Petros, Fiona and Anyek of South Portland High School’s Black Student Union
What is life like for Black teens in Maine? And how do they express their activism? Genius Black talks to three members of the Black Student Union at South Portland High School to get their perspectives.
A sophomore at SPHS, Petros was born in Ethiopia and adopted at age three, when he moved to Maine with his family. His main interest is sports, but during the pandemic, he also did some work for Black Owned Maine and got involved with SoPo Unite, an SPHS club that aims to prevent youth substance abuse.
Fiona, a senior at SPHS who is biracial, has done a lot of social justice work during her high school career, as she transitioned from athletics to other extracurricular activities.
A junior at SPHA, Anyek was born in South Boston, though his family is originally from South Sudan. They moved to Maine when Anyek was two. Anyek’s dedication to social justice comes from his father, who ran a nonprofit dedicated to building schools in Uganda and South Sudan.
As Black and biracial teenagers, growing up in Maine can be tough—especially when you see the racial and cultural disparities between the Portland area and more rural parts of the state. “There’s a diverse and rich community [here] 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,” Fiona says.
For Anyek, it’s been critical to stay connected to other Black people, and especially to a community of Ethiopian adoptees that he’s been involved with for years. “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,” Anyek says.
The students agree that being a Black teenager in Maine means you stand out—a lot. “When I’m around with my white friends, I’m always thinking about what they’re doing—if they’re being overly rambunctious or whatever,” says Petros. “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.”
Student connection and activism
For Fiona, SPHS’s Culture Club, which was prominent a year or two ago, was an important environment for connecting with other Black youth. The club, which welcomed all students to teach others about their cultures, became a place for Black students to gather. “It taught me a lot about being Black in Maine,” Fiona says. “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; you can be who you want to be freely anywhere.”
Like Culture Club, the Black Student Union was created as a safe space for Black students—one where they could connect and organize. It was founded in winter 2020, though the pandemic slowed down its progress. Today, the group is working on building a website, which will provide self-care and education resources, to help inform and educate people about issues related to race, including the movement against Asian American hate. “South Portland’s a great school, but it still lacks on teaching the robust histories of all the communities in America,” Fiona says. “So, it’s important that people have easy access to resources like that.”
In addition, they’re planning to develop a program to support students—especially students of color—whose parents didn’t go to college. They intend to kick that program off with a panel discussion featuring students of color who have already gotten into college.
Looking for transparency and accountability
The students talked with Genius Black about an incident that occurred when the principal of SPHS emailed students and staff to let them know about the existence of the BSU. A school employee replied to all staff with his disapproval. “This is not a direct quote or anything, but he thought the entire idea of Black Student Union was inappropriate,” says Fiona. “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?’”
Fiona learned about the incident via her role as the student representative on the South Portland School Board, and immediately began getting questions about what happened. Fortunately, she says, the staff member was put on administrative leave and then retired. The question students walked away with, says Anyek, was “What can we do moving forward that will set up a system that will hold everybody accountable?”
Students are also looking for more transparency—and a way to ensure that students’ voices are heard in whatever process is developed. “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,” adds Petros. “So there were probably a lot more people with this idea, which just shows how important it is to keep [student activism] going.”
Ultimately, Anyek says, the BSU wants the community to understand that the BSU, and the students it represents, aren’t just a knee-jerk reaction to another incident of police brutality. “We are here to stay,” he says. “We’re a community. We deserve as much attention as anyone else.”
Reach the South Portland Black Student Union on Instagram at @sopohs_bsu or email firstname.lastname@example.org.