Gateway High’s Black Student Union has long been a staple of campus life as a space for Black students to connect with one another and build friendships, support one another academically, and share Black culture with the larger student body. Like many clubs and activities, however, BSU was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and long span of distance learning; it quickly became difficult (and frankly, less fun) for clubs to meet virtually on a regular basis, and even more challenging for upperclassmen club officers to pass on their expertise to younger students or recruit new members. Even when students returned to campus, it was difficult for the active BSU students who remained to make up for the lost time and momentum: traditions stalled out and recruitment was slow.
For co-presidents Essence and Thailyah (Class of 2023), however, having a strong BSU in place before they graduate this spring was simply too important to leave to traditional recruitment methods and hope for the best. So when faculty advisor Erin Hartfield suggested applying for a grant from the Youth Empowerment Foundation, they leapt at the opportunity, writing their own grant and, once they learned they had become finalists, participating in in-person interview panels to prove they would put the $5,000 award to good use.
“I didn’t know what to expect at the interview, but it wasn’t actually that scary,” said Thailyah. “We talked about why we’re passionate about BSU, the impact we would have on campus, about the Black youth population at school and how BSU is positive for the Black faculty as well, because they matter too.”
Ultimately, Gateway’s BSU was one of only seven youth projects citywide to receive funding out of 24 that applied, what the Youth Empowerment Fund called its “most competitive” grant cycle ever. And its officers have big plans for the funding with a slate of events that will celebrate the hard work of its current members and hopefully attract plenty of new ones: trips to the Museum of the African Diaspora, HBCU college fairs, and Great America, as well as BSU merch, senior celebrations and funding for paid tutoring opportunities for Black students to support their peers taking Honors and AP courses.
“The BSU is going to be in good shape for a long time based on the work that they’ve done this year,” said Erin. “They’ve laid a really strong foundation, and they’ve set the standard that it’s student leaders who make BSU happen, not just adults. It’s for them, and our job is to support them.”
Already, club membership has grown to over 20 students from a core group of only four or five last year, a trend the co-presidents hope will continue after the BSU’s big Black History Month celebration on Feb. 27th. In particular, says Thailiyah, it will be important to encourage more boys to become involved for the long-term health of the club.
“We mostly just want to see more Black students represented in all parts of Gateway,” said Essence. “In challenge courses, in clubs, everywhere. And to know that other students will support them.”