West Ottawa student stands up for equality 


Emily Johnson

In the field outside of Michigan State BioEconomy Institute that sits perpendicular to the Unity Bridge, Sr. Isaiah Reynolds took a deep breath and bowed his head. Around him were his mom and dad who began praying. After the prayer,  he walked up the stage and towards the microphone, where he was greeted with an uproar of encouragement and optimism.  As he reached the tip of the stage, he scanned his surroundings, seeing thousands of unfamiliar faces, of all ages and races. But there is one common factor, they were all here for change; to fight for equality and stand for what is right.  

In recent months, the death of George Floyd has taken the world by storm. Floyd was arrested and ruthlessly killed by two police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. 

The reaction to the death of Floyd swept the nation as people called for change within the police force and for an end to systemic racism. Thousands of protests began just days after the news of Floyd’s death, including one in Holland. On June 7, Holland locals marched to the Unity Bridge in a peaceful protest.  

These protests aren’t limited to adults. High school and college students were also getting involved. Reynolds was one of the many speakers at the protest. Despite the short notice and initial anxiety, Reynolds felt very supported by the West Ottawa community during and after his speech . 

Growing up as a black male, Reynolds had to go through situations that not every kid has to endure. He shares that as a kid he was taught how to cooperate with police officers, such as putting his hands on the steering wheel, putting his keys on the dash, and recording in case something happens. “I shouldn’t have to fear the people that are supposed to be protecting me,” he said. 

Reynolds’ speech may have only lasted a mere 120 seconds, but within those 2 minutes, he educated thousands of people of all ages. His words not only struck the people he was speaking in front of but also made a heavy impact in his own life. 

“How people have reacted to my speech has been amazing. It’s amazing to see people come together and stand for equality. People think BLM is a political statement, but it is not. It’s fighting for equal rights, which has been an issue for hundreds of years. It has been cool and encouraging,” Reynolds said. 

This was Reynolds’ first time public speaking in front of a large group of people, and while some nerves were present, the excitement easily trumped the anxiety. It did not take much to convince him to speak at the Unity Bridge. When asked to speak by his private trainer, Henry Cherry, he jumped at the idea. 

Reynolds said, “I am somebody who has a voice in the community, and Cherry asked if I wanted to, as a young black man, speak in front of a group of people. I didn’t know how many people it was going to be. He just asked me if I wanted to share some words for two minutes on how I had been dealing with the protests along with racial issues that have happened in my past.” 

Reynolds only got a week’s notice to prepare and write the speech he would give, but this did not hold him back. During that week, he sat with his dad and brainstormed what to say. He tried his best to put his emotions, rage, and thoughts into a concise speech.  While writing his speech, he realized,  “This protest and movement wasn’t about me. It was about the black community, and speaking, not on behalf of, but speaking for the Black community.” 

On June 7, as Reynolds walked up to the stage, he saw thousands of people, all eyes were drawn to him. Like anyone else, the nerves that accompany public speaking built. For Reynolds, those nerves slowly dwindled as the crowd of strangers revealed itself to contain familiar faces. 

“I was extremely empowered and motivated seeing all the people I was speaking in front of. It was cool to see my former coaches, teachers, friends, and family members come out and support not only myself, but also the BLM movement,” Reynolds stated. 

Looking back on his speech, Reynolds was most surprised about the encouragement from others. “I was not prepared for the overwhelming support I received from people, more specifically the West Ottawa community,” he said. 

Many teachers, classmates, and WO families were at the protest supporting the black community and Reynolds. One teacher at the protest was Instructor Cathy Engel who is also an advisor for the Student Senate. 

“Hearing one of my students and student senators speak out about injustice and racism- and on how they have affected his life was both heartbreaking and inspiring. The fact that many of our students face racism, bigotry, and ignorance daily is something that must be changed. But to hear that those same students are working for change, and that, as their teachers, we must be allies for them, it inspires me to keep pushing for change,” Engle says. 

 Walking in the protest after his speech is when the support really came in. People congratulated and thanked him for his words. After making a post on social media about his speech, Reynolds continued to receive positive messages from people, praising him for using his young platform to educate others. 

“When you don’t know who has your back, it can be scary; you don’t know who to trust. But then after the speech, lots of WO teachers and families told me they have my back and that they are going to be with me through this whole movement,” Reynolds said after seeing all the support come in from the WO community. 

West Ottawa Public Schools is no foreigner to diversity. With about 2,232 students enrolled, over half of the students identify as another ethnicity or race other than white. According to the US News Report, “The total minority enrollment is 53% and 51% of the students are economically disadvantaged.” Being a diverse school brings great learning opportunities to students, builds character, and connects with peers on a different level. However, diversity also brings a set of responsibilities that need to be upheld by the school. And now more than ever, people want to see change, whether within the state, community, or even in the school system. Reynolds agrees; there needs to be change moving forward.   

 Reynolds said, “Something that I have noticed in the school, even before I moved to West Ottawa, was the lack of diversity among teachers. It is not something that bugs me all the time, but it is only a problem in that we call ourselves ‘diverse’, with a large, diverse group of students, but the teachers and administrators are almost all white. And I love my teachers; however, I think as a diverse school we need to have more diversity from the people above.”

Though Reynolds admits that there needs to be change, he reiterates that WO continues to be supportive of the diverse student body. 

“Though with that said, I believe that our school acknowledges our diversity rather than denying it. West Ottawa is proud to be a diverse school. I mean we have Spanish club, French club, Calling All Colors, etc. But I think diversity amongst teachers is an issue that needs to be solved as soon as possible because we do accept our diversity and to make kids more comfortable at school, having more teachers of color is a solution,” Reynolds said.  

Moving forward, Reynolds hopes to give more speeches and educate others on the BLM movement. He wants his peers and himself to be heard. “I hope everybody heard my words. I hope people are feeling educated and continue to educate themselves. I am still educating myself; I am only 18, I don’t know everything.” But Reynolds does know that the fight is not over. If there is one takeaway he hopes people have, it is that,  “Until there is equality, I will not stop talking.”