Students take the mic on Hillsborough High School’s race and ethnicity podcast
By Kathryn Coulibaly
ce intones, “That all men are created equal,” more voices chime in, saying, “Our fates are linked,” and “Race issues are controversial, but that’s precisely the reason we need to talk about them.” So begins the introductory episode of Prejudice & Pride, a podcast created and produced by Hillsborough High School students eager to discuss race and ethnicity in their own space, in their own way.
As junior Ray Fofana said on the introductory episode, “For so much of my life, conversations about race and ethnicity have been viewed as supplemental topics of discussions, not the crucial and urgent ones that they are. Growing up in an interracial and bi-religious family has forced me to confront frequent adversity in regard to my identity.”
Fofana continued, “At times, the environment within our school has made me feel like my own existence was political or just completely invalidated. Oftentimes, in the classroom, conversations about race, diversity, and even acceptance are avoided because of the fear of controversy. By ignoring these topics, it has been harder for me, and other students from marginalized groups, to feel supported in the classroom. This podcast has given me a space to share my experience, but without the obligation to make it more digestible.”
Sophomore Izzy Volpe pointed out that she has spent more than a decade as a student in public education and participated in countless assemblies and lessons on bullying and the importance of practicing love, kindness, compassion, and empathy. Yet, she questioned, “How is it… that the topics of racism—both systemic and personal—have never come up? How authentic is the message of kindness, compassion and empathy when it does not even acknowledge one of the most prevalent injustices in our society and school system? It is important that we begin to expand that messaging to include anti-racism, and that is why I am so excited to be a part of this podcast.”
Guided by Hillsborough High School social studies teacher Robert Fenster, the students are very much leading the conversation.
“Hillsborough High School is a suburban upper-middle-class community and the population of the school is fairly diverse,” Fenster said. “Social studies and English teachers are struggling to make sure that the curriculum is representative, and students sometimes feel we’re lagging behind. I wanted to give students an opportunity to explore those issues and a way to tell their stories and explore the complexity of a variety of topics that we just aren’t afforded during the school day.”
The students have been working for months to identify topics, discuss how they want to break down the podcast and determine who will do what.
Fenster considers himself the showrunner for the podcast. He conceived the idea and approached students he thought would be interested. They immediately recruited others.
“This is truly student-driven,” Fenster said. “We’ve met via Google Meet at night and regularly email ideas back and forth. The students break down topics and decide who will take on which subjects. They do the research, identify people to interview, conduct the interview, and eventually will edit the episode as well.”
Fenster found support from Hillsborough High School administration and sought additional financial resources to implement the program. In 2020, he successfully applied for an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Grant for Excellence in Education for $3,833 to purchase a Macintosh computer and recording equipment, including microphones, boom microphone stands, and portable digital recorders. The grant also pays the fee for the platform that hosts the blog. The grant is for the 2021-22 school year.
In January 2022, the students began posting their podcast with the goal of one podcast every two weeks. The topics covered have addressed a wide range of content. In “Science and the Myth of Race,” sophomore Raina James interviewed Dr. Daniel Fairbanks of Utah Valley University. In “Am I Racist?” senior Melanie Quesada and junior Alec Ruiter discussed implicit bias and the impossibility of being “colorblind.” In “Here First, Here Now,” junior Bella Moyacarneiro explores the Indigenous experience within the Hillsborough community.
“P&P Unfiltered Chat” is one of a planned series of periodic, unscripted episodes that allows members of the group to talk about a variety of topics off-the-cuff. “Female Artists of Color” focuses on student artists, their areas of focus, and the shared challenges of being taken seriously and nourished as creators as a result of their intersectionality.
“We’re also going to have a feature called ‘Ask Us Anything,’ and we’re hoping students will reach out to ask us questions they might not feel comfortable asking somewhere else,” Fenster said. “We want to educate people. One topic that keeps coming up in anti-racism work is that it’s not the responsibility of ethnic or racial minorities to educate white people about these things, but the students in this club want to have these conversations; they want to be a source for people. And, as they say, it’s not like they have all the answers; they want to learn more and share their experiences and hopefully facilitate a better understanding and cooperation.”
