Local Black Student Unions focus on inclusiveness, campus culture
When Harerta Tesfamicael joined the freshman basketball team at Montgomery High School in the winter of 2019, she found she was missing something important: the sense of camaraderie that came with being a part of a team.
Tesfamicael, who grew up in the Roseland neighborhood on the other side of Highway 101, said she watched as her teammates bonded with one another, though none seemed interested in being friends with her.
That Tesfamicael, the daughter of Eritrean immigrants, was the only person of color on the team only amplified her feelings of exclusion, she said.
“I understand that people have their friend groups,” said Tesfamicael, now a junior at the school. “But inclusivity is something that I would have liked to see.”
The creation of the school’s Black Student Union the following fall semester carved out a space on campus where Tesfamicael, who now serves as the club’s president, felt she belonged, she said.
The group’s inception followed a summer of protests denouncing police brutality and racial discrimination throughout the U.S. and in Sonoma County, as well as a semester disrupted by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think our discussions in (the Black Student Union), it was wanting to express our opinions and having our voices wanted,” Tesfamicael said. “It was ‘This is me. This is my life and my experiences,’ and I get to relate to people about that.”
The sentiment was shared by several other youth and young adults who are members of Black Student Unions throughout Sonoma County, many who described the clubs as places where they could form new and existing friendships during socially distanced learning.
With the arrival of Black History Month, some students, including those who are members of Casa Grande High’s Black Student Union, have used the annual observance as an opportunity to spotlight stories about Black leaders with other students.
At Montgomery High, the Black Student Union has opted to recognize Black history-makers in March and April to signal that their contributions should be honored past the month of February.
“We want to open our doors and have people let loose and talk about their experiences,” Tesfamicael said.
The club is also seen as a tool to process past and current examples of discrimination and racism in society, as well as a way to shape the culture of their respective schools to be more inclusive.
The 2020 national racial justice movement made it clear there was a need for students to have those type of discussions on campus, said Darrin Brookshire, a Montgomery High teacher who advises the club.
“It was kind of to provide a space for Black students to unload everything that was happening in the world. … It was recognizing what was on their shoulders,” he said.
Of the more than 66,000 students who attended Sonoma County’s 40 K-12 public school districts during the last school year, 1.6% were Black, according to California Department of Education data provided by the Sonoma County Office of Education.
The figure is on par with the 1.5% of Sonoma County residents who are Black, according to 2020 census data.
“There’s so many things about the Black experience that people don’t know about,” said Miles Rivers, a 17-year-old senior at Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School, who is part of the Black Student Union on that school’s campus. “It helps bring those to the forefront.”
Indrias Pelzl, another Casa Grande senior who is president of the school’s Black Student Union, said a regional meeting at Sonoma State University of the United Black Student Unions of California that took place when he was an underclassman inspired him to join the club on his campus.
Pelzl said he was moved by the speakers at the event, as well as the core tenets of Black Student Unions, which promote civic involvement in one’s community.
“Our mission is to be the best that we can be,” Pelzl said. “If you join the BSU, you’re committed to learning more about yourself, committed to being engaged.”
Pelzl, Rivers and the other members of the Casa Grande club try to carry on that spirit of civic engagement through community service projects, such as the food drive in Santa Rosa that they participated in last month, and events on campus.
The club also is part of a monthly student advisory council that brings students and school leaders together to discuss civic issues on campus.
“With our reach, I feel like we’ve forced people to think about racism, think about injustice, think about the Black student experience when we go to the advisory council,” Pelzl said.
Waad Dafalla, a second-year Santa Rosa Junior College biology and natural sciences major, said the constant sharing of school resources and the opportunity to connect with other students have been some of the benefits established by the Black Student Union on her campus.
Through virtual semi-monthly meetings, the club’s members check in on one another and talk about issues impacting the broader Black community on campus.
The group has served as a place where Dafalla, who is originally from Sudan but who moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia three years ago, can learn more about the cultures of other people on campus as she also shares information about her own background.
“When you go to this meeting, you know you are being heard and you belong there,” Dafalla said. “You can talk about anything without being judged.”
For Tesfamicael, joining Montgomery High’s Black Student Union her sophomore year helped her form connections with other students she wouldn’t have met otherwise, she said.
Those bonds were initially built through virtual video calls, where members discussed topics ranging from music and pop culture to more serious subjects, such as the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol building, as well as past and present police brutality cases.
“You don’t have a chance to stop and reflect, and say ‘Hey, this affects my life.’” Tesfamicael said. “I think the (club) creates a space to talk about that.”
Looking forward, Tesfamicael said she hopes the group can serve as a resource for students who need help addressing issues on campus.
She added that some of the group’s members are people who aren’t Black but who care about creating an inclusive space for Black peers, which may lead to changes on the campus overall.
“It shouldn’t be our job to correct people who are ignorant … but we get a chance to include people who may not be part of those groups, whether it be allies or people who aren’t of color, and teach them ways of intervening without muting other people’s voices,” Tesfamicael said.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or email@example.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat
Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.