Khalea Edwards, a senior at Kirkwood High School, has vivid memories of her early childhood that set her on a course that’s now gained her award-winning attention from Princeton University.
When she was 5, she remembers being in the back seat of a car with two of her younger siblings. Her mother was driving them from city school to city school trying to find a quality place for her children to learn.
“I remember my mom was bawling her eyes out,” Edwards said.
Edwards was eventually enrolled at a St. Louis elementary school. But in second grade, she and her siblings got what she considers a game-changer. They were accepted into the St. Louis city-county voluntary transfer program. She was bused to Kirkwood Schools.
Second grade in the predominantly white, middle-class school district proved challenging from her first day at Keyser Elementary School.
“I remember getting to the school, walking inside and my first reaction was, oh my God — everyone is white. It was like an obvious discomfort,” she said. “It was life-changing for me.”
“It was the first time I realized race was a thing,” Edwards said. “It was almost like I kind of had to market myself, and I was always friendly, and I was nice to everyone.”
Khalea didn’t grow bitter, even though she says a few of her classmates in elementary school were hostile to her skin color.
Instead, she’s taken on the issue of race and inclusion so profoundly, she’s been honored with a Princeton Prize in Race Relations out of Princeton University. The honor comes with $1,000 and a free trip to Princeton, N.J., to participate with prize winners from 27 regions in a forum on race relations at the end of this month. The intent is to build young leaders on the topic.
It’s a pretty big deal for a child who grew up in the middle of 16 brothers and sisters. Her mother has always provided for the family and others in need in their neighborhood, but the family has never had much. Khalea has never been on an airplane.
How did she grow into this role?
“She listens before she speaks, and she makes people feel cared about and that their voice matters,” said her high school social studies teacher Madeline Raimondo, who teaches a class titled “The Africa to America Experience.” “If she feels a tough conversation came up and someone was in the minority opinion, she will try to make them feel comfortable and check in with them and make sure the person will be in the conversation later.”
Edwards was chosen because, as Raimondo put it, “race relations was simply not a topic of discussion, and Khalea has elevated it to the forefront of our school.”
Khalea said her easygoing demeanor has enabled her to think and listen first, ask questions and speak last. And those grade school friends who were hostile to her?
“It’s weird, because we’re all, like, friends now,” she said.
As part of that effort, she’s jump-started a diverse Social Justice Club that meets weekly. She’s written numerous editorial columns on race and inclusion in the high school newspaper, The Call. She’s rallied other students to voice opinions about teacher recruitment to increase diversity. And she’s spoken with high school teachers and staff to help them become more culturally responsive to students and aware of hidden biases.
Jessica Vehlewald, director of professional development and supervision, said Edwards and other peers in the social justice group spoke to the entire district staff on a professional development day in February. The conversations led to staff discussions on topics such as, “Does everyone in this building feel important?” and “What about you?” in response to Edwards’ question about how active staff members were in dealing with issues of inclusion and social justice.
“I really would truly call her a change agent in this building,” Vehlewald said.
Edwards said she became active after taking Raimondo’s black history course her junior year, a year after she lost a brother-in- law to a fatal shooting in the city, setting the family on a series of sudden housing changes to find a safer area to live.
Edwards said the class helped her and other students to be more comfortable talking about their experiences. She was particularly surprised to learn how different her experience was from young black males going to school in Kirkwood. That led her to restart the social justice group.
“We make the group a safe place for all voices. We don’t care if you are liberal or conservative. We go over norms of the race conversation: Be open to different opinions,” Edwards said. “I think that now I have helped other people get in the habit about talking about race.”