was inspired by some of the guest speakers featured on some of the calls, such as Darius Northern, the Oregon State University graduate who founded a clothing company called People of Colour.
Although SAFE meetings deal with heavy topics, Reyes-Alvarez said there was plenty of time for fun.
And time for celebration as well, said Germaine Joseph-Hays, a SAFE mentor at Corvallis High School and now an assistant principal at the school: “I would tell my students all the time, I love being black, I love being Caribbean. … That is so much of who I am and I feel like I’ve celebrated that my whole life and I want that to be part of SAFE.”
The students say their SAFE mentors – teachers and administrators – are inspirational.
For their part, the mentors say they draw inspiration – and hope – from their students.
“The students have changed,” said Isley Gonzalez, the SAFE mentor at Cheldelin Middle School and a leader in the district on equity issues. “They stand up for each other more; they care about each other.” And that has had a ripple effect on other students, she said: “There’s so many students who now want to be involved in SAFE because they’re seeing the positive pieces that are coming out of the program.”
Joseph-Hays has seen students in the program “just finding their voices, feeling secure about who they are … and feeling like they can actually have conversations with peers that probably they were not able to have before.”
Reyes-Alvarez found her voice, thanks in part to SAFE: “I don’t want to freeze ever again,” she said, recalling that verbal venom aimed at her mother. “I want to be able to stand up for myself and for my mom.”