It is their experiences as Black girls and their confidence in themselves that allow Berkeley High School students Markayla Griffin, Amaya Houston, and Tamar McKey to have a positive impact on their community through taking on academic and leadership challenges. “I’m confident within my ability to do my work, that I don’t really care how other people look at how I look,” Griffin said. “At the end of the day, my work can speak for itself.”
Griffin is a senior at BHS and has demonstrated her passion for justice and community outside the school’s campus by serving as an intern for an environmental justice research program during the summer before her senior year.
When Griffin first heard about the internship opportunity, she questioned her qualifications for getting accepted into the internship program. “Being a Black person trying to reach the world of academia … you don’t really have time to celebrate your accomplishments when you actually should because you’re left feeling like it’s not enough,” said Griffin.
However, Griffin’s curiosity about what academic opportunities entailed later empowered her to improve in her studies. “I was like, I want to see something; I want to see change,” she said.
Once she was accepted into the environmental justice internship, Griffin began to conduct research about the
disparities in levels of lead, a potentially harmful natural chemical, from soil in low income and underrepresented Bay Area communities. Her findings were important in explaining how disproportionately high levels of lead concentration in soil can cause health risks to exposed community members. This issue shines light on environmental injustices negatively affecting neighborhoods of underrepresented socioeconomic and racial demographics.
Later in December of 2023, Griffin got the opportunity to present her research at an international science conference held in San Francisco. For the newly published research author, attending the conference exposed her to an environment of like-minded researchers uncovering new insights about surrounding social and physical environments by utilizing scientific methods. “All those minds were in one place, and I think that was really amazing,” said Griffin.
Opportunities for BHS students to act on their leadership passions range from international science conferences to the more local BHS Associated Student Body (ASB) team. One of the roles in the school’s ASB team is the Chief of Publicity, where students elected to the position create entertaining and informational morning announcement videos that are broadcasted to the entire school, three days a week.
This year, senior Amaya Houston is serving as one of three Chiefs of Publicity. “I wanted to run because I felt my personality would be good on the morning announcements,” said Houston. “I’m really high spirited; I always have a lot of energy.”
To Houston, in the previous year, the bulletin seemed to lack in racial representation. “A lot of my classmates and I felt underrepresented,” said Houston. The lack of diversity made it seem as if the news in the bulletin wasn’t really meant for the entirety of the diverse population at BHS. “Everybody needs to be represented in order for our school to feel unified,” said Houston.
Houston also utilizes her appearance in the bulletin as a way to increase the exposure of Black culture and identities at BHS. “As a Black girl, I feel like we’re very free spirited,” said Houston, “And our actions sometimes can be frowned upon.”
When this energy is not always welcomed, stereotypes can fall into play and create broad generalizations about a person because of their race. In the classroom, Houston has experienced the internalization of such stereotypes, which lead to the questioning of her intellectual capability as a Black girl. “Sometimes I wouldn’t want to raise my hand because other Black girls in my class just weren’t doing what I was doing,” said Houston.
And when Black girls do succeed and achieve, Houston feels that their success can receive a bitter-sweet reaction from others. “We are seen as really amazing and awesome when we do great stuff, but it’s because we’re not expected to,” said Houston.
Being a key part of the bulletin allows Houston to use her leadership position to change the narrative and to normalize diversity within leadership positions through inspiring Black girls to seek out representation in their communities as well. “I just want everybody to feel comfortable in their own skin, particularly with Black girls,” said Houston.
Tamar McKey is a sophomore at BHS and co-president of the school’s Black Student Union (BSU). This year, the club was able to expand its mission and goal of unity within the Black community beyond the BHS Campus.
During the Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend in January, the BHS BSU participated in the annual African Black Coalition conference on the University of California Santa Barbara campus in Southern California. There, the group was able to meet and connect with multiple BSU’s from various California State Universities and a multitude of other schools all across the state. “It was just a really close knit community,” said McKey.
For McKey, her identity as a young Black woman serves as a driving force to reaching the ambitions and goals she has. “My parents have told me you need to work twice as hard to get half as (far) because you are a Black woman in this society,” said McKey. Within the BSU, McKey is able to help enhance Black culture and identity, as well as create a sense of unity amongst Black individuals at BHS, while also connecting with other
clubs and local organizations wherever possible.
“I love having a safe space within Berkeley High (School) to come and just relax, eat food, and talk about things that are important to us,” said McKey.