Girls start Black Student Union to ‘uplift each other’ at East High School

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ajak Shmir, right, reacts to the opinion of her friend Joyce Mayombe during East High School's Black Student Union meeting Sept. 18.

Students had used a derogatory term in a video on Instagram, prompting a campus conversation with the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah during Black History Month.

A video that claimed African American girls aren’t pretty later circulated among students on social media.

But this video, played in a classroom at East High School after classes, was different. It covered race relations, interracial relationships, incarceration and economic struggles.

Rosine Nibishaka, president of the school’s new Black Student Union, turned from the screen to ask classmates sitting at a cluster of desks what they thought. “That’s deep,” Esperance Iradukunda said.

“We don’t really have classes that teach about our history, so we kind of do that for ourselves with our advisers," Nibishaka later said.

About 10 students attended the mid-September meeting. The members lead the discussions, and it’s not uncommon for them to pick what Adia Waldburger, who advises the club with Bonnie O’Brien, considers to be college-level topics.

It’s been inspiring, she said, to see these students take a negative situation and turn it into a “call to action to educate people and to support each other ... and get out there in the community.”

The club, which meets every Wednesday, is made up of mostly female students, who are mainly juniors and seniors. After watching the public policy video, they went back and forth, giving their own interpretations and sharing their experiences. They asked each other, “Do you guys feel like that’s true?”

“This place is a great environment to see people that look like you, talk like you, have similar backgrounds. It’s just a place that you can be yourself without judgment," Iradukunda said.

There have been misconceptions, such as the idea that the club is “for black kids,” said Olivia Winston, the club’s vice president. “We want to welcome allies” and anyone who is interested in joining or attending, she explained.

“Some of our goals are to educate everybody in school about what it is to be black in Utah and especially at East,” Winston said.

The idea to start a Black Student Union at the school started floating around last school year, and it took shape in recent months. Iradukunda coordinates its activities, while Aguilera Niyonkuru is its choreographer, and Liliane Kwizera serves as secretary.

In early September, members hosted a “Welcome Black Barbecue” with kebabs and music. Summer Goodin, one of the club’s historians, was there to photograph it.

“It was for all the kids who are new to East, who look like us, or whoever wants to learn about black culture and know that there is a safe space for them. And they can come talk about anything,” Nibishaka said.

The derogatory videos shared by students had been hard to watch, union members said. “It just puts us down when, like every black girl in the universe is beautiful and amazing," said Joyce Mayombe, another club historian.

But Iradukunda said that the girls realized they “needed to do something about it.”

“It’s kind of like just shocking, because it’s something I guess I hear about or I see happening on social media in other places," Nibishaka said. "But then when it’s happening at your school you go to, you start to realize racism or stereotypes or whatever, it’s real and it’s all alive and it’s happening right now.”

That’s why it’s important to have this club “so we can all uplift each other,” Nibishaka said.

“It’s like I’ve got you, because I understand what you’re going through because I’m going through the same exact thing. And it’s kind of like you do need that in your life,” she said.

When Lex Scott, leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, spoke at East High last school year, she noticed how passionate and engaged the students were. She said she hopes these students leading the Black Student Union keep going forward.

“These kids are so amazing. They are the future,” Scott said.

Nibishaka is excited for the opportunity to teach people about their club and “and just about black culture and why sometimes we feel the way we are.”

“Our love’s just here for all of us to grow and move forward to just become stronger as a community and as a school. Because we could do better and we can be better,” Nibishaka said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.