Students Find Voice Through Black Student Union

Feb. 6, 2023

Black Student Union groups within the San Lorenzo Unified School District are on a mission as a growing source of knowledge, pride, leadership and respect for Black students – and for all students.

“We are welcoming,” said Bohannon Middle School sixth-grader Sierra James, treasurer of a BSU club revived this fall by two counselors who are African American. “We try to invite as many people as we can to join. We ask our friends to come. The more popular and noticeable the club is, the more people it can affect.”

Black Student Union is making a post-pandemic comeback in secondary schools throughout the San Lorenzo Unified School District, where about 8% of all students identify as Black. BSU groups are gaining momentum at the two traditional high schools, Arroyo and San Lorenzo, as well as at Bohannon and Edendale middle schools, and another is being organized at Washington Manor Middle School. Students and advisors meet weekly for discussions and to plan activities such as field trips to Bay Area universities and a student gathering to promote attendance at the Black College Expo held Feb. 4 in Oakland. Latino, Asian and White students also participate.

“It’s a way for us to encourage students to take charge of the climate of the school or empower them to take charge of how they view school,” said Bohannon counselor Saidah Collins, who is a BSU co-advisor with counselor Mechelle Hicks, both of whom are in their first year in the district.

Activities at multiple schools

On Oct. 27, the Bohannon BSU performed a step-dance routine that included readings of Black poetry during a Black Family Night celebration presented at Edendale by the district’s African American Family Advisory Council (AAFAC). On Jan. 26, they toured San Jose State University. The students at Bohannon are preparing to present an original play called “Micro Aggressions” during their school’s second-quarter assembly on Feb. 15, with the intent of highlighting such unwelcome acts as people feeling free to touch their “Black hair.”

On Feb. 22, the Bohannon group will join BSU students from the other two SLZUSD middle schools on a daylong visit to the University of California, Berkeley that will include attending a performance of “OURstory,” a musical by the national Black touring company Schoolyard Rap. At 6 the next evening, at San Lorenzo Adult School, all BSU clubs are invited to take part in a Black History Celebration organized by AAFAC.

At Arroyo High, students in BSU are promoting a Spirit Week through Feb. 10 dedicated to Black History Month. Club President Lisa Kamau, a senior, said plans included making hallway posters that feature historic Black figures, reading of quotes from Black individuals during school-wide announcements and dress-up days such as Black-Out Day on Feb. 6, when students were encouraged to wear all black. The group also plans to present games and music during lunch. The BSU group at Arroyo High is planning something similar.

At Edendale, BSU students prepared and served a Thanksgiving meal for teachers using food provided through the neighboring Ashland REACH Youth Center.

Layers of benefits and impact

BSU students and their adult advisors describe the purpose and outcomes of the groups as being both inward and outward.

“Having them be able to speak of their own experiences together and be collective together is very empowering for them and it allows them to support each other,” said Cecelia Adams, an Arroyo counselor and BSU co-adviser with social sciences teacher Angela Kerubo.

Celeste Johnson, who works with the BSU group at Edendale in her role as a school-community liaison for SLZUSD, described BSU as a “place to come and be with somebody who looks like them – who they can be comfortable with if they have a need, issues they want to address or something they want to do in their school, to help them speak out.”

That point was echoed by Bohannon student Shani Ransom, an eighth-grader who is recording secretary for the BSU club. She said that throughout elementary school, she was often among a relatively small number of Black students.

“In most of it, I was like the only Black kid in class, so having a space where I could walk in and know I’m going to be heard and a space where people look like me, it’s really enlightening,” she said.

Johnson also stressed the role of BSU in teaching students – including non-Black students – about Black history.

“They’re learning about historical figures, things that happen historically,” she said, “and sometimes they share what they know – and sometimes they get a little confused on some things, and we’ll help them out and tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s right, but this also happened, or that didn’t actually happen, but this happened.”

Added Sydne Morris, a social science teacher and BSU advisor at San Lorenzo High, “It’s a really important time for them to learn their history and have a voice and learn about what people did in times when they needed to make their voice heard.”

The all-girl officers of BSU at Bohannon, who reflect a current shortage of participation by boys, express a belief in their ability to impact the entire school community. For example, they hope to discourage what they describe as some students’ social use of the N-word and passive acceptance of racial stereotyping.

Club Vice President Naila James, a seventh-grader, described her and other students’ involvement in BSU as “a way to let people know that we [Black students] are here and that pretending this ignorance is acceptable is not cool anymore.”