With the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black Americans dominating the news, politically engaged and active young people are looking for ways to help.
“A lot of kids feel very helpless, in a sense,” said Bhanu Cheepurupalli ’21. “We can only repost things so much. A lot of us can’t go to protests. Most of us can’t vote. Where do we come into this?”
A late-night brainstorm
Cheepurupalli’s friend, Neha Sathishkumar ’21, had an idea. As co-presidents of Peddie’s chapter of Amnesty International, Sathishkumar and Cheepurupalli often host Hours of Action, events where students gather together during their free period to write letters, sign petitions or participate in other forms of activism. Sathishkumar proposed 12 Hours of Action: 12 hours of student-led educational presentations, discussion with the community and collective action. Open to not just to students, but to teachers and alumni, and even to community members of other peer schools.
The two discussed the idea via text in the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 3. They contacted a friend, Nye Smarr ’22, one of the five leaders of Peddie’s Black Student Union (BSU). Smarr happened to be returning home from a protest in Trenton at the time and was eager to join. The trio set the date: Saturday, June 6 — less than three days away. “There were a lot of posts on social media addressing what’s been going on, but there wasn’t much action,” Smarr said. “This was an opportunity to educate people and to show that you don’t have to be out on the front lines to help with this. Just being aware of your privilege, and using your platform to boost the awareness of what’s going on right now is important.” Smarr reached out to friends from other schools, all members of Black Student Unions or other affinity groups.
“We went to sleep and when we woke up, we had a team together,” said Cheepurupalli. “By the end of the day, we had basically the full schedule.”
The 12 Hours of Action team consisted of 17 students* from schools across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including The Hun School, George School, The Pennington School and Princeton High School. They had only three days to put together an ambitious online event and they worked at breakneck speed, rehearsing and refining their talks, designing discussion questions and spreading the word about 12 Hours of Action.
The 12 Hours of Action Team: Jonell Adu-Gyamfi (Pennington), Moji Ayodele (PHS), Mame Baffour-Awuah (Pennington), Darrah Blackwell (PHS), Amaris Calhoun ’21, Myrah Charles ’22, Bhanu Cheepurupalli ’21, Tyler Coombs (George), Sanya Desai ’22, Chris Hussey ’22, Hope Obolanle ’21, Saylah Parrish (Hun), Neha Sathishkumar ’21, Gabriella Shapcott ’22, Nye Smarr ’22, Amani Speller ’23, Irion Thompson (George)
Word spread fast
Students promoted the event on social media. They emailed the student body at their respective schools. The team reached out to other peer schools — including Blair Academy, Lawrenceville School and Deerfield Academy — and those schools began sharing information too. They’d hoped for around 200 attendees.
By the end of the week, 748 people had registered for 12 Hours of Action.
Sathishkumar had given a chapel talk during the Climate Strike earlier in the school year. Smarr had addressed a crowd during a protest in Trenton a few nights before. Cheepurupalli’s public speaking experience was limited to pumping up crowds during the Blair Day pep rally. “We were nervous,” they admitted. But they were also thrilled.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 6 — just over a week after the murder of George Floyd — 12 Hours of Action began.
Topics ranged broadly in the twelve sessions, from in-depth seminars on police brutality and the modern policing system to practical discussions about privilege and allyship. They created protest art and called congresspeople. And during the last session, an open mic, members of the audience shared stories and even broke into song.
Participants joined from as far away as India and Sweden. Members of Governor Phil Murphy’s staff listened in. As Sathishkumar said, “We didn’t realize the platform that we had for ourselves. That we’d made.”
The program concluded at 10 p.m. with closing remarks made to an audience of over 150 people, some of whom had been in attendance almost the entire twelve hours. They were encouraged to see not only the faces of their friends and classmates and teachers, but also board members and administrators. “Seeing so much of the administration willing to learn from the students and make it a relationship where we can both talk to each other and be more close was definitely eye-opening for me,” said Sathishkumar. “In the future, I think I’ll be more willing to talk to them directly. Before, I was kind of scared. But seeing them show up showed me how much they cared.”
Only the beginning
As co-presidents of Amnesty International, Sathishkumar and Cheepurupalli will continue to promote and create opportunities for education and action throughout the summer and into their senior year at Peddie. Speaking on behalf of the BSU, Smarr said, “We want to make sure that in the future, we’re a lot more active. Moving forward, the BSU wants to make sure that we’re not only coming together and bringing awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement when things are tough in the world, or when another innocent person has lost their life. We want to hold more events and involve more schools in the MAPL, not just the Peddie community.”
In support of the Black Student Union and Amnesty International, a Peddie faculty cohort followed up the 12 Hours of Action Event with a series of informal sessions to review the material presented at the event, reflect on existing school practices and procedures and discuss potential ideas and strategies for affecting change within the Peddie community. “These sessions have been by turns helpful, uncomfortable, uplifting, daunting and affirming,” shared Head of School Peter Quinn. “It falls to the adults in this community, and most especially adults who are white, to maintain focus on beginning anew where our support for diversity, equity and inclusivity are concerned.”
“We all, adults and students alike, chose Peddie for the place it was when we came and the place we could help it to become. That’s embedded in our motto, ‘As we finish our labors we begin them anew.”
As for the committed event leaders, Smarr said, “Seeing how successful this was and how many students care, we hope to reach out to other affinity group leaders to create more positive events with great education behind them.”