MADISON -- Like many Americans, Madison superintendent Rob Peterson was shocked and angry when he saw the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis.
“I was watching news coverage of that and just became very angry that in the United States today, in 2020, that that type of incident could happen,” recalled Peterson. “I just got really angry over that and when my anger started to dissipate, I started to think, ‘You can be angry and you can be frustrated, but what are you going to do about it?
“I made a commitment at that point that we’re going to continue to work at this."
Last week, 1991 Madison graduate Obie Stillwell visited each school building in the district to talk about race relations and diversity with administrators and teachers.
Stillwell was captain of the Rams football team and went on to play as a walk-on at Ohio State. He now works as a real estate consultant and sports media personality in Columbus.
Peterson asked Stillwell to come back to his old hallways after hearing about a video he posted shortly after Floyd’s death.
In the video, the former linebacker shared an emotional plea for all people to talk about race relations with love and compassion. He compared these conversations to tossing a football.
“When I started to teach my son how to catch -- he was like 2 years old -- I used to toss the ball really light to him, because I wanted him to catch it,” Stillwell said. “We’re winging our conversations at each other, but we’re like 2-year-olds when it comes to talking about race. We’ve never really talked about race. We’re emotional, we're winging stuff at each other and we’re not getting anywhere.
“We were speaking to each other like we didn’t have to be neighbors after this election, like we didn’t stil have to be a community."
Stillwell shared a similar message with school staff, as well as recommendations for making Madison a safer and more welcoming place for students of color.
“They have to begin to accept, recruit and hire some African American teachers,” he said. “There’s power in diversity. There’s so much power in creativity and diversity.”
Stillwell also recommended partnering with other agencies to bring people of color into the schools as mentors and role models.
“Bring someone that helps to affirm who they are and can relate to their environment,” he said. “Help (students) to understand that ‘I can be more than a rapper or an entertainer. I can be a teacher.’”
Another recommendation was that all teachers make it clear to non-White students that if they experience any incidents of racism, they can come to a teacher for help.
Lastly, Stillwell asked for more representation of Black Americans in the history curriculum.
“Why isn’t Black history American history? Black people have fought along with White people in every major war,” he said, adding that the first person to die in the Revolutionary War was a Black man.
“Put Black and Brown history in American history where it's supposed to be,” he continued. “It's not Black history, it's not White history, its American history.”
The history of Americans of color needs to be part of regular history curriculum, he said, not just Black History Month.
“Black History Month is essentially showing Black people struggling. You're showing Black slaves. You're showing Harriet Tubman,” Stillwell said. “I'm not saying these people are bad, but what I’m saying is, can you show the triumph? Can you show the positive side, not just always the downtrodden, of the Black experience?”
Many of Stillwell’s suggestions have been backed up by experts and researchers in the field of education. Studies show having Black educators and a “culturally rich curriculum” can benefit minority students.
Stillwell also shared some of his own experiences with racism growing up, including an uncomfortable reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
“The teacher was reading this out loud, I'm the only African American student in my grade, let alone in my class. I cringed every time she pulled this book out,” Stillwell remembered. “Every time she used the ‘N word,’ everyone would look at me. There would be times when I would literally put my head down and act like I was sleeping so I didn't have to show my embarrassment.”
Stillwell was in the fifth grade at the time, and the only Black student in his grade at Madison. After the teacher read the book, students started to use the racial slur.
“I had never been called the N word until after she read that book. Those who desired to use that word, it kind of empowered them to do that,” Stillwell said.
Looking back, Stillwell wished his teacher would have had a conversation with the students about why the racial slur is inappropriate and not read it out loud.
“You cannot read a book like that without cultural competency,” he continued. “If you feel like you have to read that book, you have to have a conversation, create some perameters and say ‘Listen, this book was written in the 1880s and we’re not there anymore.’”
High school English teacher Jennifer Branstetter said Stillwell’s talk made her consider her own curriculum.
“In my classroom, I work very hard to make sure all of my students feel loved and accepted, but Obie's message inspired me to find areas in my teaching in which I could improve,” she said. “It really made me evaluate the books that we teach in school and how they could affect our students of color. It inspired me to reach out to my friend of color ... and ask her how to go about selecting novels to teach in class to avoid a devastating situation like that from ever happening in my classroom."
Peterson said Stillwell’s visit had a strong, positive impact on him and the schools’ staff.
“I think it's difficult for people who are in the majority to understand what it's like to be in the minority, so to have heard those types of situations and get a better understanding for that I think that had the biggest impact for me,” he said.
“What impacted me most about the training was the fact that even though Obie endured some very horrific race-related attacks, he remains positive about his school and life experiences and holds onto hope for a better future,” Branstetter said.
For Stillwell, it was a bittersweet experience.
“There was tears shed. I shed tears. Teachers came up, talked to me. We laughed, we cried,” he said. “It was really emotional. I didn’t realize how deeply some of the racism I had experienced at an elementary, at a junior high level, how much it hurt me. It's almost like a bruise that you kind of forget until you bump it.”
Nevertheless, he saw many educators dedicated to bringing about positive change.
“I think the most powerful thing about it was there were more people there to heal the bruise than had caused the bruise. That’s the story,” he said. “Change does not take time. Results of change may take time but change is immediate. You can change right now. Change is a decision.
“Is there going to be pushback as Madison moves forward to changing and creating more opportunities for black and brown people? Absolutely. But the thing is that you don’t need everybody for revolution. A revolution is never started with everybody.”
The revolution Stillwell hopes to see at his alma mater is not one led by one race or one side of the political aisle, but one that unifies.
“The revolution is actually love. As we continue to love and allow other people to love, the revolution gains fuel and gets further away from one identity,” he said.