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Talking With New American Youth About Racism

Aden Haji wearing a mask
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Aden Haji is an outreach worker for Spectrum Youth and Family Services. He's also a member of the Burlington School Board.

Protests around the country against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have often been led by young people, especially young people of color. That was the case at a protest in Burlington on Saturday, where hundreds of people gathered outside the city's police headquarters.

Aden Haji is an outreach worker with Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington and a member of the Burlington School Board. His family moved to Burlington in 2003, and they were among the first Somali Bantu refugees to resettle in Vermont.

Haji participated in the protest on May 30 and joined VPR to share his perspective on how young Vermonters of color are thinking about the current moment.

VPR’s Henry Epp’s interview with Aden Haji is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: What are you saying to the young people that you're working with these days?

Aden Haji: Mainly, I’ve just been speaking on the experiences that black folks are going through. As far as young people go, it’s important to start speaking about race at an early age, just so they can understand the world around them. It does affect black youth while they're in middle school, even in elementary school. So it’s good to have those conversations with them.

What do those conversations sound like? What exactly are you telling folks?

A lot of the young folks that I've had conversations with are new American youth. For those that have recently settled, it's important for them to also understand what's going on locally and nationally.

"It's important to start speaking about race at an early age, just so they can understand the world around them. It does affect black youth while they're in middle school, even in elementary school." — Aden Haji, Spectrum Youth and Family Services

So for those communities – those folks that you're talking to who are new Americans – are you explaining the dynamics of the police and people of color in this country?

Yeah, when it comes to police, you know, especially for newcomers, they’ve had different experiences with police back in their home countries.

More from VPR: Scott Asks Vermonters to Confront Racism After A Weekend Of Protests

So when folks come here, that's when they start realizing what's really going on. That's why it's really important to talk to folks that have been living here for a while, and connect with them and really understand some of the systematic racism that's going on within the schools and on a larger scale.

You were part of the protests that happened on Saturday, right? How did you feel after that event? Do you feel like a point was made?

I feel like a point was made, but again, this has been going on for many decades and folks have been protesting for as long as we can remember.

I do support and stand in solidarity with protesters. The reason why I went is because I live it every day. Just being black, you already have a target on your back. To go to the park and protest and see how many people were there was empowering, but there’s definitely much more that we could do.

Mostly, I’ve thought about, you know, white people, and how they're going to be using their white privilege to help fight the system.

So you really put it on the white population of Burlington to decide or show how they're going to support communities of color?

Most certainly. Yes.

More from VPR: Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd

You were elected to the Burlington School Board earlier this year. Do you feel like the school district is doing enough to support young people of color?

There have been a couple instances where racial tensions came up within the school district. I definitely feel like we could be doing a lot of growing.

In terms of students in general, I think students should know that if there is anything – if they feel discriminated against, that they're not being treated right because of who they are, or the color of their skin – I want all of them to know to really speak out, and tell somebody that they trust.

No school district is perfect and I think that the Burlington school district is trying, but there is a lot more work that needs to be done regarding racial justice and equity.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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