Genius Black:

Vibes and blessings, and welcome to the Black Owned Maine Podcast. Got another episode for you all today. This episode is sponsored by our sister company, Black Owned Maine Media. Contact us to produce your next podcast, radio ad, video, or other audio project. Email blackownedmainemedia@gmail.com. That’s blackowned, M-E, media@gmail.com.

Genius Black:

Today we have with us as guests, Petros and Fiona, as well as Anyek from the South Portland Black Student Union. We’re going to discuss life as Black teenagers in Maine a bit, also talk about some of the initiatives of the Black Student Union, or BSU, as you might hear us abbreviate it today. Some of the things that they’re taking as initiatives, as well as how you can get and how others can get involved. So, moving forward, and I really do appreciate you all taking time to be with us today. Starting with part one, I would like to move through some just a couple introductions of the folks that we have with us, if that’s okay. I’d like to start with Petros. Can you tell the folks a little bit about yourself?

Petros:

I’m Petros. I’m a sophomore at South Portland High School. A little bit about me is I was actually born in Ethiopia and adopted at three, and moved to Maine with my family, and we moved to South Portland. My dad lives in Scarborough. I guess I’m usually always doing sports and stuff. That was my main thing. But because of the pandemic, I’ve been… just trying to get involved with other things that are… things that are interesting and that will help the community. So, I did a little bit of work for Black Owned Maine and then SoPo Unite, which is another club at the school, like deals with trying to prevent youth substance abuse at the high school. I’ve been joining these things I like. They interest me and they’re something else from sports. I guess there’s some good things about the pandemic in terms of broadening stuff like that. Yeah. That’s just a little bit about me.

Genius Black:

Right on. I appreciate that. I hear that perspective of there’s a lot of different ways that the pandemic affects us and impacts us. That’s real. Thank you, brother. Next, I would like to get an introduction from Fiona.

Fiona:

Hi, guys. I’m Fiona. I’m currently a senior at South Portland High School. Like Petros, I’m involved in BSU. I’ve been doing a lot of social justice work in my last four years of high school. I got into it not because of the pandemic, but similarly, making a transition from athletics to doing some extracurricular activities. I feel like there’s definitely a… There’s a pressure on Black people, Black kids in Maine to focus on athletics. But in my freshman year, there was this thing and this catalyst that got me into the social justice work. Yeah. I just kept doing it since then.

Genius Black:

Right on. Right on. I appreciate that. I mean, as we chat today, if there’s anything you want to add or maybe speak a little on anything to help people possibly understand it, any of the impact of the catalyst you spoke of, that would be awesome as well because sometimes, people don’t know what to do with certain energies. So that’s always something cool that we could help reveal to people. Appreciate it. Last but not least, out of the guests today, I would like to get an introduction quickly from Anyek.

Anyek:

Hello. My name is Anyek. I’m a junior at South Portland High School. My family’s originally from South Sudan, but I was born in Boston. My family moved to Maine when I was two years old. So, I have always had ties with social justice work since I was a child. My dad had a nonprofit that was dedicated to building schools in our village in Uganda and in South Sudan. So, I always had that interest in seeing the evolution of Black people and helping us grow and helping our community become more than what it is now, just continuing to get to that place of building that generational wealth. But I would say in high school, after taking a little break from it in high school, after connecting with Fiona and being put onto what I could do today to help our people currently and where we are, I definitely reconnected with my love for helping the Black community.

Genius Black:

See, I love how you all are all finding ways to divert your energy, collectively, but also in a way that’s productive and constructive. I really appreciate the vibes that I’m catching up for everybody. Moving forward, what I would like to also do is get a bit of an introduction, Fiona, could you tell the people a little bit about yourself?

Fiona:

Yeah, absolutely. Hi, everyone, I’m Fiona. I am a senior at South Portland High School. I’ve lived in Maine my whole life. I’m biracial, my dad’s Nigerian, and my mom is from New York. Just a background about the work that I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing social justice. I’ve been involved in the social justice community in Portland and in South Portland since about my freshman year. I first got introduced through some other students at South Portland High School. I did programs like Seeds of Peace and Telling Room. They really started to give me a good background about leadership and how to organize. Then I started doing organizing at my school, and I’ve just been doing that since then. Yeah, I love organizing, and I’m so excited to build up and talk about BSU today.

