Prior Lake High School student Eden Alemu was a 14-year-old sophomore when she realized for the first time that she could change the world around her.
It was April 2021 and Eden, who is Black, hadn’t been attending classes in person for more than a year due to the pandemic. But she left her Google Meets class on the screen of her laptop in her bedroom and went to stand outside her high school with more than 100 other students to protest the police killing of Daunte Wright, a Black Minnesotan not much older than Eden and her friends.
They carried handmade signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and chanted the names of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. They walked through the cold air on the sidewalk outside Prior Lake High School to the football field where they listened to classmates speak on the terror of racism and how it needed to end.
It was Eden’s first walkout and it transformed her. Standing with students at a rally organized by young people, calling out the killing as an injustice together with thousands of other students around the state, she felt herself move from shock and pain over Wright’s killing to action.
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“I remember being so happy even though it was for such a sad reason that so many people were there,” recalled Eden, now 17. “That’s when we really understood the meaning of unity and equity and equality and started really advocating for ourselves and figuring out why is it that we do this and why is it that we stand up for each other and it’s because we’re human beings.”
The police killings of George Floyd in 2020 and Wright less than a year later galvanized students of color to action at Prior Lake and other schools across Minnesota. From those tragedies, young leaders have emerged to force hard conversations to the surface around race and equity.
Students at Prior Lake overwhelmingly say they feel respected and validated — increasingly so since a new diversity and equity lead began working with the district. Eden and others, however, say the issues that drive them and students around the state need ongoing work and won’t go away on their own.
“Racism, it still needs to be talked about,” Eden said. “The more that we don’t talk about it or the more we wait for something to happen, the quieter we get, the more we forget about it and things like that occur again.”
'Not something I can stay silent on’
Prior Lake High sits on a ridge in the city of Savage in the Twin Cities southwest suburbs. It draws students from surrounding towns including Prior Lake, Credit River, Cedar Lake Sand Creek and Spring Lake Townships. Nearly 77 percent of its 3,000 students are white.
Eden, whose family is from Ethiopia, wanted to go Prior Lake High because she had friends there. No one has ever said anything blatantly hateful toward her, but she and other students describe enduring a kind of casual, exhausting racism.
For her, those have included offensive comments about her hair that she had no words for in the moment. Teachers, she said, usually ignored the incidents, and Eden, too, felt then that she should just “get over it.”
The killings of Floyd and Wright shifted her view, and her newfound activism was put to the test almost immediately after students returned to in-person classes in fall 2021. A video surfaced on social media of two Prior Lake students laughing in a lamp-lit room, using racist slurs and urging a 14-year-old Black classmate to kill herself.
It spread like lightning across students’ phones. By the second hour of classes the day after it was released, everyone at the high school knew about it.
An after-school rally brought police cars and TV trucks. Dozens of students of color, and a few parents and family members from the community gathered on the front sidewalk to speak out. Eden, who’d joined the leadership of the school’s Black student union, was there.
“This is not something I can stay silent on,” she remembers saying to herself.
School leaders spent weeks pulling her out of class to get her take on what had happened, to solicit her advice on what they should do about it. But she said they didn’t always follow through on her suggestions.
“We were getting pulled out of class almost every single day. It became so exhausting,” Eden said. “It also made me angry that we had to sit in meeting rooms for almost 2-3 weeks straight coming up with a ‘plan’ when our plan was never used in the end anyway. It was just a spiral of unending problems.”
The racist acts continued. Another video from Prior Lake students tore through social media weeks after the first one. A student put a racist note in a bathroom. Another student put a racist note in the gym bag of a Black athlete.
“Before it was more disbelief and shock but this time it was anger and it was outrage,” Eden said. “I just felt so, so angry that this could happen to someone that I knew.” With her newfound leadership role she says she “felt like she was responsible.”
‘Felt like I wasn’t enough’
Eden has heard students talk about what it’s like to be a person of color at the school, feeling like they don’t belong. She’s heard stories of students mocked because of their hijabs or their hair.
Mahika Kandula, 18, is of Asian-Indian descent. She said she’s felt a constant pressure of needing to change herself to fit into the white, predominantly Christian culture in Prior Lake.
“I was actually the target of some bullying,” she said. “The whole system just doesn’t really educate anyone that much on people of color. What I learned and what my friends have learned have all been of our own volition, through our friends.”
Asad Abdi, a Prior Lake senior of Somali descent, said he’s also felt that feeling of not belonging. A fan of reading and fashion trends, he started attending classes at the school as a junior after being enrolled in a more racially diverse school district.
“It was hard for me at the beginning of the school year,” said Asad, 17. “I can literally count the students of color with my hands, with my fingers. So it was kind of hard for me to integrate with the student body,” he said.
He joined the Black student union to make friends, then started a climate change club and eventually launched a Muslim student group.
Asad said he still struggled to feel like he fit in even in the clubs and groups he himself had created. At the start of his senior year, he made public that he was gay and found that the new friends he’d made in the Muslim group were uncomfortable with this.
“I’ve just had people tell me I’m not Black enough, I’m not man enough, I’m not Somali enough. I’ve just felt like I wasn’t enough,” he said. “I finally understood I can be myself.”
Matthew Kraft, associate professor of education at Brown University, has studied how the health of a school’s overall climate and its ability to make students feel valued, appreciated and accepted for their diverse backgrounds has an impact on students’ academic achievement.
