Community Education

New Black Student Union at Gig Harbor High has big goals

Posted on February 20th, 2023 By:

Leila Jeneby and Jasmine Lopez felt an instant bond when they met this fall at Gig Harbor High School.

Jeneby, a sophomore, had recently moved from Seattle. Lopez, a senior, gave her a tour of the school. Jeneby was surprised there was no Black Student Union among its list of clubs.

“When she asked me if I wanted to start one, I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that,” Lopez said.

The GHHS Black Student Union — the only BSU in Peninsula School District — launched in January.

The BSU meets every Tuesday after school. The club is open to all, and its members include students from diverse backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. Currently 25 to 30 students participate on any given week, with new members joining regularly.

“I joined this club because I feel like I belong and it’s kind of like a family,” said Mia Barrow, a sophomore. “And, I don’t know, I just want to see change in our school and our community.”

Jasmine Lopez (left), a senior, and Leila Jeneby (in blue), a sophomore, started a Black Student Union at Gig Harbor High School in January. The club is the first BSU in Peninsula School District. At right is club member Anna Bartlett.

Black Student Union fills a void

The club’s mission is to create a safe and welcoming space where students can have fun but also have honest conversations about racial discrimination and social justice.

“I love how positive everyone is and how just like from the get-go, it felt like a family because we were all so desperate to see this action happen at our school,” Jeneby said. “When Jasmine did her first speech on MLK Day (to introduced the club and invite members), people were just coming up to us saying how grateful they were about starting this and for us to take initiative on this.”

Principal Michele Suiter said the club has filled a void.

“It was totally organic the way it came from the kids and their desire to just create safe spaces for students of color,” Suiter said. “And that was a need and a hole that existed here.”

The administration plans to work with the BSU on initiatives to promote a positive climate and culture within the school, she added.

Celebrating Black joy

The club’s most recent meeting fell on Valentine’s Day, so students celebrated with sweet treats and games. They watched a TED Talk on self-care, and they wrote “love notes” to themselves, listing “10 things I like about myself.”

Lopez and Jeneby aim to promote students’ mental health and appreciation of themselves regardless of negative messages they may have internalized.

Black Student Union members write love notes to themselves at the club’s Feb. 14 meeting at Gig Harbor High School. From left: Anna Bartlett, Leslie Rivera-Henriquez, Brianna Ramirez and Sully Failla.

BSU advisor Alyse Yeaman, who is the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leader, said students, especially students of color, have been craving an environment like this.

“It’s like they finally have oxygen,” Yeaman said. “It’s to promote Black joy and to know that they’re beautiful. A lot of times they come to school on guard. Here at least, they can let their hair down and be who they want to be, and be seen and heard and cared for.”

Jorden Felton, a senior, was attending his first BSU meeting.

“It’s good to feel included, especially when I don’t feel included,” Felton said. “I just want to meet other people of my race. And it’s good to have a place like this.”

A safe space for all

Lopez was inspired to start the BSU in part by a friend who no longer attends Gig Harbor High.

“My friend actually moved from the school to Lakewood, because she was experiencing the racial slurs and she didn’t feel like she belonged here,” Lopez said. “So, I said I really want to make everybody else feel like they belong.”

Jasmine Lopez, in white shirt, names the song playing, as members of the Black Student Union celebrate Valentine’s Day during their Feb. 14 meeting at Gig Harbor High School. Lopez and Leila Jeneby, a sophomore, started the club in January. It is the first BSU in Peninsula School District.

Lopez hopes the club will be a place where Black students can share their experiences and where other students can feel free to enter the discussion.

“I really want them to know this is a very welcoming environment,” Lopez said. “We’re not exclusive. We welcome everybody, because we need those allies that stand by us. And we’d like a lot of people to fight with us against racial discrimination.”

Addressing racial slurs

When Jeneby attended schools in Seattle, she experienced the safe space a Black Student Union can provide. She wants to share that experience with peers at Gig Harbor.

“In the few months of being here, I’ve heard people who aren’t supposed to be saying, you know, the N-word saying that, and whether it’s targeted toward Black students or not, just that kind of level of carelessness with words that kind of target us,” she said.

She’s heard the N-word in the lunchroom, seen it scrawled on text books and heard of other insulting terms used against students of color. The Peninsula School District is investigating allegations of the use of a racist term at a recent girls basketball game between Gig Harbor and Peninsula high schools.

“I want to provide this space for kids of color to process that trauma that hearing those kinds of words produces,” Jeneby said.

Black Student Union members play musical chairs at the club’s Feb. 14 meeting at Gig Harbor High School.

Advocacy, education and outreach

The Black Student Union is celebrating Black History Month with posters of influential people of color, from historical figures to contemporary icons, displayed around the school.

Over the rest of the year, they’ll bring in guest speakers and collaborate with other Black Student Union leaders from around the region. They’ll go on field trips and attend multi-cultural events.

The BSU students plan an in-school, online survey to gauge how students are feeling at Gig Harbor High, the positives and negatives. “We’re giving students the voice to be the change that they want to see at our school,” Jeneby said.

Principal Suiter welcomes the survey.

“We kind of live in a vacuum of information so many times, and we don’t actually ask the questions,” she said. “How are they feeling here as they walk through the hallways and in their classrooms? And this is for all students. … We want to know how they’re doing and where the holes are.”

Jeneby and Lopez hope theirs won’t be the only local BSU for long.

“We want to partner with different high schools in the district like Peninsula and Henderson (Bay) to bring more awareness about the importance of having a Black Student Union at those schools,” Jeneby said.

Students from other local high schools are welcome to visit or join Gig Harbor High’s BSU.

Black Student Union members play “name that song” at the club’s Feb. 14 meeting at Gig Harbor High School. From left: Leslie Rivera-Henriquez, Brianna Ramirez and Sully Failla.