A safe place for Black students at Berkeley High School (BHS), a hotspot for Black student advocacy, and a union centered on the celebration of Black youth: BHS’s Black Student Union (BSU) has one of the most important and influential histories of any student-led group at BHS. BHS has a long-standing reputation as one of the most progressive schools in the country, with the first African American studies department available to its students, very early racial integration, and a history of student advocacy and activism. Despite this reputation, issues surrounding racial discrimination and imbalances have existed for decades at the school. Student-led groups such as the BSU historically have come together to fight against these issues, and this student union has time and time again risen to the challenge of working to combat racism and ensuring adequate representation of Black students at BHS. Since its founding in the late 1960s, the BSU has helped to advocate for the needs of Black students at BHS. From maintaining peace during moments of racial tension that caused many schools to temporarily shut down in the late ’60s and early ’70s, to establishing a holiday for Malcolm X’s birthday and lobbying for soul food in the school cafeteria, the BSU has fought for BHS students.
According to Kaileea (KK) Jefferson, the president of BSU, the student-organized union aims to “create a safe space for young Black people at our school.” Today at BHS, Black students form a racial minority due to the extensive gentrification that the school and city have undergone, so the space is becoming more and more necessary. Jefferson talked about the feeling of isolation that can come from being at such a large, predominantly white, school. She stated, “It’s hard for Black students to fit in or feel safe in classrooms where they are the only Black student, or even student of color.” The BSU is a place where “students can come together and feel like a community, on campus, where we can talk about things going on in society and come up with solutions to issues we may be facing,” Jefferson said.
However, it’s not always easy to run this student group. Jefferson talked about how the shifting demographics of BHS have affected the group. Just a few decades ago, the school was around 60 percent Black, according to Nia McMillan, the club’s vice president. Because of its early desegregation, Black students would come from all over Northern California to get an education.
Unfortunately, gentrification and a loss of support for Black students have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the Black population here at BHS. This results in “some marginalization and lack of inclusivity that many Black students here feel,” said McMillan. “A lot of my friends have left Berkeley High because they don’t feel safe here, or like they don’t fit in … This definitely impacts BSU because we want to have a voice and we want to be heard, but we can’t really do that right now.”
In addition, McMillan and Jefferson discussed the isolation that the BSU often experiences as a club, both by the administration and by other clubs. Jefferson said, “Sometimes it feels as though we’re segregated within the clubs, as though we’re our own little population.”
Part of this isolation may result from what many describe as the discomfort around acknowledging race and racism. “Especially here in California and definitely in the Bay Area, it’s easy to think that racism isn’t a thing anymore because people are so undercover about it … so I think a lot of people don’t really see the point of why they would want to join a BSU or be aware of the issues that BSU is trying to tackle,” said McMillan.
Despite the perceived discomfort and lack of dialogue on the subject of race, Jefferson and McMillan agree that the best solution to this issue is simply open discussion. “We encourage people to ask questions,” Jefferson stated. “It’s better to ask questions. I feel like a lot of people think ‘Oh I’m just gonna stay away from that topic because I don’t want to offend people or it makes me uncomfortable, but honestly everyone in the BSU, definitely us, would rather you just ask questions. Hiding from it isn’t going to make anything change,” McMillan said.