People & Places

Making of an Activist : Noel Riby-Williams

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an invitational series chronicling the varied, complex experiences surrounding the Black Lives Matter flag in Vermont’s school communities. The first installment in the series offered a snapshot of the current debate; this profile of Noel Riby-Williams returns to the beginning of the story, at Montpelier High School.

This series will run through the spring semester. There are stories from several schools underway, and we welcome contributions from high school or college students across the state. For more information about this series or other submissions, please contact Ben Heintz, the Workshop’s editor, at [email protected].

by Anika Turcotte, of Montpelier High School

When Noel Riby-Williams was in elementary school, she was quiet. When peers made racist comments, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. Once on the bus, two girls behind her kept touching her extensions. She was too intimidated to tell them to stop, so she just sat still and silent, letting them play with her hair. 

Noel is no longer the girl she was in third grade. “Nowadays I could never keep quiet about that,” she said, remembering the day on the bus. This year Noel is a junior at the University of Vermont and is a strong advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. Last June she organized a BLM protest that drew Vermonters by the thousands to the Statehouse lawn. 

One pivotal moment in Noel’s transformation from bystander to activist was in 2018, when she orchestrated the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School.

Young Noel

Noel and her family moved from Ghana when she was one year old. Both of her brothers were born in Vermont. 

As a child of color, Noel stood out in Montpelier. Her father, Emmanuel Riby-Williams, remembered that she liked to spend time with her neighborhood friends, even though they treated her badly.

“She loves them and enjoys their company,” Emmanuel said, “but they treated her differently because she is different.” 

The kids ganged up on Noel and told the other children that they should not play with her. In the mornings, they would pick on her at the bus stop. That made Noel and her family uncomfortable, so her bus route was changed. 

That was not the only challenge Noel faced growing up. She remembers coming to school smelling of Ghanaian food. The girls behind her in line would wrinkle their noses and laugh. 

“The Montpelier schools tried to fix things,” Noel said, “but it didn’t really help.” 

Finding her voice

The more these kinds of racist encounters occurred, the more frustrated Noel became. She was growing older and was learning that this kind of treatment from her white peers should not be normalized.

When Noel was in high school, her younger brother was called a racial slur by a classmate. Unsure of what to do, she reached out to her cousin, Joelyn Mensah, who had founded the Racial Justice Alliance at Montpelier High School. Joelyn contacted teachers and made it clear that the family would not tolerate being in classes with the student. 

“I really saw the power I could have by advocating for myself,” Noel said of Joelyn’s actions. “She is my biggest inspiration.”

Students were not the only ones who Noel thought needed to rethink their views. In a high school English unit on feminism, she observed that the focus was on white women and their struggles. Noel wanted to see equal representation for women of color, who were breezed over in the unit. She knew that Black women and minorities had endured more hardship historically, which the unit did not acknowledge. 

These kinds of events were on her mind when Noel heard about UVM raising the Black Lives Matter Flag in the fall of 2016. Noel approached Kerrin McCadden, an English teacher at Montpelier High. McCadden had been overseeing an independent study with Noel, who was writing a book of poetry about her experience as a young Black woman, anecdotes from her life and her return visits to Ghana. 

“She had not been to Ghana since she was a little girl,” McCadden said, “and going back home, seeing her family, that was very powerful for her.” 

Noel compiled her work into a book, “Naa Lamiley,” her traditional Ghanaian name. McCadden recalls many hours in her classroom with the desks set up in a square, while the two walked around to determine the best order for the poems.

Noel told McCadden how impressed she was with the flag raising at UVM and offhandedly wished she could do the same thing in Montpelier. McCadden told her she should seriously look into it. McCadden knew that this was something the community would support and needed to be done, and that Noel and the Racial Justice Alliance were the ones to do it. 

“I don’t think that — if she hadn’t said those words — I would have had the confidence to take it further,” Noel said. “It’s how the whole thing started.” 

Bringing Black Lives Matter to Montpelier

Raising the BLM flag at Montpelier HIgh School, Feb. 1, 2018

With much of the MHS staff, students and the Racial Justice Alliance behind her, Noel was ready to bring Black Lives Matter to Montpelier High School. Joelyn and Noel approached Mike McRaith, the principal at the time, in the fall of 2017. They asked him about raising the flag, which had never been done at a public high school.