Genius Black:

Sounds great. Appreciate you taking the time to be here and to share your energies. So I appreciate you all introducing yourselves, talking a little bit about some of your inspirations and what you are here to talk about today. So we’re going to dig in a little bit. I think something that’s critical to setting the stage for some of our listeners both inside of Maine, as well as outside of Maine, is to talk a little bit about what it’s like in Maine. You all happen to be teenagers, you happen to be Black, to be brown. What is that like living in Maine?

Petros:

Yeah, I can answer that. In Maine as a Black teenager, you’re… It’s inevitable. You’re always the one that’s in a space that’s only white and it’s hard to avoid that fact in Maine, and hard to surround yourself with a lot of people that look like you. But something that’s definitely helped me in that is that I have a community of Ethiopians that are adoptees, that are from Ethiopia. Usually, when there’s no pandemic or anything, we all get together every year and we stay connected. That’s been a very like… It’s felt like a very good thing that I’ve had over the years to keep me connected. My parents, they’ve just been very… they’ve helped me stay connected with them, and I’m very lucky to have them because they surely educate themselves on the issues. So, yeah, I think just being able to have groups where it’s only Black people or only people that look like you and understand what you’re going through, that’s helped me, I think.

Genius Black:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Fiona:

I feel like being Black and being a teenager anywhere is weird in America because it’s America and everything’s based off of institutional racism. But I don’t know, I feel like Maine’s weird just like you could be so involved in the community here, and there’s a diverse and rich community when you are finally introduced to it, and then you drive 20 minutes outside of Portland and you see confederate flags and all this crazy stuff. So, it’s weird to function, knowing that not everyone in the environment is supportive.

Anyek:

Yeah. I think I’ll definitely have to agree with what Fiona said, and being a Black teenager, when she said being a Black teenager anywhere is difficult. You’re held to a higher stool than anybody else and you have these stereotypes that follow you around and people wait for you slip up, so they can attach you to them. So it’s like you’re going to be held accountable more for your actions whereas if it’s other people it’s going to be, “Oh, well, they’re teens. It’s what they do.” So you have to be really, I guess, cautious about your actions and how you carry yourself, and the decisions you’re making because it’s going to follow you around.

Petros:

Yeah. And to that point, Anyek, when I’m around with my friends, white friends, I’m always thinking about what they’re doing, if they’re being overly rambunctious or whatever. I’m always thinking about like, “Okay, you guys can’t do that because… or I can’t do that, obviously.” You just have that in the back of your head all the time. So yeah, that’s definitely true.

Genius Black:

No, right on. I hear that. It makes me think in terms of these different groups and how they interact. Also, I think about the fact that being a teenager anywhere is hard, right? Being a brown teenager can be difficult anywhere. In terms of groups, are there groups outside of the Black Student Union, for instance, I’m just curious that you feel– whether it be from sports or from music or anything–have there been groups that have made you feel welcomed, that you know you’ve been welcome in, that you felt like have grown into, or that may be set examples for other groups to interact with, let’s say, brown people, BIPOC people, people of color. There’s different ways to think about this. But any thoughts on that?

Fiona:

Yeah. I think at South Portland, specifically, we’ve had the Culture Club, which was definitely like a much bigger thing, two or a year ago because a lot of people who participated in and graduated. But I think for me as a freshman, having Culture Club which was just a place basically for Black students to gather to be safe, to just have fun was really amazing, going about their life and having fun was amazing. It changed the way I operated in my environments, and the way… and my confidence. It taught me a lot about being Black in Maine in that just because you’re probably going to be the only Black person in the room doesn’t mean that you have to represent your entire race, that you can be who you want to be freely anywhere. And Culture Club just allowed people to build confidence and then bring that into their environments. I didn’t really describe what Culture Club is, but basically it’s just exactly what the name is. Students are welcome to come from any culture and just teach others about their cultures and also just have fun, share foods, share dances, share clothes, anything.

Genius Black:

Yeah. That’s so cool. That’s so cool. I think culture has a lot to do with those repetitious traditions and ceremonies and dances and skits and things that you can reference. So I really love how you just described the place where people could build confidence inside a club, and then that confidence can follow them and be in them and with them as they move out into the broader world because I think, again, for all of our teenagers, spaces like that are so critical and honestly, difficult to find in times like right now. I would love… Speaking about for instance some of that success you were describing with Culture Club. I’d be curious, can you all highlight for us some of the initiatives that the Black Student Union at South Portland are taking and some of the reasons… There’s some of the reasons why.

