Doing justice to Black History takes more than a month-long celebration. In the latest issue of Signature magazine, Sarah Foster '17 shared the story of how she advocated for Black History curriculum at Emma Willard School during her time here.
For Sarah Foster ’17 growing up as one of few Black students in elementary and middle school, she thought she was obtaining a “blue ribbon” education. “I only heard the sugarcoated version of American history. Not until I went to Emma, and had the honor of spending a semester in South Africa during my sophomore year, did I truly understand what the Black experience meant.” While studying in South Africa and learning about the culture, Sarah had an epiphany that changed her thinking.
“My host parents’ helpers told me, ‘Other than Mandela and Biko, there were no other leaders for us, but in the United States there were many.’ This shocked me because I thought, ‘Martin Luther King fought for us, so who else was there?’ It was at that moment I realized many pieces of the ‘Black American history puzzle’ were missing for me. That motivated me to read, research, and watch documentaries to know the truth about my people.”
Sarah had her parents’ perspective about Jamaican history, but was dismayed that she didn’t have a more realistic sense of Black history in the United States. “My exposure to African American history was mainly during Black History Month, when I would learn about the accomplishments of Black individuals—like those of the poet Langston Hughes, the scholar Paul Robeson, the scientist George Washington Carver among others. I would learn of tragedies like the Massacre on Black Wall Street and the Middle Passage. I thought, ‘Why didn't I learn this in elementary school? Why isn’t Emma teaching this?’”
Sarah considered what other students might be experiencing, and the seed of her activism was firmly planted. “I knew that other Black students from a similar background needed this course to strengthen their understanding of their history, American history. It was not only for Black and Brown students, but also for non-Black and Brown students who were unaware simply because they did not understand or were never taught. It did not take long for me to decide what I wanted: I needed to advocate for and propose this course.”
Sarah didn’t let the idea of teaching others about the Black experience rest. She asked History Instructor Josh Hatala for guidance. Sarah shares, “I was going to check-in for the night and asked Mr. Hatala if I could ask him a question. Mr. Hatala, being dedicated to his students and always having the time, said sure. I honestly thought he expected it to be silly, because I am a clown by nature. When I asked him if I would be able to propose a course for African American Studies he said, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely possible.’ He said all I needed to do was write a formal proposal and discuss it with Dr. Naeher, the head of the History Department.”
Sarah’s conversation with Dr. Naeher was another highlight in developing the course. “He told me stories about when he was growing up, his interactions with Black people, and how his eyes were opened to the reality of history. He said it was necessary and vital for Emma Willard to have a course like this. Dr. Naeher invited me to present my proposal and vision for the course at a department meeting.”
Keep in mind that Sarah was in high school. Her experiences in South Africa opened the door for her thinking and she chose to move through that door, pushing for this course to be created to help future Emma students. Sarah recalls, “I was so scared because these history teachers were my teachers. They wanted to hear what I had to say. I was intimidated, but honestly I felt honored. My final and most impactful highlight was speaking to the history department during my senior year. They asked me when I wanted this course to be offered. I replied, ‘Next year.’” Sarah realized for the course to be what she hoped, she would not actually be able to take it. She states, “It was my personal senior gift; this course is not for me. It is for current and future students to learn the truth about American history—how painful and wounded America is. My hope for this course is that it provides students with a passion and determination to assist in the healing and reconciliation that needs to happen.”
The History Department also appreciated the gift that Sarah offered in her final year at Emma. Dr. Naeher remarked, "Without Sarah's initiative and follow-through, it is a near certainty we would not have offered the course when we did. We are so grateful for her determination and encouragement!"
History Instructor Drew Levy furthers shares, “Sarah proposed the idea for an elective in African American History and brought ideas for topics, readings, and foci for the course. An idea for an African American History course had been in the works for some time, but it was Sarah's spark that lit the flame that became the African American History and Literature course that exists today."
The African American History and Literature course is only one example of how Sarah has used her voice and activism to foster change. When she was in second grade, she reached out to the manufacturer of Cheetos to ask for a more nutritious version and learned that Baked Cheetos were soon to be on the market. “I was so excited that they wanted to listen to what I had to say. That has helped build my confidence in being an agent for change.” Sarah also shares that her time in South Africa and the Dominican Republic working for medical missions and with children struggling with HIV/AIDS, healthcare needs, and socioeconomic disparities ignited her passion and compassion. She worked to “improve the children’s quality of life by making them feel loved, while educating them on the facts of the virus and how they should be taking care of themselves. This truly humbled me, and these experiences really motivated me to use my voice to bring about change in my community.”
Sarah gives credit to her mother and her aunt, who were her role models. She also is inspired by Serena Williams, relating, “I truly admire her discipline, hunger for excellence, and her mental tenacity.” Sarah also offers some advice for anyone pursuing change:
Whenever you have a vision, always go for it, but always know who to tell. I am glad I told teachers, friends, and family I trusted because when your vision is in the smallest phase, it can easily be fractured, perverted, or even dismissed. One thing I have also learned is that a vision is like a relay race. The first runner gets the race started, and might see a promising end, but the baton of ideas eventually gets passed on to the anchor, Dr. Levy, who will keep the vision going. It feels more rewarding, however, because I have heard narratives from students who have taken the course about what they have learned, and how they took the material outside of the classroom. I believe that a checkpoint for leadership is the fact that you may not see the final product, but you know that your vision and wishes are being fulfilled.
Sarah is currently a senior at Drew University. She has set her sights on medicine and hopes to become a pediatric cardiologist, or an obstetrician. “I want to be a role model and inspire young Black girls and boys in my own little way.”
Sarah continues to give her thoughtful talents to Emma Willard School by serving on the DEI Alumnae Task Force. She shares, “Though I had access to faculty members I considered my mentors, I would have loved to have a connection with a Black teacher or alumna who may be in the same professional program I was interested in entering… One of the hallmarks of Emma Willard is a strong and enduring sisterhood. However, I yearned to connect with another Black person who went through the boarding school experience. I just wanted to vent, to get advice on how to handle certain situations. On the DEI task force, we are definitely advocating for a stronger connection between alumni of color, and between current students and alumni of color.”
Educational institutions like Emma need to help the next generation of young women of color make progress in serving and shaping our world. Sarah advises, “Tell the truth. Tell the truth about the painful history of the campus, the founders, and the roles they played in history. Students appreciate when they are told the truth, not when it is sugarcoated. Also, give students a voice. Students have exceptional ideas. Although at Emma I experienced some of my dreams being squashed, I am thankful that Mr. Hatala, Dr. Naeher, Dr. Levy, Mr. Sundin, and my advisor Ms. McNamara truly listened to my vision, and believed with me that it could happen.”
As a mentor to other students of color, Sarah shares,“Let me tell you a little secret: when you are told that your dream is unrealistic, work harder and push harder to see your vision come true, and enlist mentors that will help you achieve your dreams. They will come true—maybe not in the way you might expect it, but they definitely will. Don’t let doubt taint your drive, determination, and tenacity. Know your worth, because the world desperately needs you. I already know great things are going to happen.”