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These seventh graders are helping teachers learn all about microaggressions

Niah Ester and Anjali Adhikari pose for a portrait at the annual Educators for Social Justice conference.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Niah Ester and Anjali Adhikari pose for a portrait at the annual Educators for Social Justice conference.

When Anjali Adhikari and Niah Ester teamed up for a class project last summer, they had one goal – to teach educators at Northeast Middle School all about microaggressions.

The seventh graders never imagined their work would make it from their Creve Coeur school into classrooms across the St. Louis region. But since then, they’ve created and led training sessions for dozens of teachers, counselors and school administrators.

Their mission is personal. The students are often on the receiving end of microaggressions – comments or questions, usually delivered casually, that insult people and reinforce negative stereotypes.

Because the comments often come from adults, the 12-year-olds developed activities to help their teachers recognize and address microaggressions.

“If a teacher says something kind of derogatory to a student, that’s gonna stay in their mind,” Niah said. “That’s gonna affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Last Saturday, Niah and Anjali led more than three dozen teachers through their training activities during the annual Educators for Social Justice conference. The conference attracts hundreds of educators from across the region.

During their session, they encouraged teachers to open up about a time they felt stereotyped or judged. They also shared their own experiences.

Niah has been told she is “smart for a black girl” and “pretty for a black girl.” Anjali said classmates turn to look at her every time the 9/11 terrorist attacks come up. Once, she said, a teacher told her the attackers looked just like her.

“I want future generations to not be held back by these stereotypes that people have,” Anjali said.

The students want people to understand that microaggressions are rooted in prejudice. They hope talking about them can lead to conversations about issues like discrimination and systemic oppression.

They said they’ve thought hard about stepping up to educate the adults around them.

“I feel like it’s the kids who have to do it because some adults just don’t understand,” Niah said. 

“I feel like that’s what fuels me, though,” added Anjali. “The fact that adults don’t know and we do makes me want to teach them.”

Mike Hazelton, their assistant principal at Northeast Middle School, stressed the importance of listening to students, acknowledging unconscious bias and owning up to mistakes.

“The reality is that we all stumble,” Hazelton said. “We all make those mistakes. It’s how you address it after the fact that shows character.”

At the end of their session, several teachers approached Anjali and Niah about using their training activities. The girls said they walked out of the conference feeling inspired.

“It’s really exciting,” Niah said, with a smile. “It’s just like, 'Dang – I’m actually making a difference.'”

Follow Carolina on Twitter: @CarolinaHidalgo

Carolina Hidalgo joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as the station’s first visual journalist. She now produces photographs, digital stories and radio features with a focus on issues of race, inequality and immigration. In 2019, she reported from the United States-Mexico border as an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow. In 2018, she was named one of The Lit List’s “30 photographers to watch.” Carolina also volunteers as a mentor with NPR’s Next Generation Radio project. She is a proud native of New York City and a member of Women Photograph and Diversify Photo.