At a school as large as Berkeley High School (BHS), it is easy for students to feel overlooked by teachers and administrators, and swallowed up by the sheer size of classes and learning communities. This feeling of displacement at school is often heightened for students of color, especially in classes dominated by white students and perspectives.
“Being the only Black student in some of my AP classes has been a very isolating experience,” said Daija Breland, a BHS senior. “There’s not much of a community there,” she continued. Breland is a co-president and founder of Black Girls Rise, a new club at BHS, currently in its second semester. Black Girls Rise serves to “empower and develop young Black girls, providing valuable resources and tools that will enable them to rise above limitations and stereotypes, so they can exceed every expectation,” as reads their mission statement. Their guiding motto is “Empower, Evolve, Exceed.”
Every Tuesday, over 20 female identifying students of African descent gather after school in room D-219. They enjoy various types of cultural food, participate in community building exercises, and hold open discussions surrounding issues that Black women face. Their conversations range from current hot-button controversies, like the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly, to more personal issues like discrimination in the classroom.
They also engage in workshops with members of the Bay Area Black community and hear from speakers and experts on issues relating to Black womanhood, such as prominent Black businesswomen and activists. In addition, members have the opportunity to work with mentors from the University of California (UC) Berkeley.
“It’s important for young Black girls to have mentors and role models that look like them,” said Symone Gilliam, a UC Berkeley junior and one of the six regular mentors for the club. “It’s really cool to hear the girls’ stories and aspirations. I know they are all destined for great things,” she continued.
The club also emphasizes a commitment to civic engagement and community service. Another key aspect of their mission statement is volunteerism and the importance of giving back to one’s community.
“Black Girls Rise has given me and other girls a space to talk about what’s going on in life,” said Kamaria Armstead, a BHS freshman and community outreach coordinator for the club. “It’s a safe environment that helps girls feel comfortable talking about our problems,” she continued.
Da’Leah Hodges, a BHS junior and member of the club, said that a typical meeting starts with everyone eating food and catching up. Then they usually welcome a guest speaker who talks to the group about anything ranging from how to run a business to how to improve the lives of people around you. “My favorite aspect of the club is the speakers,” said Armstead. “The women who speak to us are the definition of strong Black women and it provides us with inspiration.”
“There’s not really a place on campus dedicated to Black girls, and for us to be comfortable in our skin and to completely be ourselves. This club provides that safe space and we get to know other Black girls, of all ages and grades,” said Hodges. “I know when I’m there I won’t be judged. I feel free and like I don’t have to be cautious of what I say or do,” she said.
The club is open to all female-identifying students of African descent who seek an empowering community and support system.
“It’s comforting to have a space to be able to come together,” said Breland. “We’re a sisterhood.”