By Myah Taylor
PLANO — In elementary school, Cassie Dume was that shy girl who would sit in the corner and watch her classmates braid their hair. She felt alienated because her hair was different.
Back then, the Plano West senior was one of few Black people in the school — a trend that carried on through middle school. To this day, depending on the class, she still finds herself alone in that regard.
That’s just been life in a predominantly white suburb.
But at Plano West, where Black students make up around 14% of the population, Dume has built up her confidence through participating in the school’s Black Student Union.
“I’ve grown to love to be Black,” Dume said. “It’s definitely a journey, but it’s a journey that I would take again.”
Black Student Unions, more common at colleges and universities, haven’t always been prevalent in high schools, where debates surrounding critical race theory and the teaching of the AP African American Studies course have made headlines. Some students worry Texas will follow Florida in banning the course. As Black issues have gained more public awareness in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the 2020 protests against racial injustice, more high schools are embracing BSUs.
A BSU at Plano West existed a few years ago, but the organization didn’t gain momentum. Dume, the senior president and founder of Plano West’s BSU, started the organization up again last fall with senior classmate Tariq Wrensford because she wanted to help bring together the school’s Black community. Dume said despite the listed 14% Black student population, that presence feels muted.
Plano Senior High School started a BSU in 2018. Other Collin County high schools, such as Prosper, Prosper Rock Hill and McKinney, also host Black Student Unions.
“With the added effect of our social-cultural climate being much more polarizing, especially during and after summer 2020, I think that students at high schools have decided to create that kind of space so that they don’t feel like they have to endure these things alone,” said Brandon Manning, an associate professor of Black Studies and Literature at TCU. “A lot of what the lack of belonging kind of creates is this sense of racial burnout.”
At Plano Senior, Black students are 14% of the student population, according to data sourced from the Texas Education Agency. Like Dume, some students say that figure feels misleading.
Plano ISD social services specialist Daphne Warren, a co-sponsor of the Plano Senior club with science teacher Shanique Leonard, morphed what initially began as a senior early release group that happened to be composed of all Black students into a Black Student Union. She recognized the need for a space where Black students at Plano Senior could be themselves.
“It’s a place where all of us can come together and feel like we’re not being judged,” said junior Jaylon Harrison.
Black people make up approximately 12% of Collin County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and approximately 9% of Plano. In Dallas and Dallas County, Black people comprise around 24% of the population, respectively.
Manning said Black parents often move to the suburbs with the hope of providing access and resources for their families, but sometimes that decision comes at a mental and emotional cost to their kids.
“Specifically for Black girls, what does this do to ideas of self-worth, beauty, all of these kinds of things when they’re put in these predominantly white spaces or feel like they don’t have a community to necessarily pull from?” said Manning, who added that assimilation struggles look different for Black boys.
The organization at Plano Senior often discusses issues of the day during weekly meetings. Sponsors ensure student-led presentations are well-researched. Topics have included mental health in the Black community and the adultification of young Black girls.
In addition to hosting meetings dedicated to fun activities, the organization invites guests to their Black Excellence Speaker Series, which showcases Black achievement. Warren said the BSU has impacted her as much as the students.
“They are truly the highlight of my week,” Warren said. “I have been continually inspired, motivated and also empowered.”
The Plano West BSU dives into numerous topics pertaining to Black people, such as the versatility of Black hair, but it also holds social events.
“BSU is more of like a get-together, wind down at the end of school type thing,” Dume said.
Dume and Wrensford recruited Plano West AVID teacher Sharonda Blakley as the organization’s sponsor. For Black History Month, students in her classes decorated the hallways and the doors entering Blakley’s classroom with images of prominent Black figures, like poet and activist Amanda Gorman.
One door was resistance-themed.
“I had the BSU students research people who basically resisted in a way, but they were trying to get things done,” Blakley said. “It was revolutionary resistance.”
That’s just one way Blakley has tried to share about Black Excellence — a phrase most commonly denoting achievement by Black people — with students.
Each Friday in February, AVID hosted a Black professionals career expo where prominent Black figures in the community, from judges to lawyers, gave talks to students.
“It makes me very happy because I feel like it gives me the opportunity to become something better and bigger,” said senior AVID club president La’Mya Hunter.
BSU members at Plano Senior explored Black Excellence in a short documentary film where they asked Black community members on campus to define the term.
Lola Jesse, the senior president of Plano Senior’s BSU, said it was a bonding moment. Jesse moved to the U.S. from Nigeria. While racism exists everywhere, she said it’s different in the U.S.
“When you get here and you see how they relate, it’s kind of jarring,” Jesse said. ” … It was a little intimidating at first because I let myself be intimidated by the people around me, and the things that people were saying, but after a while, I became grounded in my passions and the things that I believed in and what Black Excellence means to me.”
During the production of the documentary, the students in Plano Senior’s BSU learned that everyone has a different definition for Black Excellence.
Junior president Kennedi Johnson said they never received a repeat answer, despite interviewing over a dozen people. She said that showed the diversity of people on campus, where Plano Senior’s BSU is working to get their message out.
“I think Black Excellence just means that you can be your true authentic Black self no matter what form that takes,” Johnson said.