Fiona:

Yeah. So I feel like, okay, so the BSU is just… was created to be a safe space, like Culture Club for students, any Black students to come and organize, and just feel free to do whatever they wanted to do. As of right now, the big thing that we’re focusing on next coming weeks is building a website. We thought it would be really important to have a website that people have one central area where they can gain information about the Black Student Union, especially because I’ve had a lot of people just asking me what it is. Well, non-Black people just wondering what it is. It would be easier to just direct them to a site where we have our mission statement, our purpose of that. So, as Petros said, we’re going to have resources for self-care resources. So ways that students can get in contact with mental health counselors, anything like that, people of color in mental health, and maybe life coaches that are people of color. Yoga, meditation, videos that talk about the stigma in the Black community surrounding mental health.

Fiona:

Then we also want to have educational resources, most likely for Black students that come to the page, but also for non-Black people who come to the page, and want to be educated about African-American history, institutionalized racism, petitions that they can go sign. We also want to make sure that we are supporting other communities. So we want resources about the Asian American… the movement against Asian American hate crime and also, Asian American history and all that stuff because South Portland’s a great school, but it still lacks on teaching, like the robust histories of all the communities in America. So, it’s important that people have easy access to resources like that, and also just an event calendar and opportunities. Then some other initiatives.

Fiona:

The biggest thing that I think we want to focus on besides the event with you guys is we want to form a program, not really sure what it’s going to look like yet to support first-gen students. By first gen, I don’t just mean like new to America, but people whose parents didn’t go to college because there’s not enough supports for any student, whether you have a parent who’s going to college for the application process. It’s so overwhelming. It’s so difficult to even reach out and communicate with guidance counselors at this time. So, we wanted to do something to combat that and to make sure that especially first-gen students and students of color have supports. The way we’re going to start that off is just a panel with students of color that have gotten into college already.

Genius Black:

Okay. So, some people who can talk a little bit… from leading by example, share some firsthand perspective and just in terms of representation. So, some of the students who are Black and brown can see people that look like them that have done it before. Yeah, yeah. I think that sounds awesome. Then, I’m curious, for instance, Anyek, did you have any of the initiatives you want to highlight or also I’m curious, you can speak about it now or after you highlight something, how other folks can support or maybe get involved in any of these initiatives?

Anyek:

Well, yeah. Like Fiona said, we’re really focusing on bringing up our community. We’ve had a lot of other clubs in the past, but I don’t think we had a thing that necessarily targeted Black students in our school and really helped us and gave us that guidance to get to where we need to be. So we’re doing that. We’re also working on doing like… to help kids who want to go to college and need that guidance or that mentorship.

Genius Black:

If you could please share with us, Anyek, some ways to directly contact you all.

Anyek:

Again, direct messages through Instagram at sopohs_bsu. That’s S-O-P-O-H-S_bsu or you can email us at sopobsu@gmail.com. That’s S-O-P-Obsu@gmail.com

Genius Black:

I appreciate you. So take a second, write that down-

Anyek:

Yes, sir.

Genius Black:

… because we want you to be able to directly reach out if you feel so inclined. So moving forward, one of the things that I want to dig into a little bit, just so folks can understand about the Black Student Union that we have there… that you all have. Not we, I guess I’m not part of it. I’m just to support it from a distance, that you all have there. I’m curious if you all can give us just some of the more vital statistics, how long has it been around, how many students are involved. Yeah. Can we start with things like that? Just tell us a little bit about it.

Fiona:

Yeah, absolutely. So right now, we really only have 6 to 10 people that show up to the meetings, other than the organizers. We just started like, I don’t know if it was February or January, one of those months. But we actually have been trying to get the BSU started since last winter. So it’s been a pretty long process to get involved in… The pandemic did side reel us a little bit. It was difficult to get motivation to actually get started up. I think that’s one of the big reasons why we only have 6 to 10 people who show up to our meetings right now. Nothing’s in person yet. So, it’s all virtual and it’s difficult to pull yourself to those meetings. So I think once we’re in-person, we’re definitely going to get more people and be able to build a more solid base for the next years.

Genius Black:

That makes sense. I think the world is a bit struggling with feeling connected to people and to the organizations in the way that we’re familiar to feeling connected with. I just feel like that’s something that we’re all trying to work through, but I appreciate you all working through it. Anything else you all want to share about the BSU? Cool.

