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A journey like no other: Meet five Philly School District seniors from class of 2021

Over the course of the past two school years, members of 2021’s graduating class have learned lessons never intended to be included in any end-of-year testing or classroom curriculum.

They made the shift from traditional classrooms to remote learning, their schedules and routines were interrupted time and time again, they saw national protests against racism and social injustice, and watched as a global pandemic changed the world right before their eyes.

Despite it all, these five School District of Philadelphia seniors have overcome these challenges with resilience, tenacity and hope.

Together, they are a part of this year’s extraordinary Class of 2021. They’re not just the youth of today, but also the leaders of tomorrow.

Machi Church

As a student of Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice, Machi Church knows the importance of hard work.

He participated in the ROTC program for two years and took advantage of a summer enrollment program in math at the now defunct Delaware Valley Charter School where he earned college credits at the completion of the program.

“The classes were six weeks from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Church said. “The program itself was stressful, but it was so worth it because I was able to take algebra II and trigonometry. Both classes looked better on my resume when I applied to the Naval Academy.”

Church is graduating 14th out of 63 in his class. Once he graduates, he will going into the U.S. Naval Academy where he will major in mechanical engineering. He said he wants to be a naval aviator.

Sheyla Street

Known for her leadership skills and activism at Central High School, Sheyla Street is the president of Central’s National Honor Society chapter. She was named the national winner of the National Honor Society’s $25,000 scholarship, an award presented to one graduating senior from nearly 10,000 applicants.

In 2020, she was the national ambassador for the My School Votes program, helping to register more than 30,000 young people nationally. She also led the registration for more than 1,000 students and community members and over 90% of her school’s eligible students.

Street founded Philly Black Students, an organization of Black students, teachers and alumni across the district advocating for anti-racist schools and student representation on their school board.

Street plans to attend college and major in computer science.

“No matter where I go or what I do, I’m going to remain grounded and do what means the most to me which is justice for our people,” Street said. “I will continue fighting for Black lives, working in the community and serving the community because that’s what we really need to improve things.”

Monae Blount-Keenan

As a student leader and dancer at The Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Monae Blount-Keenan has excelled at everything she puts her mind to. She has had perfect attendance since the age of 3.

“Having perfect attendance throughout my educational journey has taught me how to be professional,” Blount-Keenan said. “I can’t be late or absent to a job or college, so it definitely showed me how the real world works and the importance of hard work.”

In 2020, Blount-Keenan’s family lost everything in a house fire, yet she persevered and stayed focused on her schoolwork. She earned a 4.0 GPA in her junior and senior years of high school while her family was in transitional housing through the period.

Blount-Keenan accomplished her dream of getting into the Fashion Institute of Technology. She said she plans to be a fashion designer and fashion influencer.

Geyante Payne

Geyante Payne is the valedictorian of her class at Vaux Big Picture High School. A natural leader, Payne has been accepted to 13 colleges and universities and offered nearly $1 million in scholarships.

She is among only a handful of students who have taken college courses at Community College of Philadelphia since her sophomore year. In addition to earning 10 college credits, the courses also taught Payne how to prepare for college.

Payne will attend Cheyney University and major in criminal justice. She also said she wants to attend law school.

“I want to be a lawyer,” she said. “My goals after I become a lawyer include being district attorney for Philadelphia and also becoming the U.S. attorney general.”

Nathaniel Bell

Nathaniel Bell has flourished at Overbrook High School due to his personal drive and support from his foster parent, teachers and school staff.

As a student at Overbrook, Bell participated in the school’s football program. After setting a goal last summer to make the honor roll, Bell made the honor roll for two consecutive marking periods.

“I just worked really hard and dedicated myself to achieving this goal that I had,” Bell said. “Achieving this goal taught me what hard work looks like and to let no boundaries stop you from reaching your goal.”

After graduating from Overbrook, Bell said he plans to attend college and major in business.

Darnella Frazier, the teen who filmed George Floyd's murder, awarded a Pulitzer citation

The Pulitzer Prize board awarded a special citation on Friday to Darnella Frazier, the teenager whose cellphone footage of George Floyd’s murder last summer led to massive protests and sparked a racial reckoning in the country.

Frazier was 17 at the time she filmed Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, and she testified at Chauvin’s trial where he would eventually be convicted. Her video contradicted the initial police account of Floyd’s death.

