Building a Supportive Space for Black Students: UCLA Community School’s Black Student Union

By: Samantha Hill

UCLA Community School’s mission is to prepare all students to live rich and meaningful lives through a supportive community. The educators at UCLA Community School (UCLA-CS) make this mission abundantly clear with the care and passion they have for creating an enriching and safe environment for its students. So when the global pandemic struck the world, the staff at UCLA-CS rallied together to carry out this mission despite the many challenges that COVID-19 brought. Among those challenges was the heightened exposure to police brutality and abhorrent racism in America. Stay at home orders as a result of the pandemic literally forced people to stay home and watch the racist and anti-black atrocities that many of our Black students and families have been dealing with for generations. This was a moment where everyone in America was forced to look at their own individual missions in the fight against racism.

As a black woman, I am not a stranger to systemic racism and the history of violence and hostility towards my people. Yet, I still took this moment to reflect on my own experience being Black in America while thinking of the unique experiences of Black students growing up in America today. For me, that moment brought up feelings of disconnectedness, anxiety, guilt, and frustration among many other negative feelings. I remember feeling very alone in my struggles within the school community as one of the few Black staff members at UCLA-CS. Fortunately, I found strength in connecting with my two other Black co-workers, Aliyah Hicks and Ida Legesse. I imagined that they were experiencing similar feelings and that we could find solace in each other.

That summer we had many talks with each other about the best way to address our pain and how we could begin to heal the pain that we knew some of our Black students at UCLA-CS—where less than 3% of the student population is Black, were feeling. UCLA-CS is situated in a largely immigrant neighborhood, and while the majority of the school’s population are students of color (99%), only 25 of approximately 1,000 students, grades TK-12, are Black. As a small group of three Black staff members at UCLA-CS, this reality provoked some serious reflection about the mission at UCLA-CS. Could we really prepare ALL students to live rich and meaningful lives through a supportive community? If we asked the few Black students on our campus if they felt UCLA-CS was providing them with a supportive community, would they say, “yes?” And, did we feel that we were in a supportive community as the few Black staff members at our school?

These questions sparked an initiative on the part of Ida, Aliyah, and I to do more for the Black community within our school. We recognized the dire need to uplift and celebrate the few Black voices that we had, which is why we decided to start the Black Student Union (BSU). Starting a BSU during a pandemic and during distance learning were huge obstacles to overcome, but we were able to create a space for our Black students and allies through our collaborative efforts. When we began our work in October, one of our student members, Saira Whitfield, thanked us for starting the BSU and expressed that she had tried to start one in the past and was unsuccessful. Saira, whose 9 siblings also attended UCLA-CS, shared,

“I had a terrible experience of starting a BSU. We planned events that never happened. In the end it was just me and my sisters and we felt like we were the only Black students at the school. It never felt like we were connecting as Black people WITH other Black people and community within our school. I like the BSU we have now because we are getting into our Black culture. It makes us feel like we have a voice and really relate to each other, and not just between my sisters and I.”

Now in our sixth month of having a BSU, Ida, Aliyah and I work hard to facilitate dialogue and activities that help our students feel connected through and learn about Black culture and history. While having a BSU through distance learning poses many challenges, we meet every week and do as much as we can with the students who are able to show up to meetings. Whether that is creating ways to celebrate Black History Month, having discussions about the never ending cases of law enforcement mistreating and brutalizing Black bodies, or designing our own unique BSU merchandise, we try to make every meeting meaningful. We stand by the mission at UCLA-CS to create a truly supportive environment for all students. BSU serves to represent that mission as a safe and comforting space for our Black students to express themselves and ultimately lead others in uplifting the Black voice on our campus.

To learn how you can support UCLA-CS’s Black Student Union, contact Sam Hill at samanthahill1@lausd.net

 

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