A nasty message in a Spring Lake Park High School bathroom sent the Black Student Union into action. Members and their friends posted messages like “You are loved” around the school rotunda to drown out the words of hate, “Go back to your home,” scrawled in the girls’ bathroom.
Throughout the Twin Cities suburbs, students are turning to black student unions to confront recent incidents on their campuses and form safe spaces to talk about race in their mostly white schools.
Black student union leaders are meeting with school administrators, hosting “blackout” days and offering support to other students at a time when Black Lives Matter protests and post-election hate crimes are exposing the nation’s racial tensions.
“Our role and our overt actions have become so much clearer to people in the school,” Eemanna Rivers, president of Edina High School’s Black Student Union, said. “We have to be very intentional about everything we do. People are really watching the club right now as a leader of what to do next.”
Following the Nov. 10 Spring Lake incident, students in the Black Student Union held a meeting to discuss their fears for the present and concerns for the future, said Baher Hussein, the club’s co-historian.
At Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, the new Pan-African Student Union held its first meeting on Dec. 1.
Edina High School students of color first banded together in 2014 to talk about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Mo., that helped the Black Lives Matter movement. English teacher Sarah Jarrett became the group’s adviser.
Jarrett, who moved to Minnesota from Southern California, said she noticed immediately that the school had no cultural clubs for its minority students. But students in the club have made their voices heard in the school.
“Instead of staying in their own little area, they are now joining up with Student Council and with other groups to be leaders in the schools as whole.”
Black students make up 7 percent of the high school, white students 79 percent. Edina’s Black Student Union now has more than 40 members who serve as a support group for students of color.
“The group really benefits ... the black students because it is a space where we can be ourselves after a long day of code switching,” said Guled Said, senior and Black Student Union vice president. “We can go in the space and feel safe.” The Black Student Union supported Edina High School football players who knelt during the national anthem in September, part of a national trend among athletes to show opposition to police mistreatment of minorities.
In November, members went to school administrators after a photo spread on social media showing a white Edina student with a white robe and hood drawn on him with the letters, KKK.
“It was a very difficult time at our school for all kids,” Principal Bruce Locklear said. “But we have relied heavily on the BSU for guidance and leadership, and administratively we tried to provide as much support as we could.”
The Black Student Union then held a schoolwide Blackout Day, encouraging students to wear black to show a united front against racism. The club participated in a school assembly on Tuesday where students unveiled a post-election creed ensuring a welcoming and inclusive environment at the school. The group is now planning the annual “Sundown to Sun Up,” a community event that showcases the students’ artistic talents and black culture. Last year, the group invited Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds to speak.
Officials in Edina and several other school districts denied requests by the Star Tribune to attend black student club meetings.
Students spurred to action
These student unions are having to evolve, said Keith Mayes, associate professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota. Students who joined protests such as Black Lives Matter marches are returning to school and organizing their clubs to tackle incidents of racism in their schools and in their cities,
“Certainly, we see a lot of high school students who partook in these movements within the last two summers here in Minneapolis,” Mayes said. “There is a heightened consciousness that is propelling these students to act.”
Robbinsdale students were inspired to form their Pan-African Student Union after meeting members of the Edina Black Student Union during a civil rights research trip held during spring break by the West Metro Education Program.
As with the local Black Lives Matter organizations, black student unions are having to decide how — and whether — to invite the support of white students who want to show solidarity by joining. For now, Edina’s Black Student Union is not inviting white memberships.
“As much as allies are critical in these movements,” Rivers said. “We didn’t want the space to ... become untrue or edited for whiteness so that is a big part of what we are working on now.
The Edina union allows Samira Kalmoi, a 16-year-old sophomore, to have discussions that are not happening in her classrooms.
“There is a place where I belong,” she said. “I am able to come to the BSU, and feel safe and wanted in Edina.”