For Desiree Woodson, a defining moment in her time at Manhasset Secondary School happened as a junior in social studies class, shortly after her family moved to the Manhasset area.
“I remember the teacher had just finished saying how most of the hired help in the White House were the maids and the butlers, and they were African Americans,” Woodson recalled. “My last name is Woodson, and right after he goes into all of that, he says, ‘So Woody, you’re going to work in the White House one day.'”
Woodson, a Black woman, said she “instantly picked up” on what the teacher was saying, but her classmates did not.
“The rest of the rest of the class were like, ‘Oh, Desiree, that means you’re going to be president. You’re going to be the first woman president!'” Woodson said. “But no, it went right, right over their heads. And after the class, I went to the teacher and I said, ‘Listen here, I’ll never be anyone’s maid.’ And he’s like, ‘No, that’s not what I was saying.’ No, that’s exactly what you’re saying. I’d just came to Manhasset, and stuff like that is not gonna fly with me. So you’d better be careful with me and your class and what you say, because you’re not going to get away with it. Not until that same teacher made some type of racial remark to an Asian student was he forced to retire.”
Woodson graduated from Manhasset in 1992, and now serves as a tenant commissioner in the North Hempstead Housing Authority, but her memories of being a Black student in the Manhasset district remain. It is these memories and experiences, she said, that led to her becoming a founding member of the the Manhasset Justice Initiative (MJI).
The MJI comprises graduates of and current students in the Manhasset school district who seek to make social change in the schools and their community.
Sabrina Sayed, 21, who graduated from Manhasset in 2017, is another founding member, having known Woodson for years before speaking at a peace rally that Woodson organized in March where participants marched to the Manhasset-Great Neck Economic Opportunity Council, formerly the Manhasset Valley School, an elementary school where 94 percent of students were Black in 1962, although schools were ordered to integrate in 1954. In 1964, a federal court ruled that the school violated anti-segregation laws in Blocker v. Board of Education. The Manhasset district voted to close the school shortly thereafter.
Sayed said that the group came together after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, led to a divide in a Facebook group for Manhasset residents.
“Unfortunately, there seemed to have been some members who were not very responsive to efforts made by other members to try to create a more inclusive environment within the Manhasset community,” Sayed said.
As a result, she said, one user created another Facebook group “for all Manhasset students, alumni, residents, parents and teachers to kind of come together and try to create a more just inclusive environment.”
“From there, there was a sub community of people who are very interested in activism within our town and, beyond,” Sayed said.
Sayed said that the group has 30 to 40 active members, most of whom are current or former students in the Manhasset school district.
Claudia Sbuttoni of Flower Hill graduated from Manhasset in 2011, and said she found out about the group when she returned to the area to quarantine for COVID-19, and saw Woodson and Sayed speak at the rally.
“I was so inspired,” Sbuttoni said. “I have this negative idea of my town and I think that there’s a lot of ignorance … I wanted to be a part of them, because I know that they’re going to go somewhere with this and that this protest was really just the beginning. We’ve all known that there are major problems we need to fix.”
In addition to alumni, current students are getting involved in MJI as well, with the aim of changing the place they call home. Sydney Ginsburg, who will graduate as the class of 2020’s salutatorian next month, said that there exists a culture of “pride” in the area that can be toxic.
“Manhasset just has a sense of pride in just the way they were brought up, what they learned in school, their family,” Ginsburg said. “And it turns into a stubbornness where they’re just so unwilling to hear other opinions, or even say that learning about other cultures is boring. I’ve heard that before. And the main result of this is that people are really afraid of change. And they’re OK with just taking the easy way out, and pretending and ignoring problems.”
Caitlin Fox, a 15-year-old rising sophomore from Plandome, said that it is not uncommon to see casual discrimination among the student body.
“I just see things against other students, racist remarks, people saying slurs, and others not caring or knowing that they’re saying slurs,” Fox said.
Fox, who is half-white and half-Indian, said students have mistaken her nationality.
“I’m not sure why, but a lot of students tend to think that I’m of Latin American descent,” Fox said. “I’ve gotten remarks in Spanish classroom and people go, ‘of course, you’re good at Spanish, you’re Mexican, you’re this or that,’ weird things people assuming my race and things. They haven’t personally held me back in any way, but I’ve seen examples of students being held back because their race and things being assumed because of their race.”
The group also cites sexism as an issue, in addition to racism. For Nitya Wanchoo, 14, a rising sophomore at Manhasset Secondary, it is a topic that hits close to home.
“Last summer, I was hanging out with two friends outside of one of their houses,” Wanchoo said. “We were out on the lawn, and the house next door had boys playing out front who were a year younger than us. I was in eighth grade at the time, and they were in seventh grade. We kept our distance, it’s safe to say, and then we went out for a walk.”
When the girls came back, Wanchoo said, the boys had moved to her friend’s front lawn.
“So we asked them to leave, politely since we didn’t want to start a fight,” Wanchoo said. “From there it just escalated, and they were making sex jokes, race jokes, and saying slurs at us. They’re being ridiculously rude. That was you know, bad enough as it is.”
Wanchoo says she again told them to leave, or she’d ring the bell next door and tell one of the boys’ mothers what happened.
“It ends up with me telling the kids to get out or I’m going ring the doorbell to the house next door, and I’m going to tell your mother exactly what you’re saying,” Wanchoo said. “One of them tells me, do it. My other two friends were slightly shy, so I said I’d do it. The boy says, how old are you? I said, ’13.’ And he’s like, ‘for all of this, you should be raped.'”
She adds that at the time, the situation felt “absurd.”
“This is a kid younger than me, in the same school that I go to, and he’s insulting my appearance, my race, making fun of the fact that I’m a girl and making these sexist remarks,” Wanchoo said. “All of this, and now he’s telling me I should be raped. He’s just straight up saying this.”
Wanchoo said she made good on her promise and went next door to talk to the mother of one of the boys.
“I go next door, because I’m not going to stand there and take that, and I ring the doorbell and his mother comes to the door,” Wanchoo said. “I say, ‘Look, I’m sorry to bother you, but can you please get them out of my friend’s lawn? One of them just told me that I should be raped, and I haven’t done anything here. I really have not. I’m not the type of person to start a fight.'”
What really shocked her, though, was the mother’s reaction.
“The mom goes, ‘Oh, you have to just pardon him. He’s 13 and you know, things get out of hand,'” Wanchoo said. “She’s really out here excusing the fact that one of the kids that she’s responsible for in her son’s friend group just told me I should be raped. And I was like, ‘there’s no excuse for that.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, you know, boys will be boys.'”
“That’s definitely something that’s etched in my memory, and it goes to show how ignorant the community can be at times,” Wanchoo said.
For Woodson, who also saw her two children go through the district, the time for change is now.
“There are parents I meet right now today and they’re different people with the same stories,” Woodson said. “And some people respond by saying, ‘that doesn’t happen in Manhasset anymore.’ But something has to be done.”
She added that in her daughter’s senior year, a student called her the n-word in a threatening video, among other things, including telling her to “go get your food stamps.” The school responded by expelling the student for the rest of the year.
“The school handled it the way I thought they should, but it still happened,” Woodson said.
Woodson also said she meets parents with similar stories.
“The kids going to school should not leave here running, never wanting to look back, never wanting to come back,” Woodson said. “My daughter now wants nothing to do with Manhasset. And she’s not the only one. I feel like the kids should not feel that way, where your environment where where you’re supposed to be taught and learn is like that. Manhasset has one of the best school districts in the country, and yet we have so much division and so much separation. And for some people, that just doesn’t exist to them.”