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Group photo of members of BLSU

Yesterday, the Emma Willard School community united in a powerful tribute to the rich cultural legacy and historical contributions of Black Americans. With the theme "Young, Black, and Gifted," the BLSU's assembly illuminated the vibrancy of Black culture nationwide.

Emma Willard School's Black and Latinx Student Union (BLSU) consistently delivers exceptional programming that is both insightful and thought-provoking during Black History Month (BHM)—attending a powerful lecture by Bobby Seale (co-founder of the Black Panthers) at Hudson Valley Community College, a Step Show at the Palace Theatre in Albany, attending the Kuumba Film Festival, and even enjoying an opportunity to watch the highly anticipated Marvel's Black Panther 2. This year's annual BHM assembly, under the leadership of co-heads Noura C. ’23 and Trinity M. ’23, was a masterful curation of engaging and empowering activities centered around the theme "Young, Black, and Gifted." This inspiring event reinvigorated our commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion, as we celebrated the boundless talents and triumphs of the Black community.

Director of College Counseling Dr. Ashley Bennett and Director of Institutional Equity and Inclusion Christine Gilmore

Director of College Counseling Dr. Ashley Bennett and Director of Institutional Equity and Inclusion Christine Gilmore kicked off the assembly with an electrifying karaoke performance of Gloria Gaynor's iconic Grammy-winning hit, "I Will Survive." The song's popularity skyrocketed during the disco era and has since become a powerful symbol of female and LGBTQ empowerment, inspiring generations with its message of resilience and overcoming adversity. The energized crowd of students and employees couldn't help but join in, rising to their feet and singing along to the stirring power ballad. As the anthem of triumph over hardship, "I Will Survive" perfectly encapsulated the theme of the assembly and the enduring spirit of Black history.

BLSU members Lucia B-C. ’24, Elle K. ’24, Amy D. ’25, Alex B. ’25, and Lyra M. ’25 delivered a captivating presentation centered around the theme "Young, Black, and Gifted." Their presentation showcased a diverse array of Black success stories in the new generation, featuring accomplished individuals such as Jerome Foster, a member of the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council; Elizabeth Acevedo, a celebrated poet and author of With the Fire on High; Chanté Davis a 19-year-old activist who is fighting against racism and for climate justice; and Simone Biles, a trailblazing American Olympic gymnast. Through their presentation, BLSU members inspired the audience with the powerful stories of these Black role models who are paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable world.

Emma's Junior Singing Group (JSG) performed an a cappella version of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World," which praises the beauty of the world despite its problems and encourages listeners to focus on the positive aspects of life. Despite facing discrimination and racism, Armstrong became the biggest-selling artist in the recording industry and broke down racial barriers, including becoming the first African American musician to insert a clause in his performance contracts that stipulated he would not play in any hotel venues where he would be barred from overnight lodgings because of his race.

Next up, the audience was invited to participate in an interactive "Game Break" segment, hosted by the dynamic duo of Olivia M. '23 and Bella H. '23. Their challenge was simple but engaging: song association. The hosts would share a single word and ask participants to sing a song featuring that word. "Love" prompted a rousing rendition of "Stop! In The Name Of Love" by The Supremes, while "Joy" brought a festive touch with the classic Christmas carol "Joy to the World." Amidst much laughter, the audience enthusiastically joined in the fun, belting out their favorite tunes.

After an exciting game break, the audience was treated to a stunning fashion show that showcased the evolution of black style through the decades. With the commentary by the charismatic Aisha R. ’23, the models strutted down the Kiggins catwalk and onto the stage, each dressed in an outfit that represented a different era—the 60s, 70s, 80s, 00s, and 10s. The resident models, including Anyla L. ’25, Olivia M. '23, Bella H. '23, Noura C. '23, Zaniyah A. ’24, and Melita Y. ’26, effortlessly served striking looks, while the audience learned about the significant influence of black culture on fashion throughout history and how it continues to shape today's top styles. The 1960s were a time when black fashion was used as a means of self-expression and political statement. The 1970s saw the emergence of the "black is beautiful" movement, with a focus on comfort and movement. The 1990s were marked by a mix of styles, including hip hop and cultural influences. In the 2000s, casual and luxury styles were combined, and individuality was emphasized. Finally, the 2010s saw a focus on minimalism, inclusivity, and diversity, resulting in a fashion landscape that is both classic and contemporary.

Six students model fashions from across the decades

Acknowledging the importance of Black representation in the arts, the assembly showcased a captivating literary performance by resident poet, Crystal S. ’23. Her original spoken word piece, "A Prayer to Black," was an exquisite blend of passion and creativity that enthralled the audience and filled the auditorium with its raw power and resonance. With her poignant poetry, Crystal took us on a stirring journey through the themes of Black love, family, and beauty, leaving us feeling deeply moved. Her poem ended with a resounding "Amen," which was echoed back by the audience in a heartfelt response to her stunning performance.