Senior Azinwi Numfor, who describes herself as quite chatty, said, “I think there is an underrated power that comes from civil discourse and engaging in meaningful conversations about current issues. Growing up Black in a predominantly white area has confronted me with many instances of ignorance. I think when it comes to race, there is too much silence about the multiple issues at hand… I hope that through this podcast, we can inspire discussions about the issues of race and hopefully people will stray from ignoring issues that make them uncomfortable.”
Fofana sees immense value in having this space to confront challenging issues.
“I now have the opportunity to invite conversation without the fear of being penalized or labeled as an instigator,” Fofana said. “Although I can’t forget the microaggressions or overt racism I encounter ‘on the daily,’ being surrounded by a network of students who are eager and willing to explore these topics has given me a new sense of hope. I believe that this podcast will prompt the much-needed, hopefully ongoing discussions about race and ethnicity within our school community.”
Raina James discussed the importance of talking to high school students about racism as they are the future parents and guardians of the next generation.
“If your parents or guardians use discriminatory language, chances are, you’ll internalize their really damaging ideas,” James said. “I really want to break this generational pattern… so they can bring up their children in a more inclusive society.”
The New Jersey Council for the Social Studies recently recognized James for her work on “The Science and Myth of Race” episode.
As Fofana said in the introduction to the podcast, “Although these topics may, at times, be controversial and lead to emotional responses, we will not shy away from the conversation. We believe that open, candid conversation is the best way to develop tolerance, understanding, and acceptance, and we invite you to join us, roll up your sleeves, and do the work.”
You can listen to the podcast on Apple, Google podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere podcasts are available. Learn more about the podcast at hhspod.com/prejudiceandpride and follow the Prejudice & Pride podcast on Instagram at hhsprejudiceandpride.
Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Fenster named to National Teacher Hall of Fame
In April, Bob Fenster was surprised at Hillsborough High School as one of only five teachers in the country to be named in the Class of 2022 to the National Teacher Hall of Fame.
Fenster has been teaching for 29 years. He is a social studies teacher at Hillsborough High School.
In addition to the Prejudice & Pride podcast, Fenster is currently advising the Model Congress, Model United Nations, Mock Trial, Amnesty International, and podcasting clubs, and runs an annual alumni charity concert.
This year Fenster has also received the Educational Ambassador Award from the Pegasus Springs Education Collective and the Teaching Award from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance. In 2019, Fenster was named the Secondary Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies. He has also been awarded the Law-Related Education Teacher of the Year from the American Lawyers Alliance, the Paul A. Gagnon Prize from the National Council for History Education, the Claes Nobel Top Ten Educator of the Year Award from the National Society of High School Scholars, the Teacher of the Year award from the Jewish Guild for the Blind, and the Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Teaching Award from Amherst College, among other accolades.
Fenster has been a Reese Fellow at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, and a Swensrud Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a Barringer Fellow at Monticello, and a fellow at the Robert H. Jackson Center. In all of these fellowships, he curated resources and developed lesson plans to share with his peers.
After visiting Sierra Leone with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, he helped to fundraise nearly $5,000 to pay for photocopying critical course materials and meals for students getting extra help at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Senior Secondary School in the city of Bo.
Four other New Jersey teachers have previously been named to the National Teacher Hall of Fame over its 30 years, including Tracey Fallon, Richard Ruffalo, James Quinlan, and Ronald Foreso, who was actually Fenster’s teacher in his senior year at Parsippany High School in 1987.
The National Teacher Hall of Fame was founded in 1989 in Emporia, Kansas by Emporia State University, the ESU Alumni Association, the City of Emporia, Emporia Public Schools, and the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce. It held its first induction of five teachers in 1992 and has since honored 150 educators. The mission of The National Teachers Hall of Fame is to recognize and honor exceptional career teachers, encourage excellence in teaching, and preserve the rich heritage of the teaching profession in the United States. In addition to the National Teachers Hall of Fame Museum, they are also home to a national memorial to fallen educators. Learn more at nthf.org.
Apply for an NJEA Hipp Grant
NJEA Frederick L. Hipp grants help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote excellence in education.
More than $2.3 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded. Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. Grants range from $500-$10,000.
The annual deadline is March 1. Learn more at njea.org/hipp.