Students at Robert E. Lee High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, got in really “good trouble” after pushing to rename their high school in honor of late US Rep. John R. Lewis.
They felt that the school’s name did not appropriately reflect its mission, nor the diversity of its current student body. And after a student-led drive for change, the Fairfax County School Board voted on Thursday to rename the school after the civil rights icon.
Luna Alazar, a senior at the time, spoke up at the first school board meeting on the subject this fall. She is now 18 years old.
“I would like if you imagine being a Lee High School student. We are a tremendously diverse community with strong ambitions and remarkable unity. We are charismatic and full of pride. We have different ideas and imaginations that make us truly unique. However, we are named after someone who doesn’t represent us at all,” she told the Fairfax County School Board in October 2019.
The school’s student body is largely made up of minorities – 45.46% Hispanic or Latino, 23.94% Asian, 14.93% White and 12.97% Black, according to the county’s website.
“It’s kind of like a slap in the face to say that we go to Robert E. Lee High School, the Confederate general, the man who was fighting against the Union in favor of slavery,” Edward Cariño, a 15-year-old Filipino immigrant and rising high school junior, said.
Alazar said that while some alumni present at the board meeting supported the need for a name change – some saying they were embarrassed to show their children a diploma with the name Robert E. Lee – others were adamant that changing the name would erase years of Virginian history and Lee’s heritage.
She said she felt hopeless after that winter meeting. Many older community members who opposed the name change told her she was just a student, without experience or knowledge.
“Why should we listen to you?” they asked.
The effort to rename the school, however, was reignited in recent months, inspired by the current national reckoning on racial justice.
In June, during a virtual meeting of the school board, many students, including Alazar and juniors Amanda Hurst and Nour Kassem, stressed that they are the current face of the school and that they have to deal with the ramifications of the school’s name every day.
“It feels very ungenuine for all of us to say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ if our school’s name is Robert E. Lee and we haven’t tried to change the name,” Hurst, 16, said in an interview, speaking to the reason many students spoke up en mass this summer.
Following community-wide pleas for change, the school board announced it would hold a one-month period of public comment on possible new names. Name suggestions included Mildred Loving and Cesar Chavez.
At the end of that period, the school board voted unanimously to rename the school after Lewis.
‘Good Trouble’ in action
Lewis, a champion for civil rights, famously inspired young people to stand up for what they believe in.
When asked about Lewis’s legacy and how they will honor his commitment to civil rights, Fairfax County students shared that, in part, they have already embodied ‘good trouble’ by fighting to rename their school.
With plans to create a social justice committee, and discussions around revising the school’s curriculum to be more representative of their diversity, these students will continue to speak up for change in their community.
Edward Cariño, 15
“We are using our voices to ruffle people’s feathers in order to make some good change, because in order to make change, I mean, some people are going to be opposed to it obviously… (we’re) using our voices to advocate for what’s right.”
Luna Alazar, 18
“I still stood up and I still fought, even though many people were against me or didn’t care about what I had to say. And I think that’s ‘good trouble’ because you’re fighting for a cause that means more to you than it does to many… it supports many that have been so lost. So many students at my school who feel like they aren’t supported, felt supported after this name change. They felt that they were heard because before they didn’t feel like they had a voice, but now they know they do.”
Farva Khan, 16
“We’re planning on starting a new committee for our class at John Lewis called the social justice committee to highlight students’ civic engagement and activities and opportunities because John Lewis was an advocate for young voices, and we believe it’s the best way to honor him. And we want students, like he stated, to get into ‘good trouble’ by using their voices to advocate for change.”
Rawan Hashim, 15
“We want to have a ‘good trouble,’ committee, we also want to meet and talk and get the word out to other students about any social injustices. We have a lot. From everything going on right now, we did notice that our community needs more awareness. A big issue right now is racial injustice. The school’s named after John Lewis. It’s very important for them to know what he did in terms of fighting against racism.”
Amanda Hurst, 16
“We think (Fairfax County Public School’s) curriculum is very White-washed and very Eurocentric… It’s supposed to be world history, yet we don’t learn about women, we don’t learn about people of color, and we’re hoping that we can push for (Fairfax County Public Schools) to really change their curriculum and really remove the White-lensed glasses that are currently on it.”
Nour Kassem, 16
“In my history class, government class actually, we learned about Martin Luther King’s, ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ And I know he talked briefly about, if you know something is wrong, test the limit, and if a law is wrong, you know, break it… so you can show how wrong it is. I feel like that kind of represents ‘good trouble’ in a way, where you’re causing trouble to show light on something… I think it’s like the protests, you know, they wanted to show how unjust everything was, and I guess you could say they got into good trouble, and things are changing now.”