Undoubtedly, Black culture has an indelible influence on pop culture. Zahari F. '26 and Akinka M. '26 highlighted some of the most remarkable and groundbreaking contributions made by black individuals in music, television, film, and beauty. Their discussion encompassed a wide range of topics, from innovative beauty brands like Black Girl Sunscreen to the exciting and highly anticipated casting of Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid, which promises to significantly enhance Black representation in film. The pair also took the time to spotlight several local Black-owned restaurants in the Capital Region that our community can actively support, reinforcing the importance of uplifting and sustaining Black businesses.

Continuing the Black History Month celebration, Head of School Jenny Rao was invited to speak about allyship. Ms. Rao emphasized that allyship is not just a label, but rather an active practice of supporting marginalized communities. She began by defining allyship as "active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it" and placed emphasis on the word "active," reminding listeners that allyship is a verb, not a noun.

During her talk, Ms. Rao shared three steps from her personal journey as an ally that have helped her grow and work towards social justice.

  1. Listen, listen, listen. Really listen to the experience of our black community members. Take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn and listen to the experiences and lives of black people both here and outside of our community. Today’s assembly is a great opportunity! Be curious and sincere in our listening. Our listening is also a great step in stepping back and giving space to amplify black voices and stories.
  2. Beware of the near enemies of social Justice and common humanity. I have recently learned about the far and near enemies of fierce compassion and found the framework particularly helpful. Far enemies are the qualities that are the opposite of what we are trying to achieve, and are easier to spot. For example, the far enemy of common humanity is dehumanization. The horrific actions that we have seen in the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, tragically, many more, are dehumanizing actions and far enemies of having a common humanity. The near enemies are harder to spot and hold back our progress. A near enemy to a common humanity is to assume sameness in our experience. While we are all one humanity, our lived experiences are profoundly different. Our experiences are not the same, and the experience of being black in the United States and at Emma is different for each individual, and not acknowledging that difference keeps us from being able to make change for the better. Assuming sameness keeps us removed from one another, whereas being open and listening with compassion to our differences allows our hearts to break open, and true equity work can take place.
  3. Sustain your action. We can all be allies to the black community here at Emma and beyond all the time. We can use the month of February to perhaps accelerate our learning, however, we need to sustain our growth and informed action always. Ms. Halfi’s Antiracism and Accountability Partners, who meet in X1 block, is a great opportunity for an active step you can take at Emma to be a better ally.

During the final “Game Break” of the BLSU assembly, Annabelle O. ’25 and Anyla L. ’25 facilitated an exciting round of trivia, pitting two employee teams against each other. The teams came up with their own creative names, the “Ada Twist Allies”, inspired by the popular book Ada Twist, Scientist, and “Notorious C.M.G.,” a witty play on East Coast rap legend The Notorious B.I.G. The trivia questions ranged from naming famous athletes, musicians, to actors, and teams scored points for each correct answer. In the end, the Ada Twist Allies (comprised of Math Instructor Brett LaFave, History Department Chair Dr. Katie Holt, and Science Department Chair Dr. Alexandra Grimm) triumphed over Notorious C.M.G. (consisting of Director of Learning Support Chris Ouellette, Sara Lee Schupf Family Chair in Curriculum Excellence and Innovation Megan Labbate, and Associate Director of Equity and Inclusion Gemma Halfi) with a nail-biting score of 6-5.

As the end of the ceremony neared, Noura C. ’23 and Trinity M. ’23 took a moment to express their gratitude towards two important members of the BLSU assembly. They first thanked History Instructor Isabell Shields, BLSU’s adult mentor, for her unwavering support in the group's development and for her invaluable contribution in planning the 2023 Black History Month programming. They also expressed their appreciation towards Technical Theatre Director and Audio Visual Coordinator Rachael Robison for the exceptional management of all the production elements of the BHM assembly.

The BLSU celebration came to a thrilling close with a captivating dance performance by the group's talented members, showcasing their skills in a medley of today's hottest R&B and hip hop hits. With the crowd cheering and clapping along, the dancers delivered an energetic and perfectly choreographed routine that left everyone in awe. And the fun didn't stop there! The entire audience was invited to join in on the festivities, dancing the electric slide and filling the auditorium and hallways with joy and laughter.

Emma Willard School extends heartfelt gratitude to BLSU for another outstanding year of celebrations, fostering connections, and providing valuable opportunities for learning. The impact of this event was profound, leaving us feeling uplifted and inspired by the talent and dedication of BLSU.


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