Genius Black:

So, I’ll ask this. One thing that I did want to hear a little bit about because it is… just one of real happenings in our modern day lives and things that we have to reflect upon and think through and process. I know that there, at your school, there was some moments that occurred, involving a guidance counselor and some issues. In whatever order, however you all would like to hear a little bit about what that was that occurred, as well as on the other end, what is to come of that and any reflections you have about what happened.

Anyek:

We had a situation where our principal or assistant principal sent out an email, pretty much inviting people to the BSU and putting us out there and promoting us. I think this was actually one of the first times that we had been on the school email, or for the announcements that go out I think every Friday. One of our staff members responded with a message, pretty much comparing our BSU to white supremacist groups and saying some things that were later… He was later confronted with.

Fiona:

Yeah. So, basically he said like… This is not like a direct quote or anything, but that he thought it was inappropriate that the principal was emailing about the Black Student Union and telling everyone about it. He also thought the entire idea of Black Student Union was inappropriate. He was like, “How would it be seen if I got a group of white Protestants or Republicans or something like that together and celebrated our pride or”… I can’t really remember. It was just a really ignorant remark, instead of sending it directly to our principal or just trying to have a cordial conversation with them about the problems he had with BSU, he sent it out to all the staff members, and then we didn’t even know the situation had happened until there was an email sent out by Mr. Kunin, our superintendent, to the school board, which I’m the rep on the school board. So I got it in, then some people started texting me and were like, “Oh, what happened? Are you guys okay?” I was like, “I have no clue what’s going on.” So, yeah, it was a pretty interesting situation.

Genius Black:

I’m curious after that day, there was awareness made that, “Hey, this is a communication that happened between some of the adults and staff.” Then what happened?

Fiona:

Yeah, we were having our regular scheduled meeting that day. So, our advisors told us what happened and filled us in on the situation. We didn’t know who had said it yet. We just knew that an inappropriate message was sent out regarding the BSU to all of the staff members.

Petros:

The result of it was he went on administrative leave. He recently ended up retiring. So that was good. I was hoping that… The administration did a good job of putting him on administrative leave right away when conducting whatever you said. I was hoping that they would send out an announcement that was just talking about this and saying why this is wrong. I was just hoping for more transparency around the whole thing. That definitely would have been nice. I mean I’m still happy with the outcome. So, yeah, that was pretty shocking.

Genius Black:

Yeah.

Fiona:

Yeah. I think people were shocked at who said it, too. Well, not the faculty but the students because he seemed to chill with everyone, but clearly he was not. He worked at the school for 30-plus years. So, who knows how his ideologies have been put into place.

Anyek:

Right. I think what a lot of us walked away with from the situation was, what can we do moving forward that will set up a system that will hold everybody accountable? I think what this really taught us was to set up a system. So anybody who shows hate towards us and anyone who feels like they can belittle us and make us feel like what we’re doing is wrong because we decide we want to come together and we decide that we want to uplift each other they, they’re going to face repercussions for what they do to us. I feel like it’s been too long that we’ve survived without a system to defend us. When we are in certain situations, we actually end up facing consequences for our actions.

Fiona:

Yeah. I would completely agree to that. I just want to add on to it a little bit, I think that it really demonstrates that. I think that a lot of the staff at South Portland are so… They’re good people and they have good intentions. But that was one of the things that the guidance counselor said after he made those remarks that were clearly harmful. He said, “That wasn’t my intention.” You can have a good intention and still have such a bad impact on the people around you. It really doesn’t matter what the intention was if you’re hurting the students, if you’re hurting opportunities, anything like that. So, yeah. On the outside, it’s teaching us that there needs to be something in place so that there can be transparency and so that people can be held accountable in the ways that students… So that students have a voice in that.

Genius Black:

Absolutely.

Petros:

Yeah. I think the fact that he felt so empowered or so confident to send this email out to the entire staff is just as crazy. So there were probably a lot more people with this idea and just shows how important it is to keep it going, like not bow down to whatever they’re saying.

Fiona:

Yeah. I think that’s something that keeps coming up in our meetings is that people want… If we have teachers, if we have staff that are thinking like this at our school, they’re obviously, after seeing what happened to the guidance counselor, they’re not going to be as vocal about their opinions. So, they’re still going to do their job with their biases without voicing their opinions, and there’s nothing that can really be done about it. So, I think people are just nervous about how we can actually combat teachers’ biases without them wanting to speak up, I guess.

