When Hananeel Morinville, a sophomore at Shawnee Mission North, noticed her school lacked the opportunity to celebrate its diversity, she founded the school’s Black Student Union.
And when Olivia Henry, a junior at Shawnee Mission East, noticed the relatively lack of racial diversity at her school, she started researching the history of race and segregation through Race Project KC.
Both Shawnee Mission students were commended last night by Princeton alumni for their efforts to establish positive race relations in their communities. Morinville received the region’s Princeton Prize in Race Relations. Henry received a Certificate of Accomplishment.
The regional winners of the Princeton Prize each receive a cash prize of $1,000 and will attend a symposium on race at Princeton University, where they meet prize recipients from the 26 other regions in the country.
Celebrating diversity in a meaningful way
“I didn’t expect to win; it felt surreal,” Morinville said, citing her young age compared with seniors competing for the prize. She hopes to bring back lessons from the symposium and apply them to her future work with the union and post-graduation. “I’m hoping to…use that experience to better what I’m doing overall for my community.”
Morinville said it took a year to convince administrators that her idea would be positive and not divisive. As president of the union, she leads about 20 students who meet regularly to discuss race relations, watch films pertaining to the black community, volunteer in outreach efforts for their school and raise awareness for their efforts through parades and other school functions.
“I noticed that we had a diverse population, but it wasn’t celebrated in a meaningful way; they didn’t receive the recognition and acknowledgement that I believe diverse people should receive,” Morinville said, citing encouragement by her English teacher, Natalie Johnson-Berry, to create the Black Student Union. “Though the name says black in it, it’s open to all students to celebrate everyone, and it serves as a safe space for everyone.”
Morinville also serves on the executive board of the Harmony Club at SM North, which shows theatre performances featuring members of the black and Hispanic communities. Morinville says she hopes to become a civil rights attorney.
‘Still reeling’ from the effects of segregation
Henry has been working to educate and mitigate the effects of structural racism that came about through real estate policies enacted by developers in the Kansas City metro area, such as by J.C. Nichols. Many subdivisions in Johnson County had covenants that prevented people of color from owning homes in the neighborhoods, leading to a racial divide that has persisted for decades.
As an active member of Race Project KC, Henry partners with students from schools in Wyandotte County and the Paseo neighborhoods to research why different schools have different demographics.
“It was really eye-opening that I had gone my whole life and just never questioned why there was a less percentage of black people at my school,” she said, noting Kansas City’s stark racial dividing line at Troost Avenue. “The fact that we were still devastated due to these racial covenants and due to this history of real estate development lit a spark in me. People need to know about this.”
Henry has served on a panel for the American Association for State and Local History to share how real estate decisions years ago may be affecting other cities in the country. She plans to pursue a career in law or public policy.
“To have two students recognized by the Princeton group is really fantastic,” said Superintendent Mike Fulton. “I’m proud of both of them for the work that they’ve done on diversity, their vision for their world and what they want to create, not just for themselves but those around them.”
A Shawnee Mission student was named winner of the prize last year as well: Lauren Winston from SM East.