Led by four student heads‒Madison Q. ’21, Summer J. ’21, Ryan J. ’21 and Shyne C. ’23‒the GFS Black Student Alliance is dedicated to strengthening the Black community and its allies, both on and off the GFS campus.
“We work to build relationships, foster equity and provide a safe space for GFS students to express their feelings and openly discuss current events and issues,” said the club’s faculty advisors, Carly Wassel, an Upper School Teacher, and Vanessa Griffin, Executive Assistant to the Head of School. “Under the leadership of Maddie, Shyne, Summer and Ryan, BSA has worked to make this Black History Month a rich celebration of Black Excellence. This is truly a student-led club, and it's been exciting this year to see so many students playing an active role. We are proud of the students for their vision and commitment!"
Sitting down for a virtual chat with Madison, Summer, Ryan and Shyne, it’s immediately clear how enthusiastic they are to share the work BSA has been doing, during Black History Month and throughout the year. They describe the student-run group as a place to find support, understanding and common ground.
Pathways to BSA
“When I got to high school, I knew what BSA was, and I wanted to be with a group that supported and understood and was so unifying,” said Ryan, who is in her 14th year at GFS. “I remember at the club fair, there were just such good vibes and great energy; I was drawn to it immediately. Just getting to know people and talking to people and having similar experiences and being able to have an open conversation was so important to me.”
Summer, who has been at GFS since 6th Grade, echoed those thoughts: “When I came to Garrison, there weren’t very many Black people in my grade, and when I got to high school … I just wanted a space where I could talk about my Black issues and my Black concerns with my Black friends and peers.”
A big part of joining BSA was forming relationships with other students who shared common experiences and were seeking to welcome new students into the group—a tradition the current heads hope to continue. Summer and Madison both pointed to the GFS Class of 2019 being instrumental in inviting them to join the group.
“The Class of 2019 definitely played a role in me joining BSA,” said Madison. “They were like my big sisters. They were really my mentors, and the reason I decided to apply as a head of BSA is because I wanted to be what they were for me—I wanted to be that for other younger students. I really enjoy the unity of being a part of a group where everyone supports everyone and everyone has the common goal of just being friends and spreading what it means to be Black and sharing that with other people on the GFS campus.”
As the youngest head of the group, Shyne was also drawn to BSA for the camaraderie she saw her older peers enjoying: “Starting at Garrison in 6th grade and looking at BSA, I was always excited to go to it,” she said. “There’s so much support within BSA and so that’s something that I really looked forward to doing and I joined as soon as I got to high school.”
Celebrating Black History Month
Most recently, one of the group’s initiatives has been sharing aspects of Black culture and the Black experience with their peers. They’ve presented each week at the Upper School Grizzly Gathering, giving informational and interactive presentations on topics such as the significance of soul food in the Black community, the history of Black hair,, and how music, fashion and African American Vernacular English have impacted other cultures. Their goal, said Summer, was to do something a little different that would be interesting to other students. “I wanted to do something that was interactive, fun, where people kept engaged week after week and they thought it was very entertaining and they found something educational. …That’s mainly what our goal was, that people had a yearn for learning what it means to be Black and learning what their Black peers go through on a daily basis, learning what the Black culture is.”
They’ve received lots of positive reactions to the presentations from their peers and from teachers and staff who have reached out to say how much they enjoyed the presentations, or share that they learned something.
“It’s been such an outlet for people to learn and continue to learn,” said Shyne. “It’s gotten so many people excited, asking, ‘What’s the next presentation?’ People have just been so positive about it.”
“I think that we really fulfilled our goal of having people interested and finding an interactive way to make people more aware of what Black history means and what it means to us,” said Ryan.
“It feels so rewarding to have people feel so happy and feel like they’re enlightened by what we present to them,” Summer said. “It’s such a rewarding experience to hear teachers say, ‘Wow you taught me something I never knew before, you showed me something I never saw before, you gave me something I never tasted before.’”
Another highly anticipated initiative during Black History Month is a catered lunch featuring authentic Black American food on Thursday, February 25. BSA organized and planned the lunch, catered by local woman- and Black-owned company Xquisite Catering, to give the entire community a chance to connect in a fun and meaningful way. The lunch order was open to Upper School students and all faculty/staff, and proceeds will be donated to the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit dedicated to enhancing mental health services and resources in Black communities.
Putting together a campus-wide event like this has been a goal of BSA for years, said Summer, and the heads are excited to finally bring it to the GFS community.
“At our final Zoom, it was just so fulfilling for all of us,” said Ryan, “because we put so much work into it, and it had been something that was talked about for so long and that we could finally do it and bring it to Garrison, it was just such a great moment for all us.”
The weekly presentations and the lunch, like everything the group does, was a group effort. “We wanted it to be a collective of every member of BSA,” Summer said of planning the presentations. “Every contributor, we wanted their voice heard, we wanted their opinion in this presentation because it matters.”
Even through virtual learning, the group has remained connected and worked through technology challenges to make sure everyone who wants to be involved can be. “I love that BSA has found a way to incorporate everyone and make sure every remote learner’s voice is heard and that we are part of the conversation,” said Ryan, who has been learning virtually this year.
"With our presentations, at least half of the people that are reading the slides are virtual learners, so we have a really great mixture of people who are virtual and people that are in person when it comes to participating in our presentation and helping,” added Madison.
Hopes for the Future
While their recent focus has been on Black History Month, BSA is about so much more. Among their goals for the group moving forward are including more service work, fundraising, continuing to bring younger students into the community and continuing to expand the reach of the group.
“I really hope to continue this sprout of leadership that we’ve all come to, said Shyne. “[Continuing] the notion of community and to just grow BSA in general to help learn, to help grow how much we do in BHM and throughout the whole year, because it’s something that we really want to help others learn and understand. It’s amazing seeing how people are beginning to want to be included and want to learn. It’s something that makes all of us smile, seeing everyone happy to understand and happy to learn things they didn’t know before.”
Most importantly, the heads are hoping BSA continues to be a place where Black GFS students find understanding and a sense of unity.
“It’s such a fulfilling [experience] and it’s just a great community and space to be in,” Ryan said. “I wish that more people get to be a part of it. It really is such a community and a unifying place to be able to talk with people who have the same experiences as you and they understand you and you can really just be open and free with.”
“It’s just amazing that the work we’re doing now and imagining the work they’ll do in the future,” Summer said. “To feel like you’re part of BSA is such a big thing. … I would love to see BSA flourish as an opportunity to give girls a safe space, ultimately. To me, BSA is like a family. It’s like our own little corner that we can say our feelings and have them validated. To be in the same space as somebody who can go through the same experience as me is such a good feeling. It’s a good space for any girl to have, where they’re connecting with other people on a different level, because BSA has provided that for me for four years. Amongst other things, BSA is just like this big strong family of Black women.”