Black Affinity Leads Upper School Black History Month Celebration

  • Upper School

Starting in December, students in Key’s Black Affinity group began talking about how to best celebrate Black History Month 2021 in the Upper School. While the group also led the community event in February 2020, they knew the gathering this year would be very different as a virtual experience and that planning for it would be challenging. 
 
They also knew it was an incredibly important opportunity to share insight, experience, culture, and pride with their peers and teachers, and to engage in meaningful conversations about the Black experience.
 
“We all wanted the Black History Month Celebration Event to be an educational experience and celebratory, not grim and serious,” said senior Chandler Pope. “We planned three breakout sessions focused on themes we thought would be interesting to everyone and dedicated time for reflections at the end. We also thought a lot about the appropriate length for each session because these can be heavy topics and we wanted everyone to participate, which sometimes people are not comfortable doing.”
 
As they worked through the logistics, the organizers were pleased to discover that Zoom offered a number of opportunities to address challenges they had identified from the previous year’s in-person event.
 
“Last year, we had many groups at tables in the Activity Building talking about different topics, and we heard from people that while they loved the event, they felt they missed out on learning because they could not get to each table,” said junior Kayla Stephenson. “So being online, we decided this was our perfect chance to get everyone to each topic using breakout sessions, so they all could get the full Black History Month experience. I know a lot of people were grateful about that!” 
 
Kayla also mentioned the benefit of providing space for both extroverts and introverts to actively participate in discussion and reflection through both verbal exchanges and Zoom’s chat feature. 
 
“We all really wanted to come at this from a teaching perspective, not as mediators facilitating conversations...it was more than that this time. We have all been talking about diversity, equity and inclusion for a few years, so we felt we needed to be able to correct for lack of understanding and re-direct conversations when necessary,” Chandler explained. 
 
As their faculty advisor, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Jenifer Moore provided support for their planning efforts but found that the students were well-equipped to manage with minimal input. “They were incredibly thoughtful in choosing the content and topics for each session,” she said. “Chandler and Kayla's leadership allowed for long-term virtual planning that  delivered an excellent program for the students and adults in the Upper School. They make me proud. They are our ancestors' wildest dreams.”
 
All members of Black Affinity were committed to creating an engaging and relevant event, ultimately settling on Black Pop Culture, the Black Experience in Education, and Activism and Allyship as the topics. “It really was important to us that everyone knew this was not a lecture or discussion about what people are doing right or wrong. We wanted everyone to see it as a time to learn, to self-reflect and think about what we are doing well, what we can do better, and where we can go together,” said Chandler.
 
“We also really wanted it to balance fun with learning and open discussion,” added Kayla.
 
Black Pop Culture covered highly influential trends and movements from black culture, celebrating their deep roots and interesting origins. From fashion to the birth of sneaker culture and its evolution as an outlet for activism and advocacy, and from music, including R&B, funk, soul, disco, and hip hop, to the evolution of Black representation in film, the participants had the opportunity to reflect on how they had been influenced by Black culture, perhaps without even realizing it.
 
During the Black Experience in Education presentation, students learned about the history and myriad contributions of our nation’s 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), all of which were established prior to 1965. While dissecting the Black experience at a predominantly White institution (PWI), the students watched a TED Talk by a woman who reflected on her personal experiences. She touched on the lack of representation of Black history in her educational environment and the lengths she went to independently to seek out and research the information crucial to a well-rounded education. This led to a conversation about the Black experience at Key, which included discussion about how Black history is represented across our curriculum, what students wanted to learn more about, and thoughtful consideration of who is responsible for teaching it. The session ended with a case-study of sorts, where students discussed Spirit Week themes and awareness-building around the importance of inclusivity.
 
In reflecting on the conversations in this breakout room, Kayla said, “When we made the discussions about Key it really spurred on our conversations. Students started talking about what parts of Black history they felt they had been learning a lot about in Civ, what they felt was left out, and what they really wanted to know more about. In fact, our Philosophy teacher was encouraging everyone to be really honest in the comments saying ‘please share your opinions because this is something I would really like to work on.’”
 
As they talked about Activism and Allyship, students took the important step of defining and talking through five terms that are important for discussions around activism: anti-Black; intersectionality; anti-racist; performative activism; and White savior complex. These pillars framed the conversations which moved on to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and this past summer’s protests. “People were really responsive and jumping into the conversations, which felt really good,” said Chandler.
 
Black Affinity’s hard work paid off with a meticulously planned and flawlessly executed event that received very positive feedback from students and faculty alike.
 
Arabic teacher Sherine El-Warraki said, “I was really impressed and proud by the work and effort of our Upper School students who put together a most informative and well-rounded event. It is also inspiring to see our students, who are the future leaders of our nation, appear with great confidence and enlightenment.”
 
Brian Michaels, Upper School Division Head, was grateful for the students’ dedication in creating ongoing programs that help the School work towards its DEI goals. “The students, time and again, impress with their hard work, transparency, leadership, and passion.” he said. 
 
Both Kayla and Chandler agreed that a real highlight was reading through the positive reflections, shared by their peers. “Seeing comments about how much they learned and how much they enjoyed each breakout room really meant a lot to us,” said Kayla. 
 
“And, I am really grateful we are in a space that recognizes it is a PWI and allows us to talk about it. While things are not perfect, most people really want to work to make things closer to perfect,” said Chandler. “We also really appreciate all the support from Jenifer Moore and Sarah Spruill ‘18 who have been crucial to our work.” 
 
As they look toward next year’s event, members of Black Affinity are hoping to pass the planning torch to members of Key’s faculty, staff and administration so the students are able to devote time to celebration with their peers.
 

Shout out to the members of Black Affinity 2020-2021 for a great event!
  
Uchenna Ahaghotu ‘22
Dylan Barnes ‘23
Brianna Burke ‘22
CJ Campbell ‘22
Jaeden Clark ‘22
Dylan Donaldson ‘21
David Esaw ‘22
Grayson Grigsby ‘22
Anna Harris ‘23
Ryan Lawrence ‘22
Chandler Pope ‘21
Kayla Stephenson ‘22
Kali Watkins ‘22
Kamille Watkins ‘23
Advisors: Jenifer Moore, Sarah Spruill ‘18