by Lisa Baniewicz
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — “Do not let anyone look down upon you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tm 4:12).
With support from their parents and community, three teenagers from Maur Hill-Mount Academy (MH-MA) in Atchison courageously stepped up to take a stand for something they believed in.
They trusted God to do the rest.
Tired of nationwide riots, senseless death and destruction from racism, they wanted to take a peaceful approach in their own town. They joined a newly formed group, Atchison United, to help create change in their hometown, which has an underlying history of racial discrimination.
The mission of these girls? To help change a street name from Division Street to Unity Street. It’s a quest that has already been attempted several times in the last three decades — and failed.
“It started as a dividing line between the county and city — there is no denying that,” Atchison Vice Mayor Abby Bartlett said. “However, that history has been altered by the ugly stain of racism.
“For many decades, ‘North of Division’ referred to the area of town where Black residents lived. When I moved to Atchison, that is how it was introduced to me.”
The Atchison teenagers participated in several events since United Atchison was formed in May. They marched in peaceful walks after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
In June, following a prayer service, the youth joined other Atchison residents in lining Division Street for several blocks and praying the street name would finally change. The street is home to both St. Benedict Elementary School and Lincoln Elementary, a now-abandoned segregated school that closed in 1997.
The teenagers were joined by Benedictine monks, Atchison police Chief Mike Wilson and other officers, families and teachers from MH-MA, St. Benedict School families, city commissioners and members of the Ministerial Alliance. Even Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica drove down the street with posters to show their support.
Then, on July 20, the girls faced their biggest challenge. They gave a presentation before the Atchison City Commission based on testimonies they’d gathered from members of the Black community and residents along Division Street. Armed with courage, faith and family values, they were ready.
“My parents have taught me that unfair treatment of people should never be tolerated, and that it’s our duty as Catholics to be a voice for those who are discriminated against,” MH-MA senior Sophia Hill said.
Kennedy Kelley, an MH-MA senior born in Atchison said, “My race and background motivated me. Having lived in Atchison my whole life, I’ve noticed that the Black community is underrepresented in a positive light.”
Even after practicing their presentation several times, MH-MA junior Alice McConnell Curry said, “I was very, very nervous! I wanted to make sure the testimonies of those we interviewed left an impact on the City Commission.
“Public speaking can be scary in general, but it is especially nerve-wracking when your presentation has the opportunity to make an important change in your community.”
At the meeting, Atchison United presented the commission with over 500 signatures in support of the name change and over 50 letters (only 3 in opposition) from community members. Following the presentation by Atchison United founder Sean Crittendon, the MH-MA students gave theirs.
After hearing input from others, the City Commission unanimously voted in favor of the proposal 5-0.
Thrilled with the outcome, Crittendon said, “Changing the name of the street dates back almost 30 years. I think the world of the teens that prepared and presented. They are natural leaders and for their efforts I truly believe that our future will be brighter than ever.”
Attending MH-MA, a Catholic boarding and day school, helps these girls see a bigger picture.
“Being friends with someone from another country gives you a lot of chances to learn about other cultures, as well as issues that exist worldwide, not just in the United States,” McConnell Curry said.
“It opens my eyes to how vast the world is compared to my small bubble and how filled with diversity it is,” Hill said.
Even though the proposal passed, it did not go without backlash on social media aimed at Atchison United and the teenagers.
“I saw a lot of comments on Facebook that tried to diminish what the Atchison United youth group accomplished because we are kids,” McConnell Curry said. “However, I think it says a lot for kids to be able to recognize a problem in their community and make a change.”
For other youth who may be hesitant to take a stand in their community, these girls offer this advice.
“Be courageous and stick to your beliefs,” Hill said. “If you see a need for change, then believe in it and fight for it.”
“You are never too young to make a difference, you just have to work hard for it,” Kelley added.
McConnell Curry was encouraged by the outcome.
“Before Atchison United, I just felt like being a part of change was outside of my reach — something for people in bigger cities or with more of an impact.”
The group has a lot of plans for the future.
“Renaming the street is symbolic and was definitely necessary for the future of our community,” Crittendon said. “But now the real work begins.”
To get involved with Atchison United, contact the group at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook Messenger on the Atchison United Facebook page.