A year after students face racism in Redstone, Carbondale academic program changes Fourth of July plans
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Students from the High School High Scholar program (HS²) decided to stay at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) this month to celebrate the Fourth of July after experiencing race-related prejudice during the unincorporated Town of Redstone’s holiday parade in 2022.
Operating in Carbondale since 2007, HS² brings over 70 high-achieving students of color to Carbondale every summer from Texas, New York, Louisiana, and other parts of Colorado.
They participate in academic and elective classes and enjoy outdoor activities on the Western Slope, such as Fourth of July parades.
Leonard Henderson is an administrator for HS² who supervised the visit to Redstone last year and said students became concerned when they lost cellphone service on Highway 133.
“And I think I naively went, ‘That's good for you,’” Henderson said.
Students told him and other staff members that they felt on edge because of that disconnection, and Henderson said when they got to town and started exploring, students reported multiple incidents where they felt targeted based on the color of their skin.
Macielle Mendez, 17, is a student at HS² in her third and final year with the program and said she felt people staring at her the moment she got off the bus.
“At the burger spot when we got in line, we saw people leave the line,” Mendez said. “We also had an instance where a mom and her children were painting, and we came over to the station to come paint, and she pulled her child, left the painting and everything open, just pulled her away. That was kind of heartbreaking.”
Other students described experiences where staff at various shops in Redstone followed them around or people in the parade targeted them with water guns.
Program staff also reported stories where a student was called the N-word, or an establishment told the students that they had the right to refuse service.
After hearing about these incidents from his students, Henderson cut the trip short.
“I was still, in my opinion, late on making that call,” Henderson said. “Within 20 minutes, I had consoled at least nine or 10 of our students who were absolutely distraught or angry, just story after story of both subtle microaggressions and pretty explicit racism.”
Oppenheim wasn’t there but dealt with the aftermath of these troubling incidents when students returned to the CRMS campus.
“This is my eighth year with the program, and never has there been a day that I've been with the program that's been more harmful to students on a collective level than that day,” Oppenheim said.
Mendez said the experience had a lasting impact, and she questioned whether or not to return to HS² and the Roaring Fork Valley this summer.
“How am I going to go back to a place where it was supposed to be my safe space, but it was the first time I ever experienced racism directly?” Mendez said.
Mendez decided to return, citing promises from Oppenheim and Henderson to keep the students safe, and part of those promises involved allowing students to decide what to do for the Fourth of July this summer.
Oppenheim sent out a survey, and the majority of students said they wanted to stay on campus and celebrate together.
Zamaris Infante, an HS² student, said it’s not about isolating themselves but valuing their relationships with each other.
“We're just all having fun,” Infante said. “We're all in different teams and doing different activities and learning how to build our own community.”
The Sopris Sun published an article about the incidents in Redstone last year and interviewed Oppenheim for the story.
It spurred a number of other written responses defending the town of Redstone against these allegations of racism, some placing the blame on visitors as opposed to residents.
The town’s festivities drew thousands of people from across Western Colorado.
Oppenheim said she doesn’t want to villainize or point fingers at the town of Redstone, but she encouraged the entire Roaring Fork Valley to use her students’ stories as an opportunity to reflect.
“It's not about placing blame on one person or another,” Oppenheim said. “I think, as a community, it's a question of ‘How did we show up and make these students feel welcome?”
In September 2022, the Redstone Community Association issued an apology to HS² students and staff a few months after the Fourth of July incidents.
The letter said, “It is truly heartbreaking that this happened in our beloved Redstone community where we thought inclusivity ran deep.”
The organization also invited HS² staff to discuss how they can be more “culturally sensitive.”
The incidents encouraged Oppenheim, Henderson and other staff to question whether or not the harm students experience in the Roaring Fork Valley outweighs the benefits of the program.
“And I don’t think that that’s the case, but I think it’s really important to step back and evaluate that question holistically,” Oppenheim said.
The events in Redstone last year were not isolated incidents.
Students have previously reported receiving unwanted attention because of their race while visiting other parts of the Roaring Fork Valley, and they’ve told staff that strangers in town touched their hair or stared on the street.
Because the impacts of these interactions build up over time, Oppenheim offered advice to residents.
“If you're a resident of Carbondale or Aspen and you see a group of 10 Black teenagers with amazing and gorgeous hair and braids and clothes walking down the street, stop staring,” Oppenheim said. “Treat them like humans. Don't treat them like they're kind of a museum exhibit or a spectacle.”
Given previous reports, Oppenheim has considered what safety measures she needs to institute to protect her students from racist interactions, and how she can send students into the community with confidence.
HS² kept their Fourth of July celebrations at CRMS, but the program is still interacting with the community in other ways.
Oppenheim encouraged organizations who want to get to know the students to reach out for potential partnerships, and students were given the option to visit Carbondale for First Friday on July 7.
But Macielle Mendez said she now approaches these excursions with an extra sense of caution.
“I learned that not everyone is going to be accepting,” Mendez said. “There's groups and crowds and a lot of people who don't like me for my color, and that's what really set in.”
Editor's Note: Halle Zander previously worked for the HS² program during the summers of 2019 and 2020.