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Assemblies Showcase African American Experience in Berkeley

Photograph by Allyn Suzuki

The African American Studies Department at Berkeley High School (BHS) held a speaker series the week of November 13 that will continue after the Thanksgiving break for the last event of the series. The speaker series is the most recent event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the department, the only of its kind in the nation.

The speaker series was meant to be a four-day event with each day being about a separate topic, though the last event, which was to be a debrief of the series for African American Studies Department students, held on November 16, was postponed due to school being closed.

The first event was on Tuesday, November 13, with a group of panelists talking about the founding of the department, black studies in general and the importance of having a department like this for students and teaching truthful African American history. 

The next day, the conversation turned to music where the department invited alumni, students, and renowned artists to perform. Hasmig Minassian, a BHS history teacher said she really enjoyed the variety of music shared. “I loved the way that both of the singers incorporated their personal history and African American history,” said Minassian.

Lastly, on November 15, the series showed a movie called Welcome To The Neighborhood, which focused on gentrification in Berkeley. Alan Miller, an English and African American Studies teacher who was part of the planning process, began the assembly with a speech about his own personal story and experience with housing in segregated neighborhoods. Miller estimated that more than 1,500 students attended the series overall. 

Spencer Pritchard, a core teacher in the African American studies department who was also on the committee organizing events, said seven guest speakers participated in total, most of them alumni. “The speaker series this past week was an effort to engage students and teachers throughout the school day. Our goal was to bring people together and center issues relevant to the black community both locally and nationally,” Pritchard said.

These events were informative in talking about key issues within the community but it also gave people representation. “I got involved with this event because I have never been a part of something that I can personally relate to at Berkeley High,” said Imani Muhyee, a junior in Academic Choice (AC) who was a teen leader for the event. She said she felt the event was created to inspire, to have young people learn about their history of themselves and the department, and to educate the public about black history. “The events expressed the department’s mission by creating a diverse program that included thoughtful reflection by a panel consisting of people involved in African American Studies,” Miller said. The department created this series to remind people of the creations and contributions of African American people. Another goal of this series was “highlighting one of the issues that impacts African American students and all Bay Area residents continue to face: gentrification,” Miller concluded.

Many teachers took their students to the assemblies, including Karl Kaku, an English teacher in Berkeley International High School (BIHS). “Celebrating culture is important and breaks down barriers, exposes people to new ways of thinking, and, overall, helps us learn about each other, which is key to living in a world of respect, understanding, and harmony,” said Kaku. 

The topics chosen for the series reflected this statement by bringing different voices in the community together. “The mission of the African American Studies Department is to empower students with a positive sense of identity, purpose and direction; educate students and the greater community with an awareness and appreciation for the accomplishments, contributions, history, and culture of people of African descent,” said Pritchard. 

The planning for the event started a year ago and included department head Naomi Washington-Diouf as well as School Board Director Karen Hemphill. There also were plenty of volunteers, including Director of Student Activities John Villavicencio, multiple safety officers and students. “[Volunteers did] things like creating banners and slide shows, selecting music, moderating events,” Miller said. 

Getting students involved with this series helped “students to know it’s okay to represent their culture appropriately and not to be afraid to speak up and share your voice,” said Jzenae Coates, a junior in AC.

Overall, the assemblies aimed to show how important it is for all stories to be told. “My goals for this event [were] just to have a great time and for other students to see what it’s like to be a black student at Berkeley High,” Muhyee said. “I want everyone to take away this same message, that we are all different but we are all the same,” she added.