Students Share What Black History Month Means To Them

How do you spend Black History Month? Two students, Imani van Gaalen and Rahaf Abdelrahman both from Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School (KCI), shared their thoughts about how they see the month as an important opportunity for meaningful learning, and commitment to action year-round. 

Abdelrahman, a Grade 10 student, and van Gaalen, a Grade 11 student, are both members of KCI’s African Heritage Club, a group of students and staff mentors who are committed to learning about and celebrating the cultures and stories of the African diaspora all year-round. Throughout Black History Month, the club hosted a virtual conference series every Thursday, in addition to posting a selection of engaging and educational content on their Instagram account

The club worked quickly to transition their work online, navigating the added challenges presented by COVID-19, explained van Gaalen. Although it has meant they were unable to come together in person, the silver lining of the online approach is that it made communicating with a wider audience possible, allowing them to reach people outside of the KCI school community.

“I think that we’ve been able to accomplish more, because it’s easier to communicate and set things up virtually,” said van Gaalen. 

“It’s really easy to reach people from other schools,” added Abdelrahman.

Both had been busy, working to help create material for the club to share throughout Black History Month, and took a moment to reflect on what the month means to them. For van Gaalen, the month is about celebrating the accomplishments of the Black community and their contribution to Canada’s history. 

“The biggest thing for me is that it’s a very empowering month and a reminder of Black excellence, of Black resilience, of all the things that the Black community has accomplished,” said van Gaalen. “It’s really important that it’s a celebration of Black people and a portrayal of Black people in a positive light. So often, in the media, there is a negative portrayal of the Black community.” 

Abdelrahman echoed this sentiment, as she sees Black History Month as a learning opportunity – a chance for people to better educate themselves about past events, both the good and the bad. 

“For me, it’s an opportunity to not only recognize, but to cognize things,” said Abdelrahman. “It’s a time to appreciate the strides for change that we have made, but to also acknowledge that we’re still a long way from…the world that we want to create.” 

For those who are wondering how they should be spending their time during Black History Month, Abdelrahman offered some suggestions. She sees education as the key to making meaningful progress and change. Pick a topic you’re interested in, and dig in.

“It’s a time to really learn. Racism is like a disease and the only cure for it is people who are willing to learn and willing to change,” said Abdelrahman.

It’s an opportunity to reflect, explained van Gaalen, and remember the sacrifice, dedication and accomplishments of those who came before us. It should also serve as a reminder of the work still to be done, and is an opportunity to commit yourself to meaningful action in the months ahead.  

“We can become a part of history, right now,” said van Gaalen. “Your actions mean a lot.” 

Teachers, too, need to take action and should incorporate Black history into their classes – during Black History Month and throughout the year, van Gaalen explained. There are connections for each subject area and a way to connect people, events and accomplishments from Black history to curriculum. It’s a necessary step for teachers to take, and a meaningful one even if it’s not perfect.

“It might not always be perfect,” said van Gaalen. “I think that trying is much better than just not saying anything at all.” 

Both van Gaalen and Abdelrahman shared the impact the African Heritage Club’s staff mentors, Carol Pinnock and Chris Ashley, have had on them. This has included the chance to take on new responsibilities, and learn new skills beyond what they expected. 

“They really push me outside of my comfort zone, and have given me so many new opportunities,” said van Gaalen. “I’m so glad that I joined.”

Having staff members that you can speak openly and honestly with, Abdelrahman explained, was what really stood out for her. 

“It’s really cool, especially how understanding Mr. Ashley and Mrs. Pinnock are,” said Abdelrahman. 

The best parts of Black History Month for these students involve opportunities to come together as a community, through events and conferences. Van Gaalen shared fond memories of the Beating the Odds conference, hosted by Laurier’s Association of Black Students (ABS)

“That was really empowering,” said van Gaalen. “To be surrounded by so many other Black students – it was very uplifting.” 

Abdelrahman sees the best part of Black History Month as the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to come together to strive for change. It’s a chance to identify allies in other communities and focus on how to move forward in unison. 

“It really is a time for all of us to come together…regardless of nationality, race, colour,” said Abdelrahman. “Change doesn’t happen just because Black people want it. It happens because all of us come together with a common goal.” 

Reflecting on how we can take their favourite parts of Black History Month with us the rest of the year, van Gaalen believes that education is key. The conversation about Black history must continue all year if we are to make meaningful strides in our understanding of the lived experiences of all in our community, she explained.

“We should continue to talk about Black history, in general,” said van Gaalen. “The Black history that we talk about didn’t happen in February. You can talk about it any other month of the year.”

The power of community and collaboration is what Abdelrahman wants to see the eleven other months of year. She believes this is key to making the strides necessary to make our community a place where all are equals. 

“Community is so strong,” said Abdelrahman. “When you have a group of people that really care about something, you can accomplish anything.”