Empowerment in Black Student Union

By Damya Walton

The Black Student Union (BSU) is a club that celebrates the representation of diversity and provides a space where members embrace what it means to be a Black woman. Members of the BSU empower each other and learn from each other through open discussions, sharing their personal stories, and learning about member’s histories.

Three years ago, the Merion Mercy Black Student Union was established and began its journey. This club was started by Zoie Dodd, a determined woman who founded the club with several other seniors with the intent to create representation in a majority white school. At the time, this was one of very few clubs that allowed black girls to be themselves without feeling different. It was formerly known as the “Multicultural Club”.

According to Amber Wiggins, Club President 2020-2021, this was a club that was attended more by a majority of Black girls versus other ethnicities. An assembly later followed that caused many girls to feel overwhelming joy. Amber expressed, “I was proud of us to see a group of girls who had a dream and sought out for it. It is still inspirational till this day.”
Each year during Black History Month, the BSU presents the BSU Showcase which is always packed with incredible student performances of music, dance, and poetry highlighting the stories of black women throughout history. When creating each showcase theme, members are guided by the inspiring words and actions of the women who have gone before them. Members of the Merion community eagerly await the showcase each February, but may want to know more about the BSU and their journey at Merion.

In the interviews below, leaders of the BSU look back at the obstacles they’ve overcome and the milestones they’ve reached, and look forward towards the future with anticipation.

Many people at MMA are fond of the well-known president Amber Wiggens, because of the many talents that she shared with the rest of her community. One event led by Amber that inspired many freshmen to open up was Juneteenth 2020, which included dancing, singing and poetry of the celebration of freedom for African Americans. Amber explained to me that inspiration is something she carries on within every project she does for her club and her sisters (club members) because of its importance. February 26th, was the date when previous BSU showcases had taken place; however, those showcases hadn’t been affected by COVID-19. Several questions arose about how the performance would go on based on the restrictive safety guidelines. How would the school interact with BSU’s performers without seeing them live on stage? Would technology become an interference?

Luckily, Amber and her team worked with a technician in order for the presentation to flow with music, art, and video clips in synchronization. It was difficult, long, and hard work, but worth the results. Many teachers, upon hearing that it would continue on even during the pandemic, anticipated the showcase and the prospect of learning more about their young students. Some of the acts featured were the MMA gospel choir Melodies of Heaven’s singing, Jada Boose’s rap and more. A highlight of the show was Amber Wiggins herself dancing as Harriet Tubman to the song “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo. This dance was not only a new look to praise dance for those unfamiliar with it, but it was a tribute to how important Harriet Tubman was to the freedom of many people.

Amber also stated that she wishes to continue within the BSU in college because of how much the community within it means to her,“I would consider this more than a club, more of an organization and a family of sisters – Black sisters who come from different communities, different aspects of life and seek the betterment of our community at MMA and outside.” She believes that the club is an outlet to represent her sisters, even if they are shy about it. She knows at the bottom of her heart that they are gifted and that the world should see it. Amber Wiggins is a woman that has made her mark and who MMA girls can look up to. And she is not alone; alongside her is fellow BSU co-president Manaii Beckwith.
Manaii Beckwith has had many leadership roles, especially within the BSU, from Treasurer to now Co-President; she is another inspiration within the club. Manaii told me that the club is a symbol of family and being with people like her is a form of home. She understands what her sisters are going through in times of strife and in times of frustration, and one of her efforts is to be an example to her sisters and to her community. As Manaii explains, “If I’m in a program where I’m not a part of the majority, I try to make sure that all the minority is spoken for in a sense that takes BSU everywhere I go.” Many of her favorite memories are within the club because of the welcoming environment and the safe place it provides to vent her feelings. Because of BSU, she hopes to continue to give a voice to others who are unheard. After all, topics within this club can be restricted on the basis of majority background in order to keep anyone from feeling uncomfortable. However, Manaii does admit that change is slowly occurring within the school, and more people want to pay attention to what’s around them.

Mrs. Carol Restifo, English teacher and co-moderator for the BSU, has watched several leaders in the making within the club tell their story and express themselves individually through artistic meanings. As a moderator, Mrs. Restifo admitted to me that when she was younger, a club such as BSU never existed in that time of history by any means. The majority of the area where she grew up, even college, was secluded to only include Black girls such as her. It is experiences like this that I and other students want to know more about past history. One of Mrs. Restifo’s memorable goals as a moderator is guiding her students in the best expression possible for the future in occupation and social environments. Mrs. Restifo elaborates, “They need to be accurate because I was always raised with these words: I have to work twice as hard in order to get half as far as some people.” She hopes for the continued success of all members of the BSU to understand that hard work gets you a long way rather than success being handed to you.

Ms. Briana Scott, language teacher and the other co-moderator for the BSU, expressed to me that coming to Merion Mercy Academy awakened in her the desire to explore the leadership role within BSU while learning from the skills that her students display day by day. Ms. Scott highly suggested this club to newcomers because it is “…somewhere that supports where you are and who you are. No matter at what level you are. We’re all growing and we’re at different levels of our growth. Someway, somehow, all put together it just works.” to influence creativity, empowerment , maturity and organization in young people leading their own activities as a first to see at a school. It is because of this that she is very impressed by the efforts of each woman that she has met with the hope to meet more on what makes them unique. As a moderator of BSU, she is an observer who is learning technical skills especially while the BSU 2020 Showcase was in development. In the inspiration of experiencing BSU, she hopes to be more involved for her growing students and within the school community.

For Simone Waheed, the sense of community drew her in to join the club, and she has continued as a member for 2 years by saying this, “I don’t have to pretend to be who I’m not and I don’t have to try to fit in with my environment since I’m around people with similar backgrounds to mine and I’m able to be myself and let go.” She described the club as a family, but she made it known to me that it’s deeper than one may think. In the family, they discuss hard topics and build each other up, according to Simone. When I spoke to her, her favorite member within the BSU was Amber Wiggins. “She has a lot of knowledge behind the African American community, she does a lot of research and she’s very dedicated to BSU and to the members of BSU.” As a young student, she is very active within the club and especially within Melodies of Heaven, where she performs spiritual songs created by African American legends.

Black Student Union embraces the empowerment of women who are growing physically, mentally, and spiritually throughout each year. As more showcases are produced, the many will see that the club is about much more than discussing untold tales; it’s also about the connection of found-family sisters. A diverse club, BSU welcomes more people to join and feel a foundation of inclusion: A ray of arts, music, writing, leadership and sisterhood that will continue on for generations of future ladies to represent what Black Magic means.