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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

Beyond Black History Month

This week my school’s African American Awareness (AAA) Club and Office of Community and Inclusion offered a special workshop on Black mental health and wellness as part of our ongoing celebration of Black History Month. As an aspiring social worker I have a personal interest in learning more about Black mental health; however, I also wanted to support our students and generally recognize their valued and beloved presence at our school, which is a predominantly white institution, or PWI.

As I entered the meeting, relaxing music was playing and the students (a mixture of students of color, and one white student) were gathering in a small group around cupcakes and treats. I immediately felt the sacredness of the space and was concerned about my presence as a white person / teacher; these students and faculty are the most welcoming on our campus so just to be clear, it was my own desire to respect the space as safe for students of color to share and be together that was on my heart and mind. I did not want my white presence to be a burden or an intrusion. However, my colleagues assured me that they did want teachers there, so I stayed.

The leaders of AAA began our meeting by reviewing some of the top concerns regarding Black mental health, including data and statistics. We then paired with someone in the room for a series of discussions, and I partnered with a student, Alex, a sophomore. Our leader asked us to begin our discussion with our partner by going back and forth and saying affirmations about ourselves, such as “I am strong.” “I belong here.” “I am a loving daughter.” Etc.

I have never done affirmations before. Although in therapy sessions I might come close by saying positive things about myself out loud, I don’t go through an intentional series of short statements like this about my soul and my worthiness. As I began, I found myself unable to think of anything to say, and when I started with “I am worthy of love,” this was so hard to say out loud, I almost just couldn’t do it. But Alex…She could do affirmations. She basically coached me by not only offering beautiful ones, but also responding to mine with a simple, “that’s good,” or “yes.”

After affirmations we were asked to talk about what is “on our mind right now,” and our leader mentioned examples like, something you saw on social media, the situations at HBCUs, being the only Black person in the room, etc. So I began and told Alex about my meditations on my white privilege, how my whiteness impacts my students of color, etc. But then, when it was her turn, this beautiful teenager with an old soul mentioned boys, and studying, and wanting to find some quiet time to consider her life, and her wisdom was stunning. I felt like I was the child and she was the adult, and I was in awe of her.

My conversation with Alex reminded me that I have work to do, and I need to continue doing it on my own, in my own white spaces. I have heard this truth spoken so often, but it wasn’t until I felt it, deep in my bones, that I knew: my whiteness is mine to grapple with and understand. When thinking about my whiteness, I return to the paradox that the more I learn, the less I know, and the wisdom that very few things are dualities; we live in the gray area, always learning, adjusting, and understanding, and there will never be an arrival to a destination of self-knowledge: this is our life journey.

Black History Month is a sacred ritual and celebration, but I am grateful for all the ink spilled this month in the public conversation about ensuring that our focus on Black voices is year round and not just for February. At Her Voice at the Table, it is our mission to continue assessing our curriculum and researching the link between racial literacy and student well-being, choosing texts that star Black voices from across lived experiences, and continue our community and inclusion work as a team of educators. It is in thanks to our colleagues who lead our Community and Inclusion department at our school and our students that we find our inspiration, our courage, and our focus.

Exploring my white privilege in spaces such as graduate school

Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.

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