Forest Hills — When Northern Hills Middle School Principal David Simpson stopped Ari James in the hallway last fall to tell her he had nominated her for a seat on a newly formed statewide anti-racism council, she recalls thinking, “That sounds really cool and official.”
Indeed. And it is a perfect fit for the eighth-grader who already is making social justice a cause to which she is committed.
“The anti-racism part is definitely something I am very passionate about,” she said. “(Racism) is something that’s been going on for too long. It needs to stop. Lots of times people don’t even realize they’re doing it.”
Like peers asking her where she is from from. Or touching her hair without permission. Or why saying “all lives matter” misses the point of the deadly reasons why Black Lives Matter became a movement.
“I’ve always believed in justice, always had that sense of right and wrong and been taught to care about people,” Ari said. “We have to be willing to really listen to each other, to not only not be racist, but to stomp racism out of existence.”
Ari is the youngest of three daughters of Kenneth and Tamasha James, two of her biggest role models and “the coolest people ever,” she said. Kenneth James is director of inclusion at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Tamasha James is principal at Pine Ridge Elementary School.
Their youngest daughter has read poetry and historic speech excerpts in front of an audience of about 1,000 people at the Grand Rapids Urban League’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day corporate breakfast at DeVos Place.
At school, Ari has spoken to younger students during Black History Month. She’s a member of Husky Pals, students who are paired with peers with cognitive impairments and can offer a hand during classes.
She also currently is the president of Amicette’s Youth Club of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. Pi Rho Zeta Grand Rapids chapter, which fosters leadership and community service. The organization is affiliated with her mother’s college sorority.
Creating Safe Spaces
Ari has been meeting virtually just about every month with about a dozen peers in grades 5-8 who serve on State Superintendent Michael Rice’s Anti-Racism Middle School Advisory Council. She is the only middle-schooler from the Kent ISD coverage area who serves on the council.
“We talk about what we can do to create safe spaces to talk about race and racism, and make kids more aware and educated around the topic, and schools safer and better places for everybody,” Ari said.
Another dozen or so high-school students also meet regularly, and it is planned that the two councils will occasionally collaborate.
Ari recently spoke at Northern Hills Middle School’s staff meeting about her own experience as a student of color, and explained microaggressions she notices at school. Principal Simpson said she also has met with his administrative team to share about the council’s work.
Ari recalled a recent class discussion about social justice issues, and hearing a classmate say exasperatedly, “Well I’m white, so I guess that means I’m automatically racist.” She said she spoke with school leaders afterward about offering a safe and welcoming follow-up where middle-schoolers could process feelings like those.
“That’s what’s so powerful about this council,” Simpson said, “that students go back to their schools and the regions they represent to really be agents of change.”
Added Simpson: “With student leaders like Ari, I know the world will continue to be more inclusive and a place for all students. We’re really fortunate to have her, and very proud of her.”