- Orange County School District
Black Student Union at CRHS named this month's Equity Warriors
Joshua Paterni, faculty advisor for the Cedar Ridge Black Student Union, saw two stellar students trying to make a difference this school year and offered to provide support, oversight and guidance to them.
Laila Valentine and Oluwademilade “Demi” Fanika came up with the idea to develop the Cedar Ridge Black Student Union, which was born out of discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement and civil protests of the summer of 2020. Last fall, they formally organized the Black Student Union, making this the first year Cedar Ridge has had an active club dedicated to social justice and service. The two CRHS seniors serve as co-presidents of the club.
Laila and Demi, along with 8-12 additional “regulars,” have relevant conversations that are motivated by current events. The group began with two roundtable discussions toward the start of the school year. Laila and Demi were the moderators. According to Paterni, at first the attendees were reluctant to speak, but as the moderators probed with strategic questions to get the conversation going, “more and more students opened up, and the discussion became more and more sophisticated.” Three faculty members and more than 45 students tuned in to participate.
So far in 2021, the Black Student Union has held elections for officers, and prior to becoming an official CRHS organization, Laila and Demi had crafted appropriate bylaws to govern the club. The newly elected Vice President is Mekhai Owen; the Secretary is Mosopefoluwa Fanika.
Paterni pointed out that the “founding member” of the Black Student Union, Laila Valentine, is currently dually enrolled at Cedar Ridge and the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. It was she who came up with the idea of doing service projects and educating other students on current events and social issues, in addition to providing opportunities for challenging discussions around race relations.
The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics is located in Durham. Through her dual enrollment there, Laila learned about the Geer Cemetery. Geer is a historical cemetery for African Americans that was developed during a time when Black people were not allowed to be buried in White cemeteries. It was created in the late 1800s or early 1900s, according to historical records.
Appropriately, on the day Americans celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 's Birthday, Laila and other members of the Black Student Union engaged in the upkeep / cleaning up of the cemetery. This was a service project that was accomplished while maintaining the 3 Ws, especially social distancing and having limited contact with others.
Students brought rakes, leaf blowers and other equipment from their homes to clean up around the graves and to cut back overgrowth of ivy so that this portion of history can be preserved. Three staff members--CRHS Assistant Principal Heather Witherspoon, Joshua Paterni, and Roger Orstad--and five students participated in the Geer cleanup day this month. The students were Michael Zelaya (Vice President of the MAP Program), Isabel Peirce, Mosopefoluwa Fanika, and Laila and Demi.
Demi said the Black Student Union is currently planning to engage in at least one event per month for the remainder of this year. Creative ways for celebrating Black History Month and additional service projects are in the works at this time. The Black Student Union utilizes Wolf TV, the student broadcasting channel, as well as regular email blasts from Principal Carlos Ramirez, to communicate the meetings, activities, and service of the club.
“The Black Student Union is not only about service, but about black students at Cedar Ridge seeing people like them and having (student leaders) to trust and to talk to about their emotions and experiences,” said Demi. “There are not many black students at Cedar Ridge.”
“We are not just a club that talks; we try to teach our fellow students how to effect change and contribute to the community. We teach them about social justice and we teach (our members) how to be kid activists, too.”
In response to the recent storming of the Capitol and prior to the exchange of power at the national level, this club came together via Zoom to discuss what happened, ramifications and to hear a variety of perspectives and opinions on the unprecedented event. The group will continue to monitor current events as well as how our nation “shapes up” in the coming days. This approach of responding to the happenings of the world will determine future meetings topics of discussion among the members of the Black Student Union.
As a general rule, however, the Black Student Union at Cedar Ridge High meets every other Thursday during lunch; Its leadership meets weekly.
In a written Q&A, Laila had this to say:
Why do you think it is important to have a Black Student Union at Cedar Ridge High School?
We believed that during such a hostile climate regarding racial issues, especially for black people, it was important for black students to have a space where they could voice their frustrations, reveal their fears, and express their opinions on our changing world. We also wanted to use this opportunity to educate our black students on social justice, and advocacy in order to give back to our community and teach some young minds.
What are the goals for the group for this year?
This year, we just wanted to establish a club for future students so that they will have an outlet to create change in our community. The elected officers will carry on the mission of the Union after we are gone (graduate and move on).
How many members are there?
What is one specific thing you want the world to know about the Black Student Union at CRHS?
We want people to know that we're here to stay and are following through on our promises to create the club and make an impact in our school community.
The Black Student Union at Cedar Ridge is also partnering with MAP (Minority Achievement Program) to complete additional joint service projects.
Do you know a staff member, student, community member, school, etc. that is working to advance equity in the district? If so, we want to hear from you! Please email Dr. Dena Keeling, Chief Equity Officer with the subject line: EQUITY WARRIOR! Equity Warriors will be featured each month by the OCS Equity and Communications Departments.