“A sense of belonging is important,” he said. “Students need to feel accepted, valued, safe so they can focus their cognitive energy on learning versus physical safety.”
‘You’re not the only one going through this’
Responding to local family concerns about racial equity, the district worked with parents and others on a resolution that led to the district hiring its first director of equity and inclusion, Sam Ouk, in the summer of 2021.
Ouk wanted to put student voices and the stories about their experiences at the center of his work. He helped revamp the district’s policies on bullying and found new ways to support students.
By the end of his first year, despite the racist incidents, Ouk said 95 percent of students responding to a districtwide survey said they felt validated and respected at the school, a number that was higher than it had ever been.
“I felt like the work that we did really made a difference,” Ouk said.
He points to the Prior Lake-Savage’s Caring and Committed Conversations program as a game-changer. Adopted from the neighboring district of Jordan, it involves an open invitation for students to come to the school auditorium and sit at tables in groups of 10 with a trained adult moderating and encouraging reflection.
Asad Abdi said the conversations he heard were “beautiful” and helped him connect with students from Shakopee and Jordan. He’d expected Prior Lake would be an outlier in terms of racist experiences but the stories he heard from students around the Twin Cities were ubiquitous.
“Students didn’t realize the magnitude of racism until we talked … there were daily experiences … it was eye-opening,” he said. “I realized, you’re not the only one going through this.”
Roshni Konakanti Bugulu, 17, has spent the past year researching ways for her district to better support students who are refugees.
When she started kindergarten, she was fluent in Telugu, a language spoken in southern India, but less proficient in English. She struggled to communicate with her classmates and teachers and found it difficult to do well in school, despite the high value her family put on education.
She spent the past year interviewing refugee students on her own and surrounding districts. What she heard from these students and from the research she conducted was familiar.
The English language learner students “don’t feel like they could speak up or be heard or have their ideas listened to,” she said. “And I just think that teachers need to understand the different experiences that these students have. It’s not something that a teacher can just brush under a rug and not acknowledge it. It needs to be understood and empathized with.”
Roshni is asking her district to provide better resources to refugee and English language learner students, and to do a better job communicating those resources to students.
“They need support from family and school, but also cultural awareness in the classroom,” she said.
‘Schools should educate’
Ninety-eight percent of students who attend Prior Lake High School graduate, but as in most Minnesota schools, the experiences and successes often differ dramatically between white students and students of color.
At Prior Lake, students of color are suspended and expelled at higher rates than white students. Black, Native American and Hispanic students don’t receive the support necessary to meet math and reading standards at the same rate as their white peers.
Mahika Kandula, now a senior at Prior Lake High School, has been looking for answers around the education gap. She’s interviewed dozens of students throughout the Twin Cities suburbs to understand if students of color had significantly different experiences at their schools than their white peers.
She said the students of color she spoke to all had stories of facing racism in their schools.
“I thought other schools were better, but the reality is that other schools have more initiatives but all are struggling,” she said. “Similar conditions exist in all southwest metro schools.”
Mahika wants to see Prior Lake High put together better policies on dealing with racist incidents and get teachers and administrators more involved in teaching students the effect their behavior has on others.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t even want to place the blame on these different white friends I had. Just as I wasn’t educated on these things that were happening to me, they also weren’t educated on how to treat minorities,” she said.
“Obviously, the things they were saying were bad or inappropriate but they didn’t know it was bad or inappropriate and that’s why I think it’s so important that students, especially at a young age, should be educated on how to treat different races.”
‘I can’t be silent’
In January, Mahika Kandula, Roshni Bugulu and Asad Abdi presented their findings and recommendations to the adult staff at their school. It led many staff in the school to ask questions and reexamine their approach in different situations, said Ouk, the diversity officer.
“If we’re not hearing from the students and not understanding what their lived experience is like, we’re never going to be able to do our job to our full potential in terms of meeting their needs and supporting and guiding the future as best we can,” Ouk said.
He said he plans to work on changing the way his district supports and communicates with parents who aren’t native English speakers and work to improve student participation and experiences in Advanced Placement classes.
Roshni said she believes her school is making progress and helping lead the way for the city of Prior Lake.
“There are some people in this community that won’t change their mind and will just think that Prior Lake has always been perfect and, like, a good place for everyone. But there’s a sizable majority that knows that things need to change,” she said.
“I do believe that a lot of people are understanding and are becoming more open-minded,” she added. “I think the stuff that happened from last year might’ve been a catalyst for understanding. People now know and want to change … the stuff that happened last year, that really solidified my convictions that I can’t just stay silent anymore and I need to do something about this.”
Mahika’s conviction to continue speaking up about racism is something that Eden Alemu shares. She’s graduating in May and planning to enroll at Concordia University to study biology. She dreams about getting a degree in medicine and working to improve healthcare in Ethiopia, where her parents are from.
When she talks to friends about her last four years at Prior Lake High School, Eden sometimes talks about how excited she is to leave an environment that has too often failed to feel welcoming to her. But she also says she’ll miss Prior Lake and the many students and teachers she met there.
She hopes she’ll be able to look back in a few decades and see a place that’s transformed itself into a community where people more consistently feel a sense of belonging.
That sort of change will take time, she knows — maybe even generations. But “it can’t be changed for future generations if we don’t start now,” Eden said. “So just speak up. And if you can’t, then speak to someone who can speak up for you.”
As for Eden, she’s long since realized she can be one of the people who knows how to speak up for herself and others.
This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.