It’s Black History Month. Some Ridgefielders may not know — or care much — that February is set side to mark African Americans’ history and contributions to the national culture. The girls at Ridgefield’s ABC House are out to change that — at least in the mini-world of Ridgefield High School, where they share academic and social space with kids who may be more familiar with Vermont ski resorts than with the titans of black American culture.
“It was never really a thing before in Ridgefield. No one talks about it,” said Julissa Acevedo, one of Ridgefield’s eight ABC girls.
“Back in New York, we would always talk about it, and our teachers in every class would talk about it,” said Silver Soto, another of the girls. “It’s kind of strange. You come here and don’t ever discuss it.”
“It’s not a topic,” added Lashawnna Mullins. “No one even knows it exists.”
The girls in the A Better Chance program are minority students from other places, who live together at “the ABC house” in town and attend Ridgefield’s top-quality high school.
They’re raising the profile of Black History Month at RHS with posters around the school and announcements on the public address system.
With some other kids who’ve joined the project, they’ve made 28 posters highlighting the contributions of black Americans.
Some are widely known figures: Barack Obama, the first black president; Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier; and Rosa Parks, the Alabama seamstress whose 1955 arrest for refusing to give a white passenger her bus seat sparked the civil rights movement.
Other posters feature accomplished African Americans who are less well known:
- Dr. Charles Richard Drew, surgeon and medical researcher whose work on blood transfusions led to the development of large-scale blood banks during World War II, saving thousands of lives.
- Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman pilot, who grew up picking cotton and, after rejection by American flying schools, learned French and moved to France to get flying lessons and pursue her dream.
- Ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, who invented the Laserphaco Probe and an accompanying technique to improve the removal of eye cataracts, and championed “community ophthalmology” — preventative eye care for underserved populations — after her epidemiological studies found American blacks went blind at double the rate of whites.
Besides highlighting individuals, the girls made posters on cultural areas — the Black Lives Matter movement, or black contributions to music through jazz, the blues, soul, hip-hop.
They also wrote announcements. One targets the school’s considerable population of gamers.
“You wouldn’t be able to pause your video games today without Jerry Lawson. Jerry Lawson is the African-American electronic engineer that invented video game cartridges and he got his start designing the first video game console called Fairchild Channel F. So, whenever you take a break from gaming, you can thank Jerry Lawson.”
The initiative grew from discussions when RHS Principal Dr. Stacey Gross visited the ABC house for dinner and talk following a racist incident involving a Snapchat image of a white kid in blackface, which made the social media rounds among students.
“I am thrilled the girls and I were able to find a way for them to be empowered and create a positive effect on the RHS culture and climate,” Gross told The Press. “They have been working with the social studies department chairperson, Holly Herzman, on this important initiative. …
“It is so important to me that all students feel safe, secure and accepted regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and all personal modes of self-identification.”
Emilie Frias’s poster on music and Makyla Addison’s poster on the Black Lives Matter movement have gotten good feedback.
“Two girls in school said they loved the poster I made, and the poster Makyla made,” Emilie said.
“They said, ‘This is really cool. We didn’t know this,’” added Natalie Esikumo,
She said kids in a class had mixed reactions.
“Some of them were, ‘We saw the Barack Obama poster in the student center,’ and others were into, ‘What is black history?’ They were clueless.”
“On the bus I was asking some kids,” said Natalie. “They mentioned Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks. They actually knew a little bit about it,”
The girls are optimistic about the initiative.
“I think it was better for us to start small,” said Silver.
Lashawnna added, “Maybe in the future, we can do things like poetry slams.”