Early in my teaching career, I worked in inner-city schools where students were predominately black and where the programming reflected the population. Prior to any large-group event at every person in the auditorium would stand and belt the Black National Anthem, “Lift ev’ry voice and sing,” and clubs like Black Student Unions (BSUs) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters were commonplace and well attended. I always admired these groups and the power and voice they gave to students. But now that I work in a school where the students are predominantly white, upper-middle class and privileged, I’ve come to believe even more strongly in the importance of such extracurricular opportunities. In fact, I now believe that every school, even—actually, especially—schools like mine, needs to have a BSU and other safes spaces for students.
Not long ago, my current school didn’t have a BSU, or really any group or organization focused specifically on educating and inspiring our black students. Thankfully, this changed about a year ago, when a handful of black students approached a teacher about starting a BSU. Initially, they were afraid no one would join, but after a few months, the group grew and found its place in the school.
The first major event organized by the BSU was a black history celebration written, produced and directed entirely by its student members. I attended this event in the heart of Black History Month and was greeted at the door by Black Student Union members proudly displaying their general membership t-shirts and high spirits. Hip-hop, jazz and afro-beat music played overhead in the auditorium as the audience settled in. When the lights dimmed, a BSU member greeted the audience, introduced himself and led the crowd in reciting the Black National Anthem.
As the event continued, students graced the stage with their talents and testified their experiences that the predominately white school hadn’t been used to witnessing. This event created a safe space for black students. They were able to express their truths—truths about their experiences—and their perspectives. After each performance, the crowd cheered and snapped their fingers to agree with the messages being presented on stage.
With the initial butterflies of the performance in the past, confident young black men and women took the stage citing pieces composed by black legacies like Maya Angelou, Tupac, Martin Luther King and Nikki Giovanni. For the first time, I heard many black students speak out about the different barriers and prejudices they endure in Minnesota. Black, male students spoke about why people fear them. Somali students described what’s it like to live in a place—a country they call home—where many unfairly view them as terrorists. Muslim females talked about how the hijab is continuously portrayed in a negative manner. For the first time, students, educators and community members were able to hear direct and public testimony about black students’ experiences.
There was something special taking place that night—something everyone in that audience could feel. I saw young men and women find their voice right before my eyes. Taking the stage meant standing up and saying things that had never been said in the history of this school and district. Students who might often feel like outsiders at school have found, perhaps, the one place at school that validates their history and lived experience.
Spaces and events like this are crucial and would not be available if it weren’t for Black Student Unions. When schools and districts look to narrow persistent racial disparities, they must not ignore extracurricular activities, as their existence—or absence—matters greatly to students.
In order to ensure that black students, and all students, feel safe, inspired and connected to school, we have to encourage BSUs and other student-focused groups to grow and flourish; to give them a space not only to host performances like the one I saw last month, but to engage with the school in other ways, like advising school boards, sitting in on interviews and helping to shape district policy.
An active BSU can encourage growth and communication within the district and become a resource and asset not just for students, but the community at large.
Matt Batesky is a high school special education teacher outside of the Twin Cities. He has worked with students in grades 10-12 for the past three years, teaching academic skills courses, English, United States History and World History. Matt is also a member of the staff equity book club and the school's equity team. Prior to teaching in Minnesota, Matt was a New York City Teaching Fellow, spending eight years in Brooklyn public middle and high schools teaching secondary special education students and general education high school social studies. Matt's passions lie in racial equity, differentiation to meet student needs and culturally responsive teaching.The
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