U-M student supporting her hometown by creating racial awareness and equity task force

During the height of world-wide mourning over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Sarah Szalai took a “quarantine” walk with her mom and talked about what she could do to help raise awareness of racism, hatred and inequity in her hometown.

By the end of the walk, Szalai had a plan she was ready to run with.

Szalai, 20, is a 2018 graduate of Allen Park High School, and that’s exactly where she wanted to focus her efforts by creating a task force that will address the many different levels and manifestations of racism. While students are learning about English and math and history, it’s important they also learn about being good citizens, respecting others and understanding the scope and impact of hatred and racism.

Szalai, currently a junior at the University of Michigan studying Organizational Studies, says her passion for this type of commitment and involvement comes from “a very personal place.”

“My two younger siblings are adopted from China, and I have seen the difference in my experience as a white female and their experiences as Asian-American students in APPS,” she says. “We have been having the race conversation around the dinner table, with friends, and with administrators, for as long as I can remember.”

Szalai has seen both missteps and misinformation, but believes that beneath these instances is an opportunity for growth. And with opportunity comes meaningful and impactful results, and to that end she helped create the Racial Awareness and Equity Task Force (RAE) for Allen Park Public Schools and the community.

“I know that negative experiences rooted in race are not exclusive to my family, the narratives of struggle are not usually amplified, and we have the chance to be better for our entire community,” she says. “I feel this is important work to put our community’s passion, angst and love in a collective direction toward change so that every student and family feels welcome and supported by APPS.”

Szalai began the process of creating RAE by connecting with teachers, community members, administrators and school board members to “create a task force that is informed by the voice of the community.”

Michael Harris, 22, another former student at Allen Park HS and longtime friend of Szalai’s, also was interested in making a difference in his hometown.

“Sarah and I have been friends since high school and we both went to Allen Park Presbyterian Church,” said Harris, who graduated from APHS in 2016. “I was chatting with some other mutual friends at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer and I mentioned wanting to do some work with APPS to be more equitable. One of my friends mentioned that Sarah had started the work already, meeting with teachers and administrators. I reached out to Sarah wanting to get involved.”

Szalai and Harris went right to the top, meeting with Superintendent of Allen Park Public Schools Michael H. Darga to discuss their idea and create a blueprint for meaningful change when it came to racism in Allen Park schools.

“It was an exciting meeting, to see the passion from two alumni wanting to tackle racial awareness and equity within our schools was empowering,” Darga said. “It was clear that they did not want to discount any of the initiatives that were already taking place in Allen Park Public Schools. They wanted to complement them and take them to the next level. Sarah and Michael wanted to tie things together so there was a clear roadmap that would be followed by our students and staff and supported by the district.”

Szalai said the goal of RAE is to foster a culturally aware community that focuses on increasing equity and awareness through education, reflection, research and dialogue.

“The program will have a flat structure where every voice is valued,” she says. “Each team will engage with the community, align with what is already going on in the district, and implement solutions informed by best practices and community needs. We recognize that we do not have all the answers, but our team is excited to dig into the research, ask the right questions, and illuminate the possibilities. Together, we will use this moment to grow forward and come together as a community.”

RAE will include six sub-task forces: curriculum, staff education, peer-to-peer dialogue, disciplinary protocols, middle school alignment, and elementary alignment.

“It has been great connecting with so many amazing, like-minded people in the community,” said Szalai. “It is exciting that our task force has every stakeholder represented, from students, alumni, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members. This is not an overnight process, but a commitment to continuing to better our community.”

For more information on the Racial Awareness and Equity Task Force, click HERE