| Student-led organization demands change in New York City schools
Editor’s note: Gilstrap is the Social Media Committee Chair for Black Students Demanding Change.
In early June, alumnae from the Brearley School in New York City created an Instagram account, @blackatbrearley — a platform for Black members of the school community to anonymously share their experiences with microaggressions and racial discrimination within Brearely’s walls. Soon, similar @blackat accounts were created for virtually every elite New York City private school before appearing at high schools, colleges and universities across the country. This phenomenon, known as the @blackat movement, catalyzed an internal reckoning with the culture of racism at many of these educational institutions.
Now, the organization Black Students Demanding Change (BSDC) is using the momentum from the @blackat movement to hold their schools accountable, arguing that their administrations have a responsibility to protect their Black community members and actively eradicate racism within their care.
The organization spurred from a GroupMe chat with over 135 Black students at independent schools across the city, many of them looking for support after the @blackat posts from their respective institutions proved startlingly similar. The group of 34 students who ended up forming BSDC were aware that their administrators were listening — many of them followed the accounts themselves — and agreed there was no better time to act. Representatives from Brearley, Chapin, Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann, Riverdale, Fieldston and Collegiate quickly began to draft a series of demands that would fall under the acronym C.A.R.E.S: culture, accountability, representation, education and support. The comprehensive list of demands included anything from mandatory racial bias training for parents, faculty and staff to the integration of anti-racist teaching within the school curriculum.
“We have gradually worked our way up from timidly requesting, to asking, to aiming to inspire, and now we are rightfully demanding change based off of the hurt that so many of my peers and myself have experienced,” said Josephine Helm, founder of BSDC and a rising sophomore at the Brearley School.
Currently boasting a membership of over fifty students with representatives from an ever-growing list of independent schools, BSDC is looking to create a new normal centered around anti-racism, according to Helm. John Allman, head of Trinity School, became the first to commit to BSDC’s demands, writing that “it is our intention at the very least to fulfill these demands and even expand upon them ” in an email to the entire school community. Shortly after, an Anti-Racism Task Force consisting of over 140 students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni was created to get the job done. Spence, Riverdale, Poly Prep, Horace Mann, Dalton, Chapin, Calhoun and Brearley followed suit, each outlining their dedication to actualizing BSDC’s agenda.
With a goal to create lasting change, BSDC is centering their approach around collaboration with their school administrations. “The partnership that we’re creating with our schools is setting us up for years of self-challenging and introspection, which will end up being more effective and long-lasting than covering up a publicity scandal,” said Helm.
So far, their partnership has been most evident on Instagram, where students, parents, faculty, staff and alumni from each independent school represented in the organization are commenting on and sharing their posts.
“It’s encouraging to see our voices being heard,” says Victoria Thomas, a rising senior at Fieldston.
Now that nine schools have agreed to the demands, the challenge will be ensuring that they become a top priority. “It’s very easy to verbally commit to our demands, but I think that keeping the momentum going is something that we’re going to have to work on,” said Helm.
Trinity has laid out a plan to convene the Anti-Racism Task Force in September and Dalton set clear goals for each semester, but no other school has yet committed to a timeline. Head of School at Riverdale Dominic Randolph issued an all-school email assuring complete transparency as they progress with BSDC’s action items, but no further communication has been made since late June.
Kadyn Liburd, a rising senior at Poly Prep and the Writing Committee Chair at BSDC, is familiar with her school issuing empty promises when it comes to diversity work. Yet she maintains that this time will be different. “I don’t think there has ever been a time where so many people of all races have been so laser-focused on anti-racism efforts,” said Liburd.
Members of BSDC echo her sentiment, believing that their elite private schools will indeed change forever.
BSDC is scheduled to host its first online conference on Sept. 6.