In Friday’s announcement, the board said Frazier received the citation for “courageously reporting the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

In advance of the announcement, some media observers had been calling for the Pulitzer Board to give Frazier an award, including four-time former Pulitzer juror Roy Peter Clark, who acknowledged “the material and the creator fall outside the traditional boundaries” of the prizes but that her video has a “social and ethical purpose, one that aligns with journalistic values.”

Frazier never intended to produce “one of the most important civil rights documents in a generation,” as Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski described it.

She had just been walking her younger cousin to the store on May 25, 2020, when she saw a struggle between a Black man and a White police officer. She then hit record on her phone — and didn’t stop for about 10 minutes.

Frazier stayed on the sidewalk near Cup Foods convenience store to film the video that captured Floyd under Chauvin’s knee, showing Floyd’s dying moments as he pleaded for his mother. Frazier later testified in Chauvin’s trial. Her video dramatically contradicted the initial police account, which asserted that officers “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress” after they handcuffed him and that he was taken to a hospital via ambulance where he died. Legal analyst Sunny Hostin has called her video “the strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer.”

The video sparked outrage in Minneapolis and around the world. And Frazier’s determination to capture the footage has been praised by luminaries including Spike Lee, Meryl Streep, Anita Hill and Rita Dove. But despite all of the unexpected attention, Frazier has consistently declined interview requests, issuing rare public remarks when she accepted an award from PEN America last year and posting a lengthy statement to Facebook on the anniversary of Floyd’s death.

She described how she still holds “the weight and trauma of what I witnessed a year ago,” enduring panic attacks and repeated moves with her family. For her as well as her 9-year-old cousin, the experience was like losing their childhood, she said.

“A lot of people call me a hero even though I don’t see myself as one. I was just in the right place at the right time,” she wrote. “Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day. Everyone talks about the girl who recorded George Floyd’s death, but to actually be her is a different story.”

But “even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself,” she wrote. “If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that.”

Exclusive: New survey highlights racism in Philadelphia

Criminal justice was the area where most Philadelphians believe racism exists in the city, according to a new citywide survey.

The Ending Racism Partnership is slated to publicly release on Wednesday the results of its regional survey that highlighted the presence of racism in Philadelphia. The project leaders gave The Philadelphia Tribune a first look.

Co-convened by the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC) and Independence Blue Cross, the partnership is a citywide, participatory collaboration of Philadelphia residents, leaders and influencers from community, business, government and philanthropy to end racial injustice and economic inequality.

The collaboration’s survey engaged more than 3,100 citizens in providing firsthand accounts of their perceptions of racism and its impact on their lives. The survey yielded a total of 3,460 recorded responses with 2,200 fully completed.

“People are looking for more honest, public discourse about racism,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of UAC.

“That really came through in the survey. People seemed to be less afraid of talking about it and they want the conversation to be real and they want it to be honest. I think that is the broader message to get out into the community.”

“People are ready to talk and we believe that if they are willing to talk then they are going to be willing to tackle and do and ultimately get to the place that we’re going to see permanent change. We are committed to ending racism,” she continued.

The survey found that criminal justice, education and housing were the top three areas where respondents believe racism exists in Philadelphia, followed by employment, wealth, health, arts and culture.

“I think the areas that they pointed out — criminal justice, education and housing — were definitely identified as the top areas, but if you look under those issues you can absolutely see how health plays a role,” Matlock-Turner said.

For instance, she said people need to understand how health care challenges could affect how individuals are learning and their access to housing.

“So we’re looking at those certainly being the top issues, but we’re also starting to ask ourselves what are the underlying issues that maybe didn’t come up in the top three but are critically driving solving those particular concerns,” Matlock-Turner said.

According to the survey, 36% of the Black/African-American respondents have witnessed racism in the criminal justice system and 55% have personally experienced it, while white Americans had no experience with racism in the criminal justice system.

The survey found that more Black people have personally experienced racism in the area of education (53%), whereas more white people claim to have witnessed racism in the area of education (48%).

Survey results indicated that more white people (45%) have witnessed racism in housing than Black people (32%), while more Black people (58%) have personally experienced racism than white people (17%).

Overall, survey respondents overwhelmingly agree that people across race categories do not have equal access or equal opportunities.

