Ibrahin Mena was caught off guard when a man commented on the color of his skin at a grocery store in Missoula on Friday, Jan. 4.
Instead of reacting at the moment, Mena, a teacher at Missoula International School, took to social media to share his feelings and urge others to talk about similar experiences in a now-viral video on Facebook.
In the video, Mena holds up the packet of kitchen sponges he was buying that day, and describes his encounter with another shopper. “The guy told me, ‘Those are perfect for you. You need to buy those to use for your skin. To use them, to take a shower and use it on your skin as much as you can until you can take your skin off,’” Mena says in the video.
Mena didn’t say anything to the man, but he told his friend and coworker, Ismara Partieas, what happened. He said he began crying when they got back to the car.
It wasn’t the first time that Mena has encountered racism in Missoula in the two years he’s lived here since moving from Venezuela. After the incident at the store, Mena wondered if he should start doing something about it.
He decided to make a video to share his thoughts.
“I think there is a message that needs to arrive in the heart of everybody in the world and it’s the message of love and it’s the message of helping one another instead of being a jerk with someone,” Mena said in the video.
Within a week, the video garnered 4,500 views and nearly 50 shares, as well as many supportive comments and messages.
Mena said he decided to make the video so people would realize racism and discrimination happen everywhere. He also saw an opportunity to turn the situation into a learning moment.
“I wanted to be an example because some kids are not able to speak up when something happened to them,” Mena said. “As a teacher, I would love for my students to speak up because I want to help them when they face a problem. Discrimination is no joke.”
Back at school, Mena and other teachers have continued to use the moment as a lesson.
Jeff Kessler, a teacher and the assistant head of school at Missoula International School, showed the video to his eighth-grade humanities class and asked them to write a response with their reactions and feelings.
“I wanted them to get out of it that even though we're a very open and accepting community, things like this are not just that things have happened a long time ago in the past, in the days of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Kessler said. “I also wanted them to see how someone on the receiving end of an action or a statement like that could process it and deal with it in a positive and constructive manner.”
Mia Jakob, an eighth-grader in Kessler’s class, said she was amazed by Mena’s reaction to the incident and admired his ability to avoid taking the insult personally.
“He took it and said, ‘I am loved by people and I just want to share that love,’” Jakob said, adding that it encouraged her to feel like she could speak up if something similar were to happen to her.
“It's always better to speak up and not keep your feelings inside,” Jakob said. “When you don't speak up, even just with friendship, there's always going to be that part of you that always regrets not speaking up.”
Some of Kessler’s students expressed surprise that the incident happened in Missoula, while others like Jakob wrote that they appreciated Mena’s message of moving forward with love in his heart. A few students said they would like to have a dialogue with the person saying hurtful things.
Gillian Kessler, a teacher at Missoula International School, also showed the video to her class on Friday. Mena said hi to the class and gave Kessler a hug, at which point he started to cry.
“This is called bravery right here,” Kessler said to the class.
The students watched the video and gathered in a circle on the floor to discuss their thoughts.
“I wanted to be an example of what you can do when something is happening to you because discrimination comes in many different ways,” Mena said. “It's not just because you are black or white, you can be discriminated for being tall, for being skinny, for having money. I want you to speak out when something happens to you.”
One student asked Mena why he thought the man insulted him, to which Mena explained some people grow up differently. Mena said he believes people can learn at any age and people can always shift their beliefs.
“I think in this country and the entire world have been working on improving but we still need to move more because these things still happen,” Mena said.
Overall, Mena said he has felt welcomed in Missoula. He’s grateful to be working here and he feels like he gives back to the community.
“I work so hard to be a good professional and I work with my heart every single day here,” Mena said in the video.
His work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Shortly after Mena posted the video, a student brought him a poster with supportive notes from her and her family members.
Other students have approached Mena to hug him and thank him for what he did.
“It has been super-touching for me,” Mena said. “Having adults telling you, but kids come to me and tell me that, it made me think that I am being a good example for them.”