Local students encouraged to love themselves, others as part of black history event - East Idaho News
Black history month

Local students encouraged to love themselves, others as part of black history event

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Donovan Stokes holds up two different colored egg shells in an eighth grade class at Eagle Rock Middle School to illustrate that everyone’s outer shell looks different, but what’s inside is the same. His message is to look past what’s on the outside and treat others with respect and love. Watch highlights of his and others remarks in the video above. | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

IDAHO FALLS – Students at Eagle Rock Middle School in Idaho Falls heard from numerous guest speakers Monday to culminate their participation in black history month.

Eight different speakers, all of whom are black members of the community, spoke to students throughout the school day about civil rights and their experiences living in eastern Idaho.

Loretta Westbrook, who owns Grandpa’s Southern BBQ with her husband, Lloyd, told one eighth grade class about her childhood in Washington state. The 70-year-old was about 10 when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a mix of different races at her school and segregation was never something she experienced.

But she does recall an experience with racism during a trip to an ice cream parlor in Mississippi with her family.

“We were trying to decide what kind of ice cream we wanted and this guy (who worked there) looked at us and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here,'” Loretta recalled.

She and her siblings didn’t understand what that meant and she remembers being upset when her mom took them out of the store.

Since moving to Idaho Falls in the 1980s, Loretta tells EastIdahoNews.com her experiences have been positive, with the exception of a few “snide remarks” from people over the years. She didn’t elaborate further.

“I just chalk it up to ignorance and move on,” she says of the negative commenters. “Blacks are only 1% of the population (in eastern Idaho) and it’s always cool to see more blacks coming in, but it’s still been a good experience (living here).”

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Loretta Westbrook addressing a class of eighth-graders at Eagle Rock Middle School | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

Donovan Stokes, the program director at the YMCA, moved to Idaho Falls about eight years ago after military service and college graduation in Colorado Springs. He had some friends who lived here and decided to move because he was looking for a change of pace.

Like Westbrook, he’s never experienced any outright racism or prejudice in eastern Idaho but he is keenly aware of how different he is when he walks into a room full of people.

“I step into a room and all eyes (look at me),” Stokes says. “I have had moments going into mom and pop establishments where I’m made to feel different by people from an older generation.”

During his presentation to students, he broke two eggs into a cup. One had a white shell and one had a brown shell. Though these shells look different on the outside, Stokes said what’s inside is identical.

The same is true of people and skin color, he said, referencing MLK’s statement about not judging others “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

People’s “outer shell” could refer to many things, Stokes says. But regardless of what it looks like, his main message to students is to “not be embarrassed by the shell they live in” and to avoid criticizing the shells of others without understanding the person.

“We are all human beings growing together. What’s most important to get past (the shell) is to look at the person and how they treat you and how you treat yourself in the midst of adversity,” he says.

Andrew Hansen, a behavior paraprofessional at Eagle Rock Middle School, organized the event. He felt the school district wasn’t doing enough to educate students about black history and civil rights and that’s what prompted him to put this event together.

The people he invited to speak are individuals he feels are examples of love, kindness and respect.

As a black person who grew up in Idaho Falls, he’s had his own experiences with racism.

As a kid, he remembers visiting his older sister at her apartment. He and his twin sister were playing with a neighbor kid outside. The neighbor kid, who was white, was called into her house while they were playing and returned to say her dad wouldn’t let her play anymore because Andrew and his sister were black.

Since getting a job at Eagle Rock about two years ago, he’s had some other negative interactions with students and adults.

“I’ve had kids spit in my face and call me the ‘N’ word. I’ve had adults who work here say some pretty arrogant and ignorant things,” says Hansen. “It’s definitely been a struggle maintaining those relationships with professionalism while also realizing they’ve disrespected me.”

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Two of the murals hanging in the hallway at Eagle Rock Middle School | Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

Throughout the month, students have decorated the halls with murals they’ve created depicting Martin Luther King’s vision. One of Hansen’s favorites shows a black kid and a white kid walking hand-in-hand. That image is surrounded by two giant hands, one white and one black, making the shape of a heart.

While it’s important to learn about black history, Hansen is hoping students come away feeling a greater desire to make their school a place that fosters love and respect for every student.

“Black history, Indian history, white history — I don’t care what kind of history it is, it’s only going to be as good as we make it,” Loretta told students. “What makes this work is that we love each other ya’ll.”

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Andrew Hansen, top left, with all the speakers who addressed Eagle Rock Middle School students Monday. | Courtesy Andrew Hansen

WATCH HIGHLIGHTS OF SOME OF THE SPEAKER’S REMARKS TO STUDENTS IN THE VIDEO ABOVE.

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