The Westerville South High School students — all Black girls — were asked to answer the question on the SMART board: What are the lies society tells us about ourselves?
They did not hold back with their responses.
“That I’m ugly.”
“We are too loud.”
“That we are dangerous (sic) we are bad people.”
“Black girls are too much, take up too much space.”
As part of a workshop on Wednesday with Dr. Arianna Howard, a cultural diversity expert and educational consultant, the WSHS students explored the negative messages Black females face, from “the lies people have said about them” to “the lies they tell themselves.” After the exercise, Howard dove into positive affirmations, working with the girls on reconstructing what it looks like to be a positive young Black woman growing up in today’s society.
“The commonality of everyone in the room — no matter if they are high-achieving, low-achieving or just doing school — is that we all have increased melanin of black and brown skin tones and that we’ve heard all the same negative messages,” said Cynthia DeVese, the district’s Educational Equity coordinator. “So how do we deconstruct those negative messages?”
“If you feel good about yourself, you’re going to feel better in your work,” she said. “You are going to stand tall when you walk through the hallways no matter what anyone says about you. And you’re going to really soar above all the negative noise that you hear.”
As part of the WSHS’ building equity plan, school leaders wanted to create a safe space for their Black female students — many of whom were affected by the death of Ma'Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, who was fatally shot in southeast Columbus last year.
The school’s equity team reached out to teachers and administrators to identify students who would benefit from this group. They also looked at various speakers to bring in to work with their students before selecting Howard. Funding for the project hails from money the Treasurer’s office has earmarked to support school equity initiatives through the District Equity Team.
This week’s meeting with Howard served as the formal launch of the program.
“The purpose of this group is to bring Black female students together and make sure they are loved and know they are worthy of that love,” said librarian Brandi Young, who is part of the building’s equity team and worked with Howard on her visit.
Howard said she wanted to spend her initial meeting building a connection with students.
“I really wanted to take them on a journey on the negative self-talk they most likely have and fill them up with positive affirmations so they can replace that self-talk with positive self-talk,” said Howard, who will reconnect with students in April and May.
The visit left an indelible mark on students, many of whom said they felt more confident and empowered knowing that they weren’t alone.
“It felt good to know I’m not the only one going through this,” sophomore Joy Simei said. “We’re in this together. It was uplifting.”
“I’m going into the rest of the day— I’m going to walk out with my chest high. I’m that girl. I’m going to be proud of my skin.”
Freshman Ama Twumwaa said having this safe space means a lot to her.
“I feel so honored and privileged to have something like this,” she said. “It makes a lot of people feel welcome and safe. I feel so powerful. It’s a boost.”