For McRaith, there was not much of a decision. “Here were two students who came up to me and essentially asked, Do we matter to you? Do our lives matter?” he said. “For me, it was really that simple.” 

As soon as she initiated the process, however, Noel encountered challenges. Brian Ricca, former superintendent of the Montpelier School District, warned the Racial Justice Alliance that if they were to fly the BLM flag there could be serious backlash. It could also lead other social movements to use the school to promote their causes.

In a 2018 blog post, Ricca remembered that he “was not thrilled about the idea.” After more discussions with the Racial Justice Alliance, Ricca did eventually change his mind and support the efforts to fly the flag at Montpelier High School. 

“Fortunately, the Racial Justice Alliance continued to have conversations with me,” Ricca said in a recent interview. “I wanted to find a way to say yes.” 

The Racial Justice Alliance presented a slideshow presentation to the school faculty, where its members stood up in front of the staff and recounted experiences they had with racism in their school community. McRaith never forgot one student’s story of learning about lynchings in social studies class and how a white student commented that it looked like a “good time.”

After understanding what some of their students were enduring, whether it was racist jokes or use of slurs, faculty members were eager to do better. Many teachers were crying. Raising the flag would symbolize a commitment to a better future for students in their school system. 

Noel and the Racial Justice Alliance successfully presented their message to the school board and gained traction in the high school. The majority of the Montpelier High School community was ready to stand by their Black classmates and there was overwhelming positive support from the students.

Soon a date, Feb. 1, 2018, the first day of Black History month, was set for the ceremony.

In the days before the flag raising, Noel was nervous. She was more worried about her public speaking than any opposition. “I trusted that our community would come together for this,” she said. 

It took the entire Racial Justice Alliance to make it happen, and but together the students had succeeded. Mary Anne Songhurst, Mandy Abu Aziz, Joelyn, Noel and much of the Montpelier schools community watched the flag creep higher up the pole. As the flag reached the top of the pole, Noel was in tears. She was so proud of what she and the other students had achieved. 

Noel’s whole family was there together. Her father, Emmanuel, was in tears. He said it was incredible to see how far Noel had come since elementary school, when she was bullied for being different. 

Many in central vermont were supportive of the flag raising at MHS, but that was not the case for the national audience. The ceremony earned national headlines on CNN and other national networks. 

“It was a pretty intense time,” Remembers McRaith. The highschool staff received emails in protest of the flag raising from an individual with the alias “Russel James.” It was difficult for the staff; they were personally receiving emails with aggressive language and there was a general fear for the wellbeing of students and faculty members.

“I had my fair share of death threats” McRaith said, noting that most threats originated from other parts of the country. After the major media frenzy passed, things calmed down and there was no major consequence to the school.

For Noel, the Black Lives Matter Movement was personal. “I do a lot of what I do for my brothers,” she said, referencing the dangers of being a black man. “So when I see the names of George Floyd or Tamir Rice, I see my brothers’ names, I see my brothers’ faces — and that pushes me to keep going.” 

Moving forward 

Since the initial flag raising at MHS, Noel has continued to be involved in the Montpelier school community. She has watched the BLM Flag raised for the first time at Main Street Middle School, and still works with the high school’s Racial Justice Alliance. 

In recent years, the curriculum in school has become more inclusive. McCadden’s English class has a large unit on Black voices in contemporary literature to explore race with her students. “We just make sure that there is never a year where the dominant voice is all white,”  McCadden said. The MHS English department also made the decision to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird due to the negative impact it had on students of color. 

Noel pursues her advocacy work in new settings as well. She is part of the Main Street Middle School Affinity Group, president of African Student Association at UVM and the co-chair of Dream at UVM, a group that mentors youth around the state. 

Last summer, Noel Riby-Williams organized the large Black Lives Matter Protest in Montpelier. After a Burlington protest, she realized how important it would be to have a similar event in her hometown. She brought together former MHS students and began reaching out to as many people as she could. As the protest neared, Riby-Williams realized the attendance was going to be far greater than anticipated. 

When the day arrived and it was time for her to take the mic on the steps of the Statehouse, she was just as nervous as she had always been. But this time, something was different. Once she began addressing the crowd of over 5,000 her confidence rang out across the Capitol lawn.

“I’m still a little bit timid and shy, especially with public speaking,” she said. When she watched videos of herself from the June protest, she was surprised by the power in her voice: “I was like, oh my gosh, is that me?”

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