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Students Spend Racial Equity Day Hearing from Innocence Project Representatives

Two people on stage, sitting holding microphonesOn Wednesday, February 1, a crowd of students and staff gathered in the Hastings High School auditorium. The Innocence Project’s Forensic Science Policy Specialist Tebah Browne and Ambassador Greg Mingo were seated on stage, and Hastings’ high schoolers had a front row seat. 

The assembly, which kicked off Black History Month and recognized Hastings High School’s Third Annual Racial Equity Day, was the result of funding provided by the Race Matters Committee, and was organized by Hasting High School’s Racial Affinity Group and its student Co-presidents Victoria Pereira and Riya Chandra, Assistant Principal Melissa Hardesty, Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator and Affinity Group Advisor Dr. Jenice Mateo-Toledo, and Assistant Director of Special Education and Affinity Group Advisor Tesfa Stewart. 

Attendees directed their attention to the stage as welcoming remarks began. Taking the microphone, President of the Student Union, Owen Taylor, primed the packed audience. 

“Hello and welcome to Hastings High School’s Third Annual Racial Equity Day,” Taylor said. “Racial equity is what would happen if race wasn’t a factor in access to various opportunities such as healthcare, education, and wealth. Today, we have invited The Innocence Project to join us as we consider racial equity and the criminal justice system.” 

Taylor went on to explain The Innocence Project’s mission to free the innocent; prevent wrongful convictions; and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone. 

“Their work is guided by science and grounded in anti-racism,” he said. 

Introductions were made to Browne, the Forensic Science Policy Specialist at The Innocence Project, and Mingo, who, before being granted clemency and becoming an ambassador for The Innocence Project, spent over forty years in prison for crimes he did not commit.

Two educational videos were shown, one, about The Innocence Project, and the other, a documentary about Mingo

Delving deeper into discussion, Mingo told his story. He explained the challenges he and so many others have faced, the mindset he adapted to survive, his quest to become educated so that he could help others in similar situations, and the racial disparities that still exist in the system.

“I realized it came down to perception and how people see you,” Mingo said. “We see people we don't know, and we form perceptions about them. It’s a reality. But I don’t care what color your skin is or where you’re from. Race is a man-made concept and racial equity can only exist if everyone is inclusive.”

Browne also spoke, reiterating the goals of The Innocence Project and sharing more about her department’s role in exonerating the innocent and preventing wrongful convictions through policy reform. The process addresses issues like misapplication of forensics, false witnesses, and unreliable testimonies, and involves conducting post-conviction DNA testing. 

“We have a DNA database that allows us to see everything,” Browne explained. “We use it to prove a client’s innocence.” 

A Q+A segment rounded out the assembly, and a line was formed at the standing microphones in each isle. 

One student asked Mingo, “How did you stay positive all those years?”

“Attitude is everything,” he answered. “One of the things that got me through was not allowing my mind and my spirit to be locked down. Physically, I couldn’t change the situation. Emotionally, I could.” 

Students and staff left the assembly inspired by the words of the presenters and united by a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, and the history, tragedies and triumphs of everyday people.