At Black Student Unions, high schoolers find camaraderie and a shared voice
During a recent lunch period at Portland’s Deering High School, about 25 members of the school’s Black Student Union gathered in geography teacher Halima Noor’s classroom. Noor, the co-advisor of Deering's BSU, was presiding over a boisterous trivia contest on African geography.
The question on the table: Which two seas border Africa?
After giving the students time to respond, Noor called out the answer: "Good! It is the Red and the Mediterranean!"
The trivia contest was meant to offer a fun break during the middle of the school day. But senior Yusra Idow, who was born in the US and whose family is from Somalia, said games like this have personal significance.
"I don't really have like, a lot of background knowledge on where I'm from, or like the geography of Africa," she said.
The BSU’s emphasis on education extends beyond lunchtime trivia. In 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, several BSU students successfully advocated for the addition of an African American History course to the school's curriculum, offered through a partnership with the University of Southern Maine.
Idow said the class helps balance what she sees as the school’s emphasis on European history.
"At Deering, we really just mainly learned about European history," Idow said. "We never really learned about like our own people and like where we come from. So being able to have a professor that looks like me and a class that's about my culture, and my background, was very nice."
In addition to classroom learning, junior Amira Hassan – who organized today’s trivia contest - said BSU students are able to learn from each other. Many of the students in the group were born in Africa or, like Hassan, are the children of immigrants – her family is from Somalia.
"So for people to talk about where they're from, and things they like about their countries or their homeland, I feel like it's very important to talk about to build more community," Hassan said.
Other schools have started similar clubs, including South Portland High School, Yarmouth High School, and Thornton Academy in Saco. Students at Lewiston High School said they are focused on making their BSU a supportive group for Black students.
"We restarted it to create a space for Black students to talk about issues that affected their communities, internally and externally," said Nasra Abdirahman, a senior and BSU president. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Abdirahman said the BSU was a place where she could work through her feelings in a way she felt she couldn’t do at home or in the classroom.
"And I think when I was in a group of people, I could express my thoughts and be more vulnerable," she said. "And just kind of rant about, like, things that I've been bottling up."
By encouraging open conversation, Abdirahman said the BSU also provides an avenue for students to think about the changes they would like to see at their school.
For example, she feels the school’s approach to Black history focuses too much on the same prominent historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X.
"It's not like we're trying to say, 'Oh, those figures aren't important or significant to Black history.' It's just there's more to Black history than the same three figures that they talk about," she said.
Abdirahman said teaching Black history in more detail is one step the school could take to help Black students feel more welcome and valued.
Meanwhile, at Deering High School, the lunch period trivia contest was wrapping up, and Noor, the geography teacher, called for a round of applause for the students who organized it. As the students headed off to class, school counselor and BSU co-advisor Farausi Cherry said one of the greatest strengths of the group is that it helps students find their place at Deering.
"You have instant voice, when you come to BSU," he said. "Instant. From eighth grade to ninth grade, you don't have to worry about fitting in or 'No one's gonna know me' or 'Man, I have to start at the bottom.' No, nope."
Cherry has helped advise the group since it began four years ago. It has since grown to somewhere around 50 students, and Cherry said he hopes it will serve as an inspiration for other schools in Maine to launch their own BSUs.