As February marks the accomplishments of people who shaped history for African Americans, the next generation of leaders and advocates are writing a new chapter.
Federal Way City Councilman Jesse Johnson said it is important Black History Month is recognized because the people remembered are American heroes as well as African-American heroes. At the same time, the face of advocacy and social justice causes are changing, he said.
“One of the key parts of movements in the 21st century is that things are not being led by just individuals, but coalitions,” Johnson said.
He views this as a good thing. In the past, such as during the civil rights movement, efforts to improve the rights of black Americans were led by one central leader such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X.
With coalitions pushing for social change, movements will not suffer any setbacks if leadership changes, Johnson said.
He said such efforts are stronger if they include more than just one group of people. He also said having coalitions leading these movements eliminates the natural tendency to divide and conquer groups.
“I think personally that we should be including the most vulnerable populations,” he said. “We need to start elevating our conversations and handing off the microphone to people with those stories in the periphery that we don’t really hear about.”
A prime example of these principles in action can be found among local students.
At Thomas Jefferson High School, BSU stands for Betterment Service Unity club, not Black Student Union. The club’s focus echoes Johnson’s thoughts of bringing together under-represented groups into the conversation, said adviser and TJ English teacher Jamarkus Springfield. Books about socio-economic and racial issues, along with events hosted by the BSU, have also led to greater understanding between the students as they find common ground and experiences shared, Springfield said.
According to the school district website, the diversity of students is great: 11.4 percent are Asian; 4.9 percent are native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; 12.8 percent are Black/African American; 27.8 percent are Hispanic/Latino; 30.3 percent are Caucasian; 12.3 percent are multiracial; and .6 percent are American Indian/Alaskan native.
Advocacy is only part of the entire mission of BSU.
“We focus on serving the community and unifying the community,” Springfield said.
He said, as long as he works at TJ, his focus will stay in the community and on 288th Street.
“I like the focus being local,” he said. “I want to make sure 288th is straight.”
BSU co-Vice President Praises Orji said what she appreciates most about the club is it allows students to share their experiences and identify issues that unite them, regardless of their other differences.
“So I think this really just opens our minds, not only to ourselves, but to the world,” she said.
BSU assistant adviser Bea Bennett said the group has thrived with the inclusion of more students. While the BSU seeks to better the community, overall, that starts in the halls of Thomas Jefferson, she said. Through the BSU, students are sharing a common ground and understanding in the way that they face issues.
“So this is not just a black thing,” Bennett said. “This is an everybody thing.”
BSU President Confidence Orji, a senior, said students are simply trying to improve their community.
“Nobody sets out to be an activist,” she said. “They just see something that is wrong and talk about how to fix it.”
That is something co-Vice President Whitney Large has known firsthand, even before she joined BSU.
Last year, when Large was a sophomore, she helped loosen the school’s dress code policy. She said the week after the school celebrated students’ diversity, she wore a colorful head scarf over her hair because they are a large part of the African and African-American culture, and she likes the way they look. At school, she was told she had to take off the scarf because students were not allowed to wear articles of clothing that covered their head or hair.
Large said this made no sense to her, adding just the week before the students were encouraged to express their cultures. She also didn’t see why they would distract students and staff. She didn’t consider them much different than the hijabs worn by female Muslim students at the school.
“That kind of sparked up a lot of emotion in me, and I was very angry about that issue,” Large said.
She decided to rally her friends and encouraged a small group, including her brother, to come to school wearing head scarves one day. When they were called to the office, Principal Adrienne Chacon invited them to tell her why they felt the school policy was unfair and why they felt head coverings should be allowed. After explaining that they represent the African culture, Chacon said she would consider their arguments and later invited them to present them to staff.
“We were so excited about that,” Large said. “We were prepared. We even had a whole PowerPoint.”
Their arguments swayed the staff, and now head scarves, hats and hooded jackets are permitted as long as they don’t cover students’ faces. Large said, moving forward, she welcomes the opportunity to advocate for different groups or causes, even outside the school.
As a senior, Confidence Orji said she will soon be taking the lessons learned at TJ with her to college and looks forward to joining a BSU or starting one if the school does not have one.
“And if we see a problem, we’ll fight to make it better,” she said.
Her younger sister, Praises, already has plans to combine advocacy with her future career — possibly as an entrepreneur — and launch a program like the one her father started of building housing for newly released inmates who may have trouble getting into housing otherwise.
“I’ve always had a passion for helping people,” she said. “I just get passionate about wanting to help people and give people a second chance at life.”