GRAND JUNCTION, CO – Grand Junction High School ’14 alumna Soraya Morales Nuñez remembers when she first talked with her mother about racism. She was in middle school and had been bullied by some students because of her hair.
“It was very clearly ethnic hair. I had a conversation with my mom about that, and I said, ‘People are saying these things. Why? Let’s talk about this. Why do so many people around me look different?’ That’s when I had a real conversation with my mom about racism and what it meant about me and my identity as a woman of color.”
Morales Nuñez graduated from Princeton in 2018 and now lives in Boston. She’s several years and two thousand-plus miles away from her life as a first-generation immigrant from Mexico and child of a single working mom, but when protests erupted around the country over the rampant institutional racism that led to the deaths of George Floyd and so many others like him, her experiences as a young girl of color in the hallways of Mesa County schools floated back into her memory.
“I’ve had both positive and negative experiences in my education in Grand Junction,” she recalled in a recent interview. “At some point in elementary school I had a teacher ask if I had a green card. And I didn’t know what a green card was. I knew that I was an immigrant, but I was a child. I went home and told my mom, and that was difficult for her to hear. She wanted to have that conversation with me at our own pace.”
Morales Nuñez had other teachers throughout her education who encouraged and empowered her, but it wasn’t until she was a student at Princeton, in the tony small town of New Haven, NJ, that she realized the gaps in her education and experiences.
“I think that I really noticed and started thinking more about [the differences] in high school. I was the only Brown student in several of my AP classes. It was something I noticed but my peers didn’t because most were white. I never was actively discriminated against but even seeing the context where I was learning had a very large impact.”
Princeton’s more politically progressive student and faculty community had a lasting impact on Morales Nuñez’s perspective on the world, her upbringing, and the community that had shaped and influenced her. The stark differences between Princeton and Grand Junction, and the rigorous education in critical thinking she was receiving, forced a reckoning of the racism she’d witnessed and experienced as a child and teen.
Shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests began, she decided to use that hard-earned education to reach back to her community and help right some old wrongs.
The letter, written on a Google Form and titled “Anti-Racist Education at Mesa County Valley School District 51 Schools,” was inspired by a similar letter that a college friend had written and addressed to her own alma mater. It’s addressed not just to Mesa County School District 51 officials but also students, faculty, alumni, staff, and the community at large.
The letter references the district’s recent statement on June 5, 2020, whereby district officials acknowledged “shortcomings” and vowed to “increase our efforts and awareness so that students, staff, and families never feel uncomfortable, left out, or unwelcome in our district.”
Morales Nuñez isn’t interested in empty rhetoric. Her letter outlines specific actions she is asking the district to commit to, including, among other things, the inclusion of “anti-racism and racial justice articles and/or books to the curricula” and a “third-party, holistic review of District 51’s curriculum, hiring processes, and student body administration to search for areas of potential improvement in the fields of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Morales Nuñez said that the assistant district superintendent has already reached out to her and asked for a meeting, but she’s waiting until she has more signatures and comments on the form so that she can present a larger community response to the full board. By Tuesday afternoon she’d already received nearly 300 signatures, and she fully expects more to come.
“My mother passed away a few years ago, but I think she would be proud of me for doing this right now because she raised me to value my education and to always think about how to use what I’m given and to extend a hand to others. This is one way I can do it even though I’m not [in Grand Junction] because it’s starting a conversation.”