Youth Activist Uses Social Media to Call Out Racism at Former School

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

When Deborah Ode found out she received an academic scholarship to the prestigious Morristown-Beard School in New Jersey, she wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

Deborah Ode reading an original poem at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Scotch Plains, N.J., on April 17, 2021. (Jayden Manasse)

As a Black teen from a single-parent family, Ode relished winning awards from her headmaster and for her Spanish. Her peers looked forward to her poetry performances at student events. However, these accomplishments couldn’t offset the constant racism she faced. She transferred to a local public school in 2020, just before her senior year.

“There were many occurrences where I personally would be verbally attacked, called the N-word, or had microaggressions thrown at me by teachers,” said Ode, 19, who will be attending Pace University this fall.

When a friend sent her a video of Morristown-Beard seniors mocking the death of George Floyd in June of 2020, Ode posted the video publicly on her Instagram account, tagging the school to get its attention.

“I was so upset,” Ode said, “not only for them making fun of George Floyd, but for the fact that after all these years, Morristown-Beard still had not addressed the racism in the school.”

Founded in 1891, Morristown-Beard is a private middle and high school located in Morristown, New Jersey, with a yearly tuition of around $45,000 per year and a predominantly white student body.

A few days later, Ode was sent a second video. This time, it was a Morristown-Beard student joking on TikTok about buying slaves. She again posted the video and continued posting as she received more. She said that although the reactions she received were mixed, many were unsurprised to see long-standing racism at the school finally being unearthed.

Deborah Ode leading a Black Lives Matter rally at Rally Floods Hill, South Orange, on July 4, 2020. (Laila Hoff)

“I was frustrated because everyone who sort of turned a blind eye to [the racism] pretended it was shocking,” said Sam Rivera, a 2021 graduate from the school. “This is what happens when you sweep this stuff under the rug.”

Throughout the summer, Ode led Morristown-Beard students and alumni in signing petitions and engaging in activism over social media, also creating an Instagram account for the BIPOC students to share their experiences anonymously.

The first public response from the school came soon after it was tagged in Ode’s first post. The school’s statements (released June 21, June 24 and July 20) promised improvements, including a new diversity, equity and inclusion department and the creation of a new Racial Justice Task Force in July of 2020 to ensure “real and structural change.”

“I realized that my voice does matter,” Ode told Ms. “I realized that when I do speak out, people will listen.” (Laila Hoff)

This past June, the school announced a five-year strategic plan to support its marginalized students. It promised to review its protocol surrounding discrimination and make changes in its hiring practices.

“We have hired 11 BIPOC faculty and staff since 2020,” said Klarissa Karosen, a director of DEI at Morristown-Beard. “We believe all of our students benefit from a diversified faculty, but it is imperative for BIPOC students to see themselves within the adults in our learning community.”

In addition, Morristown-Beard is collaborating with the Black Alumni Alliance, a group of 64 graduates now working towards the improvement of the school’s DEI program.

In the community itself, these gradual changes have begun to take effect in the attitude of its members.

Ode leads a rally of students on July 4. (Laila Hoff)

“The efforts of Deborah made [the teachers] put a mirror up to themselves, and finally see what was going on,” said a former teacher at Morristown-Beard, who is remaining anonymous due to new employment.

But for Ode, the biggest personal success of all was realizing the power her own voice had through her impact at the school.

“I realized that my voice does matter,” Ode said, “I realized that when I do speak out, people will listen.”

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Serena Li is a student journalist and high school senior from Basking Ridge, New Jersey.