Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part two in the series, stay tuned for part three later on in Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Leonard D.T. Newby, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I was fortunate enough to attend schools that celebrated Black History Month (BHM) throughout my K-12 matriculation. I anticipated learning about the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X every February. However, we rarely heard about the impact of their works in the context of American history. It wasn’t until I attended a Historically Black College and University that I realized that my learnings during that time were grossly constrained. From the limited number of figures presented to the whitewashing of their stories, BHM was, and remains, more performative than productive in K-12 schools. The impact that Black Americans have on this nation is deserving of more than one month and should be woven into the threads of American history 365 days a year.

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, partner, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t really learn about Black history, certainly not in any comprehensive kind of way. I grew up mostly in Georgia where our public school social studies curriculum taught us that the Civil War was primarily fought over states’ rights. The part of the sentence that was missing was “states’ rights…to allow people to own slaves.” I was in college before I heard a teacher say that out loud. Sure, I learned about a handful of individuals in history classes — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Basically, Black history for me in school was a series of biographies of select laudable individuals, but not a true tracing of events and cultural movements over time. It’s a profound gap that I’m still working to fill. And that wasn’t in the 1950s. I don’t know how much that curriculum has changed, honestly, and it’s part of what scares me about current conversations around what parts of our history should or shouldn’t be taught. Black History Month programming cannot be the only place where we can build understanding of the full history of our country, good, bad, and tragic.

Daniela Torre Gibney, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
In school, I didn’t learn deeply about Black history until I got to college — I don’t recall learning anything beyond the typical narrative focused on a few key figures of the civil rights era. However, at home, my parents frequently talked with me and my siblings about race-, class-, and gender-based injustice and inequality. As immigrants from Argentina, they were not experts in Black history in the U.S., but they did recognize and relate to the systemic and everyday racism experienced by Black Americans. These conversations were the bedrock for my learning about Black history, as well as the history of other marginalized populations in the U.S. and beyond. They also taught me from a young age that I needed to look beyond formal schooling to learn about the world around me. 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Moire Carmody, director of operations
I love to read, so the Black historical hero I think of first is the novelist Toni Morrison. In high school, I read her first five novels and it opened my eyes to life outside of the mostly white Vermont town I grew up in. It’s important to me to read books by female authors, about the experiences of females. Her books were wonderfully written and showed me diverse characters that were absent in my world. That exposure to diversity inspired me to explore working for mission-based nonprofit organizations after college. As the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1993), Toni Morrison continues to inspire writers and readers everywhere.

Dwan Dube, executive assistant
Maya Angelou. She used her words as weapons and that skill has to be taught more to our kids. “Still I Rise” is so inspiring to my daughter and it gives her hope that there is a freedom you can find from a traumatic past. 

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.