A Small Learning Community (SLC) within Berkeley High School (BHS), Berkeley International High School (BIHS) is known for its prestigious diploma program. But among BHS students, BIHS is also well known for its lack of racial diversity. In response to this, the BIHS BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Student Union was started by two seniors last year, according to Riya Jivan, a current senior in BIHS. Jivan attended the club last year. After the original leaders graduated, they passed it onto her.
“They created it to give students of color a voice and be able to talk to admin to address the problems with the teachers who are … being racist towards people of color in their classes,” said Jivan.
Hana Medhkour, a senior in BIHS, joined the club when she heard about it from a friend. She hopes that the club will focus on “connecting with other students of color, and letting them know [that] it’s okay, it’s gonna get better, and we’re all facing the same challenges.” Medhkour said that it’s helpful to “talk … not just about racial differences, [but] just to relate to things and to [be] more inclusive and invite each other because others won’t.”
According to Medhkour, one factor contributing to the lack of inclusivity towards people of color in BIHS are the cliques. She said that students don’t include her in their groups for schoolwork, but that it is understandable since many have “grow[n] up with kids from the same neighborhood” and so all their main friends are in BIHS. However, Medhkour said, “Most of my friends of color [are] in a different small school. And those are the friends that I would hang out with outside of school.”
Jivan said, “I had to really go out of my way to be friends with people of color, or people that I felt connected to.” However, “The people who were in my classes were mostly white. So those were the people that I would become friends with,” she said. Even if Jivan didn’t necessarily connect with them, “it was just easiest to be friends with them.”
Medhkour said that the homogeneity in BIHS takes a mental toll on her. “Walking into class where the majority are white students or … don’t look like you, or that just don’t have the same background culture as you: some days, it’s a struggle, sometimes I get irritated. And then sometimes I just have to deal with it,” said Medhkour. Karl Kaku, a BIHS English teacher, echoed the idea that “if you are a BIPOC student, it can be intimidating to be in an environment where you don’t see other people who look like you [or who] have similar experiences” and that “it can raise the level of anxiety in the classroom for those students.”
The lack of diversity, according to Jivan, also impacts the educational experience. “There’s less diversity of opinions. … A lot of people of color in [BIHS] feel like they’re shut down a lot when trying to speak up about something because they don’t have someone else who’s agreeing with [them], because there’s not usually many people of color in our classes,” she said. On the subject of diversity in the curriculum and how that impacts students’ educational experience, Kaku said, “we have incorporated lots of texts from different demographics and different groups [in order to] expose our students to perspectives from BIPOC groups.” He said almost all of “the materials that we use are from writers of color.”
To address the need for more diversity in the small schools, one solution has been to assign students to small schools based on zip codes. Jivan said, “[BIHS has] become more diverse because they forced people of color to be in it because of their zip code. … I think a lot of that brings a lot of the negative aspects of it, because [many students of color] don’t even want to be in BIHS.”
Jivan said that another one of the catalysts for starting the club was that “there [were] a lot of problems with the white teachers in BIHS.” Medhkour recalled a particular experience she had in a history class with a literary text that included the n-word. The teacher allowed students to read the word aloud. Medhkour said, “I feel like students should know not to read from it. For me, I’m North African. That term, that slur, still affects me as well.”
Jivan said that last year, “there was like a teacher who had done a lot of racist stuff that were microaggressions.” The teacher, according to Jivan, was “blatantly racist, but not to the point where anyone [would] call her out.” She said that students who were in charge of the union tried to address the issue. They managed to set up a restorative justice circle with the teacher. “[It] wasn’t very effective. [The teacher] was really defensive. But the whole point was just to address the fact that she was being racist and that that wasn’t okay,” said Jivan.
According to Jivan, during the past school year, the club “did a lot of action” that wasn’t finished, so that is her goal this year. “[I want to] make it more about students of color being able to feel comfortable in their classrooms. And just changing the way BIHS is for students of color,” she said.
The next meeting of the BIPOC BIHS Student Union will be on Tuesday, November 2. Meetings take place in C-232 during lunch.