BSU Student Leadership: Personal Perspectives

As College Prep renews its commitment to centering the work of racial justice across all aspects of school life, student leaders on campus are energized and focused, engaging their peers and teachers in meaningful ways. We sat down with the student leadership of the Black Student Union, Gisele S. ’22, Isaac C. ’21, Sydney G. ’22 and Joy J. ’22 to hear how the events of this past summer and their personal experiences at College Prep have shaped their perspectives as leaders.

Q: How have the stories posted on the @BlackatCollegePrep Instagram site this past summer impacted you personally?
GISELE: I think a lot of people reacted to this account as if it was this moment of revelation. But I think for most black individuals who have interacted with the CPS community, it's nothing new. We've been hearing about this for years, but it's never been publicized in the same way. Of course, It’s still really disheartening to relive these stories. In all of the posts there's a lot of pain, frustration, and sadness. Reading each and every one of them can be emotionally draining.
ISAAC: Obviously Black people at College Prep experience this all the time, but it's just swept under the rug or maybe even deflected, that might be a better word. If I were to reach out to someone and say, "This person said this to me," kids or teachers might say, "Oh, they might be joking." On top of that, I also have felt like I was drowning in a way. I had zero allies. All the white friends I had, when I talked about one them saying the N-word in front of me, they'd tell me I was being overly sensitive. They just don't understand and they don't want to understand. So, it was nice to see that something was forcing the issue. It allows us to reflect on the question of was this really an issue that we as a school prioritized before this, or was it a facade? More personally, I guess it was nice to see that there are enough Black people that go to the school that have these experiences. It's still always tough to read these things and to relive them, but it was nice.

SYDNEY: I definitely agree with Isaac, that it was frustrating it took such a public thing like this page for any sort of conversation to be started around these issues. We've been having meetings for years with the administration. They've called all the Black students together to talk about what sorts of change they want to see, and we would list all these things and then nothing happened. But I think, on the flip side, it was really good to see a lot of my classmates getting more agitated for me, because with only a couple of us at the school, it's hard to bear the whole weight of having to be the few Black people who are angry about what's happening to us. It's really comforting to have all these other non-Black and white friends, sharing the stories, reading them, and standing up to support us.

JOY: My freshman year I wasn't friends with any of the black students so I didn't really have anyone to talk to about my experience of coming to this school. I felt crazy for two years because I had nobody to talk to about what was happening, so @BlackatCollegePrep reassured me that I wasn't overly critical of the school, and I was too hard on myself. It felt nice to have some sense of community because I think a lot of times when we don't talk about these things, we just become the outliers. It feels like it's just us against this whole school, and nobody else can see what's happening. It's like we have different visions or something. It was interesting to see we all, collectively, have had these bad experiences, we just never had a place to talk about them.
Q: The BSU is having regular meetings now with the Head of School, but you’ve also had direct conversations with the administration in the past. What kinds of changes are you asking for?
GISELE: A lot of the things we've been asking for started my freshman year. I've been asking to have at least one black teacher, not staff, in one of my classes, since the day I first had a conversation with the Administration. I get that hiring someone is a process and it doesn't happen overnight, but for that to not happen all these years consecutively is incredibly disappointing and frustrating. But I do think that now it finally feels like College Prep has understood that they need to prioritize our concerns. Until I see more Black students enrolling, or the School reaching out into communities with more Black people, I can't feel that our needs have been met. I also think we need to change the way we teach our history, because it's not fair to Black students to not be taught their history. I didn't learn anything about any African culture besides the fact that Europeans came and took them as slaves. I think we need to change the way some of these curriculums are formed with their white-washed point of view. I think all classes need a better support system for their Black students, because it's tiring to be the only Black person in the room and have no one else understand you.
Q: Considering the School’s current equity and inclusion plan and what is prioritized, is there any particular area of that plan that you think is going to have the most impact?

SYDNEY : I'm excited about having more of these mandatory and facilitated conversations during advisory and Life Prep. I think we still have a lot of wrinkles to iron out in terms of the administration of them, and just how we're monitoring these conversations, in general. But I think in past years it's been hard because we've only had, maybe two mandatory conversations about Black issues, and now I think we're having, maybe five or 10. Obviously it depends on how they're actually executed but that's pretty promising.

ISAAC: I also think what will be most impactful is just getting more Black faculty, teachers, and also students, because we can't really make policy about Black people without Black people at the school. The BSU needs to be involved in basically everything now, because we're not at that point of being comfortable with all that the administration is doing. It’s difficult to have these conversations with faculty members about Black issues if there are literally no Black teachers.
Q:  What inspired you to step up and take a leadership role in BSU?

JOY: Coming from a public school, my perspective has always been different from others at College Prep because I didn’t have the same experience. I've had to work really hard at College Prep to make sure that my grades look like what they did when I was in middle school. In my freshman year I was having a really hard time figuring out where I wanted to be, and by my sophomore year, two of my peers reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join them being a BSU leader. I've always wanted to shape conversations and encourage people to speak up and have uncomfortable conversations. That's why I did it.

