Henrico Justice, a group formed by current students and recent graduates of Henrico County Public Schools, is working to end systemic racism in their schools, one march at a time.
Henrico Justice, a local organization created by 18-year-old Godwin High School graduate Natalie Christensen, has held two rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — one in June and the other on Saturday, July 11. Henrico Justice was created to inform the public about economic and racial inequity and disparities in the Henrico County Public School system, and hopefully create some positive changes.
Christensen, who started the organization at the end of May, said Henrico Justice all began with a graphic she made about segregation in the county’s public schools. After it got a hefty amount of traction on social media, Christensen figured she would make a poster for a protest. This also drew a fair amount of attention online, and ultimately led to a group of about 20 former and current Henrico Public School students coming together. Now they are organizing their own protests to get the word out about inequity in the county.
“I really wanted to mobilize students, because one of the main things that I noticed was how the school system isn’t equitable in HCPS,” Christensen said.
The first protest in June started at Matthew Robertson Park. The group marched to a location where the school board regularly meets on the east end of Henrico County. According to Henrico Justice member Tani Washington, the protest was held in this location because the group wanted to “cater to those who were being most affected by the inequities.”
According to Christensen and Washington, the inequities they are referring to stem from the differences in the ways the West End and East End are dealt with by the Henrico County school board. As of now, Washington said, the HCPS school board reports that more money is spent per student on schools on the East End; however, the West End has more resources.
“Schools on the West End have more facilities, more resources and more opportunities for students,” Washington said. “Those students on the West End are predominantly white.”
This issue with the lack of diversity on the West End is one of many additional obstacles Henrico Justice is trying to tackle. According to Christensen, one of their goals as an organization is to help make the demographics of each HCPS school match the overall student profile within Henrico County. Right now, the student profile of HCPS appears as if though it’s diverse; it reports 37.1 percent of students are white, 35.3 percent are Black, and smaller percentages make up other races.
However, Christensen said, if you look at the makeup of individual schools within the county, the majority of high schools are over 50 percent one race, either Black or white — a situation that amounts to de facto segregation. Christensen said she plans to introduce the idea of redistricting the middle part of Henrico County, so there would be more diversity throughout the county without having to make students travel from one side of the county to the other.
“We just know that students do better in diverse environments,” Christensen said. “Because of the disparities and in wealth between East and West Ends, it just makes schools really inequitable.”
The students of Henrico Justice are not in this fight alone. Teachers, faculty members, staff members, and other organizations such as the NAACP of Henrico have joined the students in protest or served as liaisons to help get the ball rolling.
“Of course, rallies and marches are great, but those are sort of demonstrative in terms of getting the movement started,” Washington said. “The movement really is going to continue into the school year.”
The protest on July 11 consisted of masked individuals marching from Short Pump Park to Short Pump Town Center and back again. Performers and speakers joined the protesters. According to Christensen, over 100 people came to show their support. For the students of Henrico Justice, keeping groups this large united and organized has been a complicated endeavor.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Christensen said. “We are trying to disrupt, but also keep it safe.”
As far as their goals for the future, Taylor White, who recently took over leading the group as Christensen prepared to go to college in California in the fall, said they’re planning more protests for the future. They intend to continue protesting until they get a response from the Henrico School Board. White also said she wants to begin to transition Henrico Justice into an organization that engages in community service initiatives. They welcome anyone who wants to help fight the good fight.
“I think Henrico Justice could be a great way for students outside of school, completely detached from HCPS, to have a space to voice their thoughts with each other and connect with other schools across the county,” Washington said.
Top Photo by Natalie Christensen