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Charles Curtis-Thomas (left) and Shawn Sangeun Kim (right) founded Promoting Racial Awareness in Schools. (Photo from Shawn Sangeun Kim)

A team of Penn students, backed by a United Nations fellowship, is seeking to address issues of systemic racism through education, starting with the high school classroom.

Promoting Racial Awareness in Schools, founded by College seniors Shawn Sangeun Kim and Charles Curtis-Thomas, aims to implement educational initiatives that increase awareness of racism in the classroom. The duo is starting their work at Kim's alma mater Westwood High School in Washington Township, N.J., with hopes to expand more schools in the future.

The United Nations Academic Impact and the Millennium Campus Network awarded the pair the 2020 Millennium Fellowship to bring PRAIS to fruition. The fellowship is offered by the United Nations Academic Impact and the Millennium Campus Network to facilitate student-led projects that support the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. This year, more than 1,000 students from 80 college campuses worldwide were selected as fellows and will participate in a semester-long leadership program to boost their organizing and community impact skills.

Curtis-Thomas said receiving the fellowship and being recognized by the U.N. program was validating and has helped in approaching schools to participate in PRAIS.

At Westwood High School, Kim and Curtis-Thomas are in the process of establishing an alumni network and mentorship program to benefit students of color. The team also plans to assess the racial climate of the high school through interviews and school-wide surveys to identify common themes in students’ experiences, Kim said. Because every school has unique issues, curated solutions for these problems are important, Curtis-Thomas said.

“I think that support is incredibly essential and something that can help especially minority students [to] feel more accepted and comfortable in their schools," he said.

For the past several months, Kim and Curtis-Thomas have been meeting with faculty and administration from the high school to propose and implement their ideas. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their sessions are socially distant, they said, but being in quarantine has not hindered their project. 

Kim said that the idea to launch PRAIS first came to him while working on his senior thesis in sociology. His research on race in schools as well as initiatives to address discrimination in education inspired him to develop a program with tangible goals.

He added that his motivation was also personal — as a student of color at a predominantly majority-white school, Kim said he experienced microaggressions and prejudice that he did not realize were instances of racism at the time. These experiences, he said, influenced his interest in social justice and educational discrimination.

Curtis-Thomas, who is also studying sociology, said the pair started working together after discovering their shared interests in studying racial discrimination and educational equity. Both hail from New Jersey and added that their Christian faith solidified both their goals and their partnership.

Kim and Curtis-Thomas said they are hoping to expand the program to other high schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and to continue this work post-graduation. They plan to launch a social media campaign on their Facebook and YouTube for which they are looking for potential collaborators, they added. 

“Racism is a larger structure that continues to pervade every aspect of the education system and us in society," Kim said. "We’re really approaching it with an idea of reconciliation and educating the public and supporting minority students.”

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