MERIDEN — Walk through the hallways, cafeteria and other areas around Maloney High School and you will see posters which contain the letters: BSA.
The letters stand for Black Student Alliance, a group that was formed at the school four years ago. The group’s goal: creating a safe place for students to freely discuss issues around race, culture, equity and inclusion — and to celebrate diversity.
The group is open to all members of the student body.
Kianna Williams, now 17 years old, a senior and the group’s president, was a freshman when she joined. Williams explained she had been going through a list of potential extracurricular activities and the Black Student Alliance jumped out.
“I was really interested in that,” Williams said. So she attended a few meetings. They took place in science teacher Gabriel Helland’s classroom.
“It was so amazing to see so many different people — not just Black people — of different backgrounds and having conversations based on race, sexuality — just different broad topics that I really like,” Williams said.
Williams said her biggest goal in becoming president was to improve outreach to the larger community at Maloney and to make the group more visible.
“People knew of the BSA. But they didn’t know the BSA,” Williams said. “They didn’t see them out doing their fundraisers like other student clubs.”
The group has been largely a dialogue club. Williams and other leaders would like to see the group make a bigger impact through sponsoring activities.
Jessica Thomas, a junior, said she previously attended a high school with a predominantly white student body. A group like the BSA didn’t exist there.
Thomas said she saw a sign advertising the group near Maloney’s cafeteria and decided to attend a meeting.
The diversity among members was a pleasant surprise, Thomas said. The group is about acceptance and equal treatment.
“We’re also trying to show that to everyone else and help everyone else understand, and give everyone else light on what we go through,” Thomas said. “... It just gives everyone a perspective, our perspective. Let them see our perspective as Black people. I feel like it’s a lot of fun to have whole discussions, sometimes very in-depth conversations about different problems that go on in the world. Different things that we need to pay more attention to.
“I learned many things in this club that I never heard of before. And it’s just very interesting and I really enjoy being a part of it,” she added.
Helland, the group’s advisor, said he was approached by the group’s founding members about forming it, the same year Williams joined. They asked Helland if he would be the group’s advisor.
Helland is white. He acknowledged based on that fact alone, he may not seem like an obvious choice to lead the group. At the same time, Helland had established a reputation for being able to build a strong rapport with his students, who in turn felt comfortable confiding in him.
Helland was born and raised in New Haven. He attended and taught at schools where students of color were the majority. Helland learned the importance of establishing trust with students. That continued when Helland joined the faculty at Maloney. He would use study hall periods to have one-on-one conversations with students in his room.
Helland said when he asked the founders why they approached him about advising the group, one of them responded that in talking to him during those study halls, “I felt like I can trust you.”
So it started as a place where students could have discussions on topics that mattered. The group met every other week. Its leaders would draft meeting agendas detailing topics they would like to address. Students wanted to discuss the way they were being treated. How to address microaggressions emerged as an early topic that was important to the group.
The term, according to the periodical “Psychology Today,” refers to “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” The messages can be communicated verbally and non-verbally, through gestures. Those sending the messages may not even be aware of the slights they are conveying.
During the group’s early meetings, students shared anecdotes about different microaggressions taking place in school. For example, students being forced, despite their objections, to read aloud text from literature that contained racial slurs. Another issue that arose: some staff members would make comments about and touch students’ hair.
Amaya Stevenson, a Maloney senior who is now 18, said those types of microaggressions persist. It happened recently. She knew the person who had made a remark about her hair did not intend to be harmful.
So being able to convey her concerns about that in an open discussion during alliance meetings has been beneficial, Stevenson explained. ‘When you need us, we’re here’
Whereas other student groups may demand that members frequently attend, the BSA grants its members flexibility.
Stevenson described it as a community. “When you need us, we’re here,” she said. The group also enables its members to be exposed to different cultures — including African and Caribbean cultures.
“And I think that through my high school years, this has been the most impactful [experience],” Stevenson said.
The hair issue, Helland noted, was brought to the attention of Maloney’s administration a few years back and did become the subject of a faculty meeting.
Black History Month is a period when the group is especially active. Planning begins as early as October, Williams said.
Posters developed by the group, in collaboration with other departments, appear throughout Maloney’s halls. One features quotes and biographies of prominent Black leaders and thinkers, including the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and scientist George Washington Carver.
Brian Gdovin, a senior and the group’s vice president, has been a member since its first meeting. He found BSA through the social media platform Instagram. He joined because he wanted to help out and to learn more. He’s been a part of the group ever since.
“It’s definitely been really helpful for me,” he said.
Gdovin is white and hasn’t experienced the same microaggressions as other members of the group. So learning about those concerns has helped further Gdovin’s own understanding.
He said one of the strongest things the group has done for the Maloney community is its planning of Black History Month. In addition to hanging posters and collaborating with other departments, the group selected the “person of the morning” – whose contributions are detailed during the school’s morning announcements throughout the month of February. Community, understanding
The community building nature of the group is what compelled senior Danielle Addy to join.
Addy admitted she was nervous initially. But that nervousness quickly went away. It felt like she belonged and she was encouraged by the cultural diversity the group celebrated.
“I just really liked that I could have a community in the school,” Addy said.
Aliyah Hodges, also a senior, agreed. She found out about the group when she was a freshman. She recalled the first meeting she attended. Hodges, who was still new to the school, was late for the meeting and scared of how alliance members would react. Those fears were for naught. She was immediately embraced.
“And we talked about a lot,” she said. “It felt just comforting to know...there are so many different people that think the way I think and who understand.”
Hodges said because of her membership to the alliance, she gained a better understanding of the path she plans to take after high school. She will attend an historically Black college next fall.
Hodges’ own background is a blend of Jamaican and Polynesian heritages. As a member of the BSA she is able to openly discuss her feelings around cultural aspects of her own upbringing that may differ from her peers. And she enjoys the feedback she receives from other members.
“I really liked that, being a group, we could talk about it and I could just express my feelings on it,” Hodges said. “And other people would say you’re not wrong for feeling like that. But this is what we do to push through and this is what we do to fix it. I really, really do love the group. And I really love the creation of it. It’s very, very amazing.”