ISAAC: In middle school, I started the BSU with my friend who attends CPS with me, Dimitrios, and my other two Black friends. It took a lot of time and emotional strain, as an eighth grader, to work with that administration, but it worked out. For a few years at College Prep, I didn't feel like I had the ability to do it because first, I just didn't have time with school and sports, and also, I just didn't want to deal with another administration. It just didn't seem like I was going to be able to do anything. When Ahmaud Arbery was killed, no one said anything. At assembly, we’ve talked about people dying every time there's a mass shooting. With Ahmaud Arbery, we just didn't address it, and that was really heartbreaking to me because when I look at people like George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, I see myself and my friends in the reflection. It's pretty horrifying to feel like your school doesn't value you, or profits off of pretending they do. So, I'm just upset with that. I'm still upset, because I don't think anything is really being done yet. I haven't seen anything ... Before I even joined BSU as a leader, there was no transparency with me or any of the Black students. College Prep’s response to the racial injustices of this year pushed me to step up. I took a leadership role to ensure - with my peers - that by the time I graduate there are adequate systems in place to continue these conversations and uplift marginalized voices. 

Q: What do you feel should be your focus now as BSU leaders?

GISELE: I think in an ideal world, we would love it if BSU were more like a club that could solely focus on both the challenges we face and also celebrate Black joy and work on creating a space where we can just discuss things. Instead, we’ve taken on an organizational role and we’re constantly meeting with different people to help them re-examine their work through an E&I lens. Even between BSU and the Black students on campus there's a disconnect. We can try our hardest to relay all the information, the little information we get from admin, but they're getting even less information. So, I think we need transparency. As a BSU leader this year, I think we all want to focus on being representatives and voicing their opinions. We've just felt like no one's being heard, and they felt like they're not being heard. Black students don't even know about interviews like this, or the fact that the website has a whole new mission statement, because College Prep shows the outside community and their Instagram, but their Black students don't see it.

SYDNEY : I think it's important that if you're a non-Black leader you're uplifting stories of Black joy and Black success because I think, for a lot of white people especially those who have now been learning now about how severe racism is in this country, it can feel like the appropriate response is to repost videos of Black people being brutally murdered, or these intense stories. As a Black person, when I see these things it's really jarring. They take this very brutal and intense approach to having these conversations, which on the one hand is warranted because it's a really serious topic, but on the other hand it can sometimes create a white savior situation where Black people are constantly in pain and struggling and the Black experience is bad and harsh. I understand that there's a component of that, but I think it's also important to be talking about some of the fantastic things Black people have created. Some of the successes. I mean, Zendaya won an Emmy the other day. Isn't she the second Black person or Black woman to win an Emmy? I think it's important to have a balance so that people don't get a one-sided view of what a Black person is or what being a Black person is. Because being Black is not just being in pain, there's so many beautiful components of the culture and of the people that I think, as a good leader, you need to be involving that in your conversation as well.
Q: What do you feel would be the best way for the School to increase the transparency of its work with the students?

GISELE: Just tell the students, this is what we're doing and what we're trying. I know College Prep's going to make some mistakes along the way, I'd be surprised if they didn't; but I think that they just need one meeting, two meetings, where they’re laying out their plans and the new policies they’re working on, throughout the year to keep people updated.

ISAAC: Going off of that, I think that there's a white fragility as a school that comes with all of the polish when they address racism. Whenever we speak with the administration about some wrongdoing that they've done, it's just a defense mechanism, they say, "Oh no, that's not us. We corrected that." We don't want empty apologies. The school needs to take ownership and vulnerability through actions. I know that a lot of my Black peers, who aren't in BSU, ask me literally every week, "Is there any update on what the school's doing, I know you guys are doing hard work and stuff but I don't really know what's going on." I don't want to have to tell people what the administration is doing, because that's not my job. If we need to tell people that we are doing equity and inclusion work behind the scenes, we are failing to meet the expectation. In order to increase transparency, we need to be more involved as a community through mandatory workshops and conversations, engaging our students and faculty in constructive ways. We are yet to have these sorts of events as a whole community. 

SYDNEY: I think one more concrete thing that was really helpful was that BSU was going to have a meeting to talk with the History teachers about curriculum, but they opened it up to all the Black students in the school, which was helpful. They’re not forcing all the Black students to have this conversation, but anyone who is interested in it can also engage in it. That way it's not just BSU making decisions for all the Black people or having to be the pipeline between everyone. There can be a genuine dialogue.

JOY: Maybe the admin can commit to weekly and monthly updates about what they're discussing in their meetings, even if it's not about Black students, just about what they're doing, for the school and for the students in general. Maybe make announcements during assembly about things that they're working on and the progression of them.

mens conscia recti

a mind aware of what is right