Inspiring change through shared stories and achievable steps

Diversity Council talks racial justice and equality with special guest


Photo by Jenna Reynolds

Dr. Franklin Thompson speaks about the Equal Justice Initiative essay contest at the Diversity Council’s luncheon. Thompson also mentioned other competitions and activities students can get involved in to combat racism and inequality. “I am so proud that people in West Omaha want to do this [the contest] because we were hoping it wouldn’t just be an OPS or East Omaha thing,” Thompson said. “I believe that we have kind of plateaued, and we need to reignite and get some new momentum and new ideas.”

Emma Baker, Catalyst Editor-in-Chief

Spurred by the race riots of last summer and the students’ call for racial justice in both their community and school, Millard West created the Diversity Council. 

Recently, on March 19, they invited Dr. Franklin Thompson to their meeting — a veteran City Council member, the Director of Human Rights and Relations for the City of Omaha and an associate professor at UNO’s College of Education among other notable positions. Thompson spoke at the Council’s luncheon to broaden their perspectives and hear a voice who turned his negative experiences in race relations to action and advocacy. 

Though the group of students, staff and administrators always tackle racial injustice issues in their monthly meetings, inviting guest speakers is a newer part of their Council. Principal Dr. Greg Tiemann is excited to see the impact of such events on students that are already so engaged in inclusive action.

“We have an excellent group here — such mature, caring and compassionate people,” Tiemann said. “It really is a treat to meet with them every month and also to bring in a speaker, like Dr. Thompson. [It provides] an opportunity for students to not only be concerned about it and read about it, but to do something about it and be a change agent which is what they all want. We certainly need to open up dialogue and insert teaching where we can.”

So, after everyone got their boxed lunch and took their seat at the library’s high-top tables, the teaching began. Thompson first talked about his story and his life’s experience as a Black man. 

At a young age, he moved to the South where he truly encountered and recognized racism for the first time. Not only did the cross-country move drop Thompson and his family in class, as they lived in the impoverished conditions of dirt and outhouses, they were also ostracized for looking, talking and acting “too white” by Black neighbors and classmates. Once, at a gas station in Kentucky, him and his family were held at gunpoint by a white man who told them to go back to where they came from.

Eventually, he moved to North Omaha. What was once a bustling and lively place, soon fell to race riots and white flight. In his sophomore year at Omaha Technical High School, around 40% of the school’s population was white. By his senior year, it was 5%.

“I gave two stories about interactions of racism, but that’s two of about seven dozen,” Thompson said. “I was supposed to have grown up a middle-class African American that didn’t have any problems. That was how I started off. I got derailed, and every problem under the sun, I experienced. So apparently my Creator wanted me to not pout about that and to use my life experience to be a difference-maker.”

Through his mission of fighting for racial justice and equality, he strongly encourages young people to get involved in their schools and communities.

“I’m a strong believer that young people are the path, that you guys have the energy and the insight, and I think you see it better than the older generations,” Thompson said. “We have to have people who are thinkers, who come together and create new ways to move the old Martin Luther King dream forward.”

One way he provided students at the luncheon to get involved is the Equal Justice Initiative’s essay writing contest. Omaha area high school students can write 800-1,000 words about any historical incident or racial issue for a chance to win up to $5,000 dollars. Winners will be announced at the Douglas County Courthouse on Juneteenth, the same day (and place) that Thompson invites students to attend the second part of the soil commemoration for Will Brown who was lynched there in 1919.

Other activities he suggested looking into were a unity dance celebrating different types of music, service projects and things that get people outside their comfort zone. Diving into vocabulary words is also just as important. He particularly talked about how the term “white privilege” is somewhat of a stumbling block.

“It’s not white privilege, it’s a majority group misuse of privilege and power,” Thompson said. “It’s a problem of boneheads. Just having a good heart or good intentions is not good enough. Critical thinking — that’s the issue, not skin color.”

Thus, the conversation challenged the internal dialogue of students and staff alike. Along with thoughtful discussion, simply listening to other perspectives, like Dr. Thompson’s, made a big impact.

“A lot of things I took away from today are things that are normalized, like a lot of racism, that we don’t realize is a form of racism,” sophomore Diversity Council member Kinzie Jones said. “I think it [the event] was great. I think it’s a really big eye-opener and a big gateway into what we could probably do in the future.”

For the Diversity Council, this event was more than lunch and a talk; it was welcoming a deeper understanding of racial inequality and its effects. With this successful first foray into guest speakers under their belt, the Council can look forward to many more visits from inspiring leaders.