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Opening a conversation about race

Diversity panel at Lake Oswego High School exposes raw feelings but also inspires hope


REVIEW PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Camryn Leland (left) and Andrea Velasquez begin what turned out to be an eye-opening evening about racial diversity at Lake Oswego High School.It was not intended as an evening of finger-pointing or accusations or even anger.

Instead, the gathering of students, parents and educators at Lake Oswego High last week was designed to explore what attending school is like for students of color, who say they often must deal with the effects of racism and discrimination.

At times, it was an uncomfortable evening. And tears sometimes flowed as bitter experiences were recounted.

“One thing is hard for me,” a student told the group. “It’s my skin color.”

But panel organizers Andrea Velasquez and Camryn Leland, who are both LOHS students, say the goal of the panel discussion held May 3 in the school cafeteria was to raise awareness and to hopefully begin a new era at the school, where the student population is overwhelmingly white.

“I hope that students who were afraid to speak out will feel they now have a voice and a place here in Lake Oswego,” Velasquez said. “I hope they see they aren’t the only ones who have faced discrimination and/or racism, and that there are a lot of people in the community that want to help end this.”

Leland agreed.

“The panelists exposed themselves in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” said Leland, who started the Black Student Union at LOHS. “I think for those who attended the event, the panel is going to affect how they view race and racism in Lake Oswego.”

For the panel, Velasquez and Leland chose two students — Daniel Nsengimana of the LOHS Black Student Union and Humberto Velasquez of the Latino Student Union; and two parents — Chris Leland, Camryn’s father; and Marlene Cable, whose daughter Presley started the Latino Student Union.

Together, they talked about a side of life at LOHS that many in the crowd had never experienced. And they shared a lot of the pain that had slipped under the radar.

“I’ve learned a lot about racism in my two years,” Nsengimana said. “I’ve lived in many different places and in many different cultures. I’ve experienced different kinds of racial bias. This school has its own special thing. I haven’t found a way to deal with it yet. I frown a little bit all the time. I’m a lot more ready to defend myself. My guard is always up.”

Often, panelists said, the racism and discrimination is subtle and unintended. Humberto Velasquez, who has lived in Lake Oswego his entire life, recounted times when people acted surprised that he could speak English as well as someone who wasn’t born in Mexico and hadn’t entered the country illegally.

“I hear immigrant jokes all the time,” he said. “People call me ‘The Mexican Guy.’ They say things like ‘Your English is really good’ or ‘Is your family legal?’ or ‘Did you need a guide to take you across the border?’ I can’t seem to get the point across about me being born in the U.S.”

The parents on the panel said they knew exactly where the students were coming from, because they have been dealing with the same attitudes for much longer.

“It hurts my heart when I see how my kids are affected,” Chris Leland said. “Today we are so tech savvy, but our rhetoric is prehistoric. It’s mean and ugly. Why can’t people figure this racial thing out?”

At one point, Marlene Cable wept as she talked about a particularly egregious incident that ruined what should have been a wonderful occasion for her.

“To this day,” she said, “I still want to cry about it. Things like this happen from a lack of knowledge. A conversation about this needs to be happening at this school.”

The testimony from panel members seemed to be cathartic for audience members, who streamed forward to take the microphone when the floor was opened for comments. There were those who testified that racism has been going on for a long time at LOHS, and there were current students who told of experiencing racism themselves.

“There hasn’t been just covert racism not dealt with here,” a longtime teacher said. “There has been explicit racism not dealt with at this school.”

“No one does anything about the racism here,” said a student who had moved to Lake Oswego from Roosevelt High School in Portland. “If it wasn’t for the Black Student Union, I wouldn’t be in this school.”

In the end, the conversations seemed to have sparked an awakening, and many in attendance — including Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck and school board member Bob Barman — vowed to continue the conversation and to seek solutions.

“I’m here to give you assurance that we will change this situation,” Beck said.

Added Barman, “I haven’t been moved this much by anything in my five years on the school board. You should feel as safe here as my own sons. I won’t forget this. I will make what changes I can.”

And that, Andrea Valasquez said, was her goal all along.

“I’m very proud,” she said, “that so many people from the community and staff and student body showed up to listen, learn and support us in our efforts to make this city have a more inclusive and respectful environment toward people of color.”

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..