“What we wanted to do is to make sure that the discussion of racism was centered in the experiences of people who’ve been most affected by it,” said Arun Prabhakaran, executive vice president of the UAC.

“What we know is people of color spent a lot of time proving racism when it’s actually just evident all throughout America. So we just wanted to validate those voices and to lift up those concerns and those inter-generational experiences by way of using this survey.”

The majority of survey respondents identified as female between the ages of 18 to 44, with a college or advanced degree. Forty-five percent of respondents identified as white/Caucasian, and 31% identified as Black/African-American. Twelve percent of respondents identified as Spanish, Hispanic or Latino.

The survey respondents’ recommendations to end racism elevated three high-level themes including:

More honest public discourse about racism.

Policy change with a reform agenda in every area where racism exists, particularly in criminal justice, education and housing.

Increased fiscal investments allocated to initiatives that advance the quality of life and well-being of Black/African-American residents in Philadelphia and other historically marginalized communities and people of color.

“When we start to look at what is racism, there is the aspect of what is the color of your skin or racial background, but we know that we are also dealing with the institutional and systemic aspects of racism, which means that it’s encased in laws and policies and training manual,” Prabhakaran said.

“We have to change how the people who have the most power deal with people who have marginalized and have less.”

“So in order to make the kind of changes that we are looking for, we have to begin with a reform agenda that has a clear kind of policy focus on identifying where racism exists in the various systems and criminal justice, education and housing,” Prabhakaran continued.

The survey results will be officially released during a virtual event held by the Ending Racism Partnership on Wednesday from noon to 1:30 p.m.

During the event, a range of regional experts will participate in two panel discussions, “Understanding Race and Racism in Philadelphia” and “An Equitable Health System.”

The first panel will discuss some of the results from the survey. During the second panel, health experts will discuss work being done in the region to address equity in health care.

To register for the event visit www.endingracismpartnership.org.

City native Kia Ghee appointed to lead Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations

City native Kia Ghee will lead the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations as executive director.

Mayor Jim Kenney appointed Ghee to the role Friday. Ghee takes over for Randy Duque, who had been serving as acting executive director of the commission since December. Duque replaced Rue Landau who left the position after serving for 12 years.

Ghee said growing up in the West Oak Lane section of North Philadelphia — a “tough neighborhood” where many who lacked resources were seemingly cast away by society after leaving high school — pushed her to fight for marginalized groups throughout her career.

“To know me is to know that I come from a humble beginning, and I am happy, honored and proud to continue to fight,” Ghee said in an interview Friday.

Ghee moves from her role as deputy city solicitor in the Law Department’s labor and employment unit. As one of the Kenney administration’s top lawyers, she has defended city policies against challenges, among other things.

The PCHR is the city’s civil rights agency, tasked with preventing and investigating discrimination and helping resolve community conflicts. As executive director, Ghee also will lead the city’s Fair Housing Commission, which addresses unfair rental practices.

“The mission of PCHR remains as important as ever, and when looking for someone to lead this critical work, I was seeking a strong legal mind who could defend, enforce and protect our City’s anti-discrimination measures at all costs,” Kenney said in a statement. “Over the years, we’ve seen how important these local laws are as some politicians have attempted to chip away at the rights of our most marginalized communities. In Kia, I’m confident that all Philadelphians will have a steadfast advocate who will fiercely protect and defend their civil rights.”

A graduate of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Ghee went on to receive her bachelor’s degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

She received a master’s degree in public health at West Chester University and a law degree from Drexel University Law School.

Ghee also has a dozen years of experience in running public health and social service programing in the city, which has helped her forge relationships with communities throughout Philadelphia.

Among her top goals for the office are bolstering anti-discrimination policies in the city, setting up a framework to more quickly resolve discrimination complaints, and build upon existing programs to defuse neighborhood conflicts. The appointment goes into effect June 21.

“Ms. Ghee is a dynamic and well-rounded leader who is more than able to continue moving the PCHR in the right direction,” PCHR Chair Shalimar Thomas said in a statement. “We are excited to have her lead this organization and the much-needed work of enforcing and protecting our civil rights.”

Ghee said the most significant challenge facing the office is eliminating systemic discrimination practices in the city, including both implicit and explicit bias.

“System issues need to be uncovered and exposed and then addressed,” Ghee said.