Norwich Youth Lead the Way on Multicultural Understanding

When the Norwich Race Equity Collaborative sought to build
on the movement for racial justice that bubbled up in the wake
of George Floyd’s murder, they turned to the city’s youth. Now,
with grants in hand from the Community Foundation and other
funders, they are growing outward.

The Collaborative, a partnership of local leaders, had met for
years to discuss challenges and solutions around race.

But 2020 was very different. Shiela Hayes, president of the
NAACP branch in Norwich and Collaborative member, observed,
“We saw young people rise up in the city and really take on the
advocacy role of addressing racial injustices.”

It was astonishingly effective leadership from the young people,
some as young as ten years old. They led rallies and protests,
organized town hall meetings and created videos to shine a light
on injustices, testified in favor of police accountability legislation
at the Capitol (the bill passed!), and met together regularly to
plan community events.

Hayes was impressed, and she could tell you a lot about
organizing in diverse communities. She’s been involved in the
NAACP for more than 30 years. (And she’s quick to clarify that
the organization, since its beginnings 112 years ago, has always
been a multicultural organization.)

As co-advisor to the NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council,
she and other community partners helped the youth talk
through the issues that needed the most attention among their
peers. Then, the Collaborative shaped an action plan into a
funding proposal.

With a Community Foundation grant to help fund these
projects, the group is full steam ahead with plans to engage
young people to educate about different cultures, give youth
of color a space to discuss mental health issues, celebrate the
achievements of Black people through public art, and provide
guidance for students of color to learn about careers they may
not have considered before.

Their plans include:
• Creating a public mural depicting how enslaved people gained
their freedom through the Underground Railroad
• Offering classes for creative expression of different cultural
heritages through a summer arts program for school-age youth
• Career exploration activities for high school students
interested in health, education, or entrepreneurial careers
• Connecting teens and pre-K children to create media
celebrating Norwich’s various cultures and ethnicities
• Hosting forums for high school students of color to learn and
connect about reducing and preventing anxiety, depression,
and suicide—issues that intensified during the pandemic

Above: A partner in the Norwich Race Equity Collaborative, the Public Art
for Racial Justice Education (PARJE) Sister Mural Project commissioned two
artists, Nancy Gladwell and Jas Oyola, to create a diptych (a two-paneled
painting connected by a hinge). Titled “The Edmund Pettus Bridge,” it shows
a vision of change from 1965 to the future. It is traveling between schools,
libraries, and faith communities to invite conversation among young people
about what is necessary to “cross that bridge” toward a more equitable
future. Photo by Jac Lahav.