The fledgling Black Student Union at Bedford High School is poised to flourish during the coming academic year, thanks to the organizational leadership and a burgeoning program in John Glenn Middle School.
“Over the years, there have been many conversations about starting a Black Student Union at Bedford High School,” commented Principal Heather Galante. “This year, our students served as leaders and, with the support of adults, created an affinity space where activities were planned and important conversations took place.”
One of those adults, BHS counselor Anna Septembre, related that she spoke with Galante during the previous academic year “and we both saw a need for students to talk about what it means to be an African-American student in Bedford and to celebrate their Black identity. But being a hybrid year, this year was a better opportunity to do it.”
After this year began, senior Brandon Wedgeworth related, “a group of us came together and said we should make a Black Student Union. The goal was to have a community where people of color could talk about the challenges we all face.”
“It was a group idea,” he continued. Most of the participants were juniors and seniors; “I don’t think we had any freshmen. We wanted to work on getting established, getting the ball rolling.” He noted that to achieve extracurricular club status, a group needs only two teachers to sponsor. Septembre said Galante recruited her to be an advisor.
“At our first meeting, Brandon was able to take charge and help us think of ideas and get the conversation going,” related Shyanne Pires, the other staff member who advises the group. Pires is a teaching assistant in the BHS academic achievement center.
“Brandon is a great speaker. He really represented the students and their ideas,” added Septembre.
Meanwhile, at the middle school, “We began with two seventh-graders and two eighth-graders,” recounted Jennifer Naylor, a teacher in the JGMS skills center. “The two students I’d identify as the founders of our JGMS BSU are Teanna Toney and Parris Murdaugh, both eighth-graders and lifelong Bedford students from Boston.” The number of students involved grew to 45, she said.
As winter started, the girls wanted to know what was happening at JGMS for Black History Month and started sharing their experiences as Bedford and Boston students of color, Naylor continued, “We advertised, held a meeting, and sent out a survey and the students shared their honest raw feedback and experiences.”
“Students shared both their positive and negative experiences, identified allies, and planned for Black History Month,” Naylor said, noting, “Our students of color have expressed a disconnect between themselves and the Bedford community; our goal is to help close that gap. “
At BHS, the new group met weekly in the fall, and less frequently as the year progressed, Wedgeworth said. Sometimes the focus would be on issues that needed to be addressed from the perspective of Black students. “At least for me they were nothing too serious,” Wedgeworth said, and could be defined as microaggressions — but still important.
“We talked to the principal about things we felt needed to be addressed, things we felt were wrong,” Wedgeworth reported. “We jotted down challenges we all faced and brainstormed about things we wanted to change. I don’t know if we resolved these problems but we definitely brought the problems to light.”
“The kids had a lot of buy-in,” Septembre related. “There was a lot of social-justice work they wanted to do, as well as positive space to share ideas, celebrate their culture, get out in the community. Putting in the ground-work now has allowed the students to open up the idea to younger students.”
The BHS Black Student Union comprised members from Bedford, Boston, and Hanscom Air Force Base. “We welcomed everyone. We definitely had that mixture of kids,” said Wedgeworth. He said he felt some disconnect with the Hanscom cohort as a freshman. “With the Black Student Union starting, I felt a better connection. I just felt closer to them.”
“They were bonding meetings. We were talking about what we would do in the future. We had a meeting to plan to go to Step Africa in Boston. Other meetings would consist of learning about each other’s cultures, so we could all feel comfortable and know each other.”
“We weren’t connected with the middle school at the beginning of the year,” Pires said. “Once we found out that the middle school had a Black Student Union, we brought them together at the end of the year.”
“We want to be more collaborative with the middle school and with the community,” Septembre said. “When we ended the school year, we had almost like a celebration with the middle school, a luncheon and some games, almost like a welcome to the high school.”
“We finished the year with a collaboration of both schools, and it was awesome,” Naylor asserted. “The high-school students gave us a step performance, Brandon gave a speech, students engaged in small groups with conversation starters with the goal of making connections for upcoming eighth graders as well as to facilitate mentoring opportunities, relationship building and to provide the time and space for students to engage with their peers.”
Pires remarked, “I knew the middle school had a group that was passionate on the same things. Jen and I worked together; it was a collaborative effort.”
Wedgeworth described that event in May and observed, “Next year we hope there will be a lot of freshmen as part of the Black Students Union.” Ideas emerging from brainstorming include establishing mentors between BHS and JGMS in the fall, bringing back the Soul Food Dinner to the community, incorporating a cultural night during the holidays, and an end-of-year cookout.
Lined up to be co-presidents beginning in September are Kailiyah LaBoy and Jayden Bien-aime. “If they work together that will be a solid combination to get this club to be where we want it to be,” Pires predicted.
Wedgeworth will begin his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in a few weeks, and will be looking to affiliate there with the equivalent of a Black Student Union. “I want to build community with other people of color and make new friendships.”
“Student voice and agency are an important part of school culture,” observed Galante. “It was inspiring to see students act as mentors for younger students. The administration is proud to support the continued efforts of the BSU.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763