Anyek:

Right, right. We definitely taught them this time around that we’re not just here because another police brutality situation happened and we’re here for just three months and then we’re going to disappear. We taught them that we are here to stay. We’re a community. We deserve as much attention as anyone else.

Genius Black:

I love it. No, I think it’s important to stand up when you can and to create moments where people have to pay attention to you when you need to. I think that moving forward, for me, when I hear you all tell this story, I know that the voice that person was speaking from is just a very old opinion. I’m not talking about that person’s age at all. I want to be clear here. That way of thinking about Black people and Black people getting together and having unions, that’s a very, very old thought. It’s not new at all. The reason I say that is that… I think two or three of you all pointed the fact that you can’t even always know or measure if in 2020 or 2021 this person pops out and says this, and it’s like, “Whoa! Well, dang, you’ve been in it for 30 years thinking like that. Making decisions with that filter, and having people of color here.”

Genius Black:

Now, of course, I’ve got to understand there’s a lot of people that might be listening to this, and they’re like, “Wait! I don’t know. Shouldn’t we have a debate on if there should be these organizations?” We know that there’s no debate. I think it’s important that when we can, that we do make an example out of these. I don’t think the example is about demonization or beating people up. But I mean in a sense it’s true, he wasn’t really appropriate, I would imagine, to really be there because you can make good decisions about students, if that’s how you think, in my opinion. I assume you all agree with that, right?

Fiona:

Yeah, absolutely.

Petros:

Definitely.

Genius Black:

Yeah. So, I’m just saying that for me, I’m glad that you all knew some of the ways to react, that you made your voice known and heard, and that you kept an eye on it until there was a resolution of some sort because that’s sometimes the trickery of the past. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Submit it into the box and we’ll take a look at it. Cool.” But I appreciate that. I think it is going to just take a continued conversation and you all stay in conversation with the administrators and building those relationships so that people can be open and honest. I know the part of why you all are organizing to do that. I’m just echoing it out. It’s like you can’t just fix it because of one incident. I know you know that it’s not possible. So part of what you’re doing as an organization is maintaining yourself so that you can continue to get better and better at dealing with these things and just helping create a space for Black folks to feel okay, and to be okay, and to be able to learn. I really appreciate you all sharing that.

Genius Black:

Keep an eye on our website, Blackownedmaine.com for more information about we do have events, and a lot of this is virtual, but honestly very impactful. We’ve been getting great feedback about the workshops and things that we’ve hosted so far. So for the appropriate audiences, we really highly want to engage you and we want you to take advantage of these virtual spaces that we’re meeting up and working to empower each other. We think it’s really important, particularly in times like this. Also, I’m going to highlight, Rose is about these different times to make money, and it’s not about instead of school or instead of trade school. I’m like, nah, making money is always an option. It doesn’t have to be instead of this or that. You can have a hustle, you can have a business, you can have multiple hustles, multiple businesses. You know what I’m saying? So, I really… Again, this is the way of thinking that we’re really trying to get particularly our young people to pick up and hold onto and activate on. All right. So I appreciate you all taking the time.

Genius Black:

Also when you come to our website and when you find us, you can find us on Black Owned Maine in terms of Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Check us out, follow our social media, all of the platforms that we’re on. One thing that I can say, and it’s I guess just a closing remark for listeners, but it’s also just something for me to you all. I really like watching you all’s attentive faces and hearing your voices and the passion and knowledge that you are willing to share with us really inspires me and makes me even more excited for these workshops and these events because I have teenagers that are my kids. But I also know that the amount of energy that you all have rightfully pushed out during these crazy times that are going on, and I really respect you all and I love you all for it. It gives me energy as an adult who’s also going through some of this stuff. But the thought about us being able to connect in this space and empower each other and give you all skills and some energy around entrepreneurship and being empowered and feeling confident, you just don’t even know how excited that makes me, how that fills me up.

Genius Black:

So I think it’s like a dad and there’s a man and there’s a Black man and all that right? It really gives me good energy. So, I appreciate you all taking the time. For everybody who’s listening, these moments and these podcasts, you happen to get a snapshot of our lives and what we talked about when we get together, but there’s work going on outside of this space. So, please continue this conversation as well outside of this space. So, keep in mind that if you gain knowledge from our episodes, and if this does inform your larger conversation and your larger understanding, consider donating to our cause. You can head to our website and click the Donate button to make your contribution at blackownedmaine.com. I appreciate you all. Vibes and blessings