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‘Make them listen’: Baltimore-area students use social media to campaign for change

Baltimore-area students are harnessing the power of hashtags, tweets, Instagram accounts and other social media tools to rally peers and launch movements to correct what they believe are injustices at their schools.

As racism, discrimination, sexism and other social problems have attracted national attention, students have turned increasingly to social media to share stories that might otherwise have been hidden and build dedicated bases of supporters.

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Last summer, about 20 unnamed students at Loyola University Maryland shared stories of racism in a video posted to Instagram. Another Instagram account shared anonymous stories of sexual assault and other gender violence at Maryland colleges and universities. Around the same time, alumnae of the Catholic High School of Baltimore flooded the comments section of the East Baltimore private school’s Facebook and Instagram accounts to share memories of discrimination.

In recent months, two Baltimore teens collected dozens of stories alleging sexual misconduct at the Baltimore School for the Arts and posted them on an Instagram account called “survivorsofbsa.” The stories detailed instances of verbal harassment, groping and sexual assault.

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A representative for the school referred questions about the allegations to the city school system.

Baltimore School for the Arts’ clinical staff, supported by additional district clinical staff, are offering telehealth counseling sessions for current students to address the concerns shared on social media, district spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said in an email.

Recent graduates also will be able to access mental health services through a partner provider, Chambers said.

Social media has become a tool for activists around the country in recent years. Hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have trended, gathering followers and transforming the slogans into high-profile social movements.

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The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that a majority of Americans believe social media sites are very or somewhat important for accomplishing a range of political goals, such as getting politicians to pay attention to issues or creating movements for social change.

The center also has found that young people ages 18 to 29 use social media at higher rates to find information about rallies or protests in their area. And social media users under the age of 30 are more likely than older groups to say they have used a hashtag related to a political or social issue and encouraged others to take action on issues that they see as important.

Ruth Dawit, a junior at Baltimore School for the Arts, created the “survivorsofbsa” account in late March after noticing people sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault on Instagram for Women’s History Month.

Within hours of creating the account, other students started submitting their own experiences with sexual misconduct at the school to the 17-year-old via direct messages at an “alarmingly high rate,” Dawit said.

Dawit started asking the messengers for permission to share the stories publicly on the account. When she had finished posting two or three stories, she’d find 10 more waiting in the inbox.

The idea to use social media wasn’t original, Dawit said, but it was “instinctual.”

“I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have Instagram,” Dawit said of using the social media platform. “You have the ability to share a post in a second. It’s powerful to the cause. Everything was being shared so fast.”

As the volume of messages grew, Dawit recruited classmate Sydney Lane-Ryer to help manage the account. The 16-year-old said the first few days of reviewing the stories flowing into the inbox were “a lot.”

The teens reached out to some peers who had launched a similar Instagram account in June 2020 called “Black at BSA,” which details allegations of racism at the school. They gathered some advice and adapted their method for collecting the allegations from using a direct messaging function to instead creating a Google form that would better allow submissions to remain anonymous.

“Mostly these are people who have not gotten justice for their cases and don’t have a place otherwise to bring it,” Lane-Ryer said.

The teens have since added more than 182 posts to the account and garnered around 1,300 followers. Lane-Ryer realized just how many people were seeing the posts when the number of followers surpassed the school’s population, she said.

“The education [at Baltimore School for the Arts] is unlike anything you’d get anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean these problems don’t exist,” Lane-Ryer said. “We keep saying we will not back down, we will not be silenced.”

At the private Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, students used Instagram to organize a walkout and raised awareness of the treatment of a Black former teacher, Adrienne Knight, who worked for the all-girls private school for four years serving as a drama and seminar teacher. She resigned after posting a YouTube video describing her experience with a white student who allegedly told her to go “fetch me” something during class.

The Instagram account, Black at the Tri-Schools, founded last year after the death of George Floyd, tells stories of Black students at Bryn Mawr, Gilman School Roland and Park Country School. The account also shines a light on historical Black figures, such as the first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, and historically Black colleges and universities.

The Black at the Tri-Schools page has been effective because it’s garnered attention outside of Baltimore, said Nadia Laniyan, a 2012 Bryn Mawr graduate. Other school Instagram accounts include Black at Park School Baltimore and Being Black at McDonogh.

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Laniyan, who is Black, said Bryn Mawr prides itself as a progressive, forward-thinking liberal arts school, but she doesn’t think its actions reflect its mission. “I would like to see them lead the way on anti-racism and racial justice, and I feel like they’re falling short on that right now,” she said.

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Bryn Mawr said it is listening.

“We are absolutely listening to the students, parents, alumnae and employees of color who have voiced their experiences through individual meetings, focus groups, affinity programs and on social media,” Sue Sadler, head of the school, wrote in an email. “Their voices and insights have been essential in creating and advancing Bryn Mawr’s diversity, equity and inclusion work this year.”

Grace O’Keefe, a 2012 Bryn Mawr graduate, who also taught at the school, said it’s been incredible watching her former students use their “bold voices” to make a difference using social media.

“This movement on social media has been happening all over the world, but I must say, the way that [Black at the Tri-Schools] has gone about it has been incredibly successful and moving,” she said. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see the next generation demanding progress and moving things forward for the better.”

O’Keefe, who is white, said social justice wasn’t the focus or fully explained during her education in the 2000′s.

“Within my friend group, we discussed social issues, but they were never really presented to us as a school back then, and they remained on the periphery of my high school experience,” she said. “I wish I had taken it upon myself to educate myself independently more. But I also wish Bryn Mawr had done more.”

While the social media accounts have amplified these stories, student activists say they still worry about whether schools will react to their demands.

Dawit and Lane-Ryer have worried about their survivorsofbsa account losing momentum. The rate of new submissions has slowed, but students, parents and staff members still are talking about the problems detailed on the account.

Baltimore City public school administrators have met with the teens to discuss the incidents described. They’ve also pledged to put together a council of Baltimore School for the Arts students, teachers, parents and alumni to craft a list of suggestions for school administration.

And some peers have reached out to thank the teens for uncovering a topic that needed sunlight.

Dawit’s advice to other teen activists is to keep the conversation going: “If they’re not listening to you, then you need to make them listen to you.”

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