By Jaimie Julia Winters
Behind the harmony that seemingly exists between black and white students at Montclair High School, being black can still be lonely.
No one wants to be the only black girl in a class with 17 other white students, said Misty Avinger, one of the co-founders of the newly reformed Black Student Union at Montclair High School. She claims that’s why many black students don’t take advantage of advanced placement or honors classes offered at Montclair High School. The reinvented group wants to support each other in educational goals, while building each other up.
Montclair schools reflect the diversity of the town, with 26 percent of the population black, 11 percent Hispanic and 5.6 percent Asian. Whites still make up most of the population at 50 percent. The schools have been integrated since the 1970s when the district began busing students out of their neighborhood schools using an 11-school magnet system.
“Montclair is in a bubble when it comes to race relations,” said Naima Troutt, a sophomore and the union’s president. Troutt transferred from the predominately white Montclair Kimberley Academy, excited about going to a school that prides itself on integration, but soon learned that Montclair may have desegregated schools but has segregated classrooms, she said.
Unions reflect the times
Racial inequity still exists, even in Montclair, especially in Advanced Placement and Honors classrooms where the black-to-white ratio can be 1 to 20, say the 12 or so members of Black Student Union at the high school.
Black Student Unions have existed since the 1960s, but mainly at colleges. They were formed at the height of the civil rights movement and the racial unrest after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That’s when the Montclair High School Black Student Union was formed by Deforest “Buster” Soaries and Kathleen Smallwood, said Councilwoman Renee Baskerville, a 1974 MHS graduate.
Through the years, Black Student Unions’ missions have changed with the times. The one at Montclair remained one of few formed at the high-school level, although membership would wane at times.
“In my times, it was about black awareness, learning about our history and culture. We had a naming process where we were given our free name,” said Baskerville.
Although race relations have improved, in predominantly white schools Black Student Unions offer support for black students in a safe environment, said member Kimoni DePass.
In recent years with the lack of leadership, Montclair’s Black Student Union diminished. But in March a group of young women saw a need to rejuvenate it. In 2018, Montclair Black Student Union students want advice on maneuvering the educational system, help with homework or tutoring, a place to vent and a group that will have their backs. Their new fight? The achievement gap.
They hit the ground running, said assistant principal and club adviser Clifton Thompson.
Combating the achievement gap starts early on, the group says, so the group also hopes to start up an elementary school age tutoring program beginning at Edgemont School.
The group began meeting after school on Mondays, overseen by Thompson. The group’s members say that the Black Student Union offers a space for like-minded students.
“We felt as though students of color were not being celebrated enough or weren’t given the opportunity to be celebrated as much as their peers due to factors like tracking and the achievement gap,” said DePass.
On June 5, the group will present its first event, which will reflect the group’s first mission – to celebrate students of color and build confidence.
In partnership with the Natural Hair Project, the Black Student Union will present Afrocentricity: Black Girl, You Are Beautiful! A Presentation and Conversation About Black Young Womanhood and Self-Love.
Speakers lined up for the event include a therapist, authors, entrepreneurs and corporate business leaders.
“All of our presenters are strong, successful, beautiful women of African descent. We have a special guest performance by Bindi Liebowitz, a former contestant on NBC’s hit show ‘The Voice’ We’re going to raffle off some gifts that were donated to us by local Montclair businesses such as Tacoria, Jai Pure Yoga studio, New Nails 2000, and more,” said DePass.
The event will be held 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Montclair High School.
All are invited to the event. The group hopes also to create discussion focused on black issues that are important for students of all races.
Baskerville likes the idea. “The stronger we are on our culture, the better equipped we are to come together.”