Precious Manning-Isabell, a graduating senior at Chief Sealth International High School and president of the Black Student Union there, describes how it felt to be a cheerleader who refused to stand for the national anthem at high school football games to protest racial injustice. “I turned, stepped out of line, and turned my back to the flag and put my fist up and faced the crowd,” she recalls. “I was a little scared, but it meant something… Even though Chief Sealth is an international school, you know, it has its race issues… I mean, I got a lot of crap from it, but at the end of the day, I’m being a role model for somebody.”
Manning-Isabell has been a dedicated activist since day one of her freshman year at Sealth; among other things, she’s organized to defend Muslim students, led walkouts and protests, and produced a short documentary about race and racism called “Riffing on the Dream” that won an award at the 2014 Social Justice Film Festival. “This [kind of work] is a daily thing that I do for myself,” she says, “and it’s like, wow. I’m getting noticed now!”
The young woman was among three Seattle high school seniors honored Thursday with the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award — $1,000 and a sleek trophy for the work they’ve done to further social justice and combat systemic racism in Seattle and beyond. Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High, established the award a year ago after his lawsuit against the City of Seattle for being pepper sprayed in the face by a police officer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015 settled for $100,000.
Hagopian had been making a phone call to his mother that day to discuss logistics for his two-year-old son’s birthday party when the officer, Sandra Delafuente, sprayed him in the face without provocation. “I clearly had done nothing wrong… I wasn’t being violent … yet this officer saw me as a threat,” he told the gathered crowd at the Seattle/King County NAACP headquarters in the Central District. “That was the most painful moment of my life,” he said, not only because of his burning eyes and nose and ears, but because of how it traumatized his two-year-old and especially his six-year-old, who was old enough to understand what was happening and feel terrfied. “I wanted to take that pain and use it to make something more beautiful and better in our world.”
And so he created a scholarship fund for young black activists. Three were awarded last year — among them the young woman who led the successful movement to make ORCA cards free for low-income students in Seattle — and three this year, along with a fourth student who was presented with a slightly different trophy: the Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters Award. Seahawks star Michael Bennett contributed some of his own money to Hagopian’s scholarship fund, and said Thursday that he’d present it each year to a young woman who makes him think of his mother, Pennie, and “inspires me and the community to be different.”
Bennett presented the award to Mahala Provost, an energetic, fiery intellect who is throwing herself a huge high school graduation party next week where she’ll announce which university she’s decided on. Provost has won seven gold medals statewide in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics and is heading to Baltimore this summer to represent Seattle on a national scale; she also worked as a research assistant at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and won an award for that project; she’s also an accomplished vocalist. “It takes the youth to make a change; you are making that change,” Bennett told her. “You are inspiring so many young girls and young kids to be better than their situation, to want more, to change whatever they see is wrong… You remind me of my mother.”
Before all of the winners were announced, “I just want to say, we have serious challenges in Seattle Public Schools,” Hagopian told the room. A member of Seattle’s Social Equality Educators and an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine, Hagopian is a nationally recognized education activist who helped create a Black Lives Matter at School Day last October and advocates for a radical restructuring of how schools approach both standardized testing and curriculum. “SPS suspends black students at four times the rate of white students for the same infractions, and we have an increasingly segregated school system,” he said. “In our public schools, we have tracking systems that keep kids segregated. Even in diverse schools, you have advanced classes with mostly white students, and then black students in the lower classes. … We face all kinds of challenges, and I am so inspired by the work that these young people are doing to change that situation.”
Among those honored was Jelani Howard, a Garfield High School football player who lead discussions about institutional racism and police violence with his teammates. He was one of the primary reasons, Hagopian said, that the Garfield football team decided to take a knee during the national anthem at every game last season in the spirit of NFL player Colin Kaepernick, inspiring other student teams around Seattle and across the country to do the same. “The courage you guys had, the hate mail you got… yet you guys continued to do it, game after game,” Hagopian said.
Bailey Adams, president of the Black Student Union at Garfield, was one of the organizers of thousands of students staging a mass walkout following the election of President Donald Trump, whose campaign stoked fear and anger about racism and xenophobia. Adams is heading to Georgia State University in Atlanta in the fall, and says it feels great to be recognized. “It makes me want to continue [this kind of work] when I leave, and give back to the community once I come back from college,” she says. Manning-Isabell says she’s planning on attending South Seattle Community College and wants to help Denny International Middle School start its own Black Student Union next school year. “I’m not gonna stop,” she says. “I’m still gonna do it.”
“You guys keep leading the way,” Bennett told the youth. “You are our future.”
“I feel amazing… I feel amazing right now,” Provost said after the event, holding up her trophy and hugging family and friends. “I can’t even describe how empowered I feel.”