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Sleepy Hollow High School Students Lead Rally to Bring Attention to Social Injustice and Fight for Change

If anyone doubts the power of student voices for change, they need look no further than the rally held in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown this Saturday, June 13. The event was conceptualized by SHHS junior Sandra Aderemi and quickly became a reality with the help of SHHS Principal Dr. Tracy Smith, the Sleepy Hollow High School African American Culture Club advisor Pat Bonitatibus, and other students who posted a flyer on their social media to encourage all to come. 

Sandra says that after attending another rally in Tarrytown a few weeks ago, she was inspired to do something, too. “We need people to understand that this is a movement, not a moment. So I came home and immediately started thinking about what I could do to keep this movement going,” said Sandra. ”I had a lot of ideas - I even planned a route for a march - so I reached out to (Principal) Dr. Smith to see what she thought.”  

Dr. Smith wanted to do all she could to work with Sandra to bring the idea to fruition and shared the idea with Mrs. Bonitatibus, the advisor for the African American Culture Club, who also latched on to the idea. Within a couple of days, the club held a virtual meeting to discuss how they could support the initiative. Dr. Smith then contacted the Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow police chiefs for their support, and they were immediately on board. 

“When Sandra contacted me to ask if I would march alongside her and other students as well as speak at the protest, I agreed with no hesitation,” said Dr. Smith. “This is an important event in our history as we’re living through very critical times. My participation at the march was not only my honor, it was also my duty.” 

Sandra says Dr. Smith has served as an inspiration to her during her time in SHHS. “I never thought I’d have a black principal. I see her every day at the doorway, greeting students, and it gives me a sense of confidence. It also tells me that I don't have to be white to be successful. I can be black, like her, and have that title of doctor.”

Sandra, who came to the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns in 2017, shared that she quickly observed that she was one of the few black students in her classes and believed that the community wasn’t educated enough on black culture and implicit racism. She lived with her family in Nigeria for several years and says that when she came to the United States, it became hard for her to find her voice and that she felt inferior. At the same time, today she is thrilled that her friends, many of whom are white, stood with her as she and the African American Culture Club planned this rally. 

Indeed, when asked about her goals for the rally she said that it was important to get more white allies who can also use their voices to reach the crowd and ‘have them see the truth.’ Sandra said: “I wanted (my friends) to address the white allies in the crowd. Seeing all of my friends talking about white privilege was incredibly meaningful. And as I look around and see them standing with me, yea, it matters. A lot”

Jack Weidner, a 16-year-old junior at SHHS is one of those friends. Jack had attended a few rallies with Sandra recently and when she told him that she wanted to organize one in Tarrytown he was “all in.” That said, Jack says he felt that, as a white person, he wanted to be sensitive to “taking up too much space” in the discussion but also felt compelled to send a message.

“There are so many problematic racial issues still occurring but yet it seems like we are already getting to a point where some people want to get over it and go back to normal life,” Jack said. “I wanted to remind people that, yes, these protests have brought about change, but that we are far from done. The only way to bring real justice and change is to bring attention to the entire system of racial inequality.”  

The African American Culture Club promoted the rally through posters, made by Zoe Millstein, and a grassroots social media effort. Even so, Sandra admits that as the event approached, she had some anxiety about whether people would show up. And then they did. Hundreds of them.

“It was just about noon and I started to see more and more people were walking towards us,” said Sandra. “It filled my heart with joy to see the community coming together. People of all ages and races. It took all my anxiety away.”

Mrs. Bonitatibus, who marched alongside her students, said: “I am so proud of all of the students who were involved in organizing this event and ensuring it came to fruition. They thought of everything including where they will march and how it will unfold. I admire their tenacity and initiative in organizing this event. They are very civic-oriented, and this isn't the first time they've addressed inequality and racism."

One of the most emotional parts of the march was when the crowd stopped at the Tarrytown Police Station to kneel for nine minutes. Immediately afterwards a woman approached Sandra and simply said, “Thank you. You nearly brought me to tears.” 

After the rally, Sandra and her classmates reflected on the event. They are proud of what they accomplished, but also know this rally is simply the beginning. “This was powerful, but people have to know that this isn’t a trend. Black Lives Matter is not a moment - it’s a movement,” said Sandra.