The high school club in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley provides contact and support for black students
Four friends gather in a classroom at Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford, BC, 70 kilometers east of Vancouver. Their connection exudes trust and understanding as they laugh, listen, and have serious conversations about growing up black in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
Sierra Webster, Mainza Mwale, Pierre Lollar and Ashour Ashour are all part of Black Connections HS.
Her teacher, Shayla Bird, says the club has been committed to empowering black high school students in Abbotsford since 2021.
“The students experienced a lot of anti-Black racism and didn’t really have the people or resources to respond to what they wanted to see.”
BC’s black population is growing, but at a slower rate than neighboring provinces, according to Statistics Canada. Club members say black students continue to face racism and isolation, which is why it’s important to have an uplifting and supportive space.
“This space really takes black excellence to the next level. It’s really a safe place,” said Mainza Mwale.
A safe space
Members say a safe space means having open and difficult conversations about racism and identity in high schools.
For Sierra Webster, it meant finding more confidence to speak out about her mixed identity.
“I guess I never really knew where I belonged… [if] Should I act more white or should I act more black. And I think I really struggled for so long to find that in-between.”
For Mwale and Pierre Lollar, the club feels like family.
“I can vent all my frustrations and talk to people who understand where I come from about my issues and my racism,” Mwale said.
CLOCK | Students and their teacher discuss what the club means to them:
Events and mentoring are experiencing growing demand
Run by volunteers, the club has around 100 members, and 60 students regularly attend the fortnightly afternoon meetings.
Bird says it has been the busiest Black History Month for the group, which has received multiple emails a day asking for support and help.
In the past, students have visited Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver, planning events with local black vendors, organizing movie nights and offering mentorship.
“She [Black students] “We started to trust us, and we learned about their families and their passions and when they apply to colleges,” said Hailey Kendall, who volunteers as a mentor for the group.
She says it’s heartwarming to see the students hope to return as mentors and expand the club.
Let the conversation grow
Bird says it’s important to prioritize spaces like Black Connections in school districts, especially because black students can feel isolated in the valley.
In the Fraser Valley, people who identify as Black make up about four percent of the total Black population, according to the 2021 Census.
“When you have black affinity spaces, not only does it support your black youth … you transform the community, and everyone will benefit,” Bird said.
Rachna Singh, BC’s Minister of Education and Child Care, says Black, Indigenous and racist people face injustice and discrimination as part of a larger system of colonialism and racism that persists in communities.
“We also know that students thrive when they feel understood, and that spaces like this can lead to a greater sense of belonging, identity and community. I salute Black Connections HS and educators.”
Clubs like Black Connections HS also give students a sense of solidarity, says Annette Henry, a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia.
Annette has been running a program called Black Futures at UBC for the past two years. Various high schools come once a month to hear from professors and learn about various careers and scholarship opportunities.
She says high schools in particular can be a challenge to navigate as they are “huge” spaces with many subgroups. When students find a safer and more intimate space to relate to, they feel recognized and ask more questions.
“Students need places and spaces where they feel they can ask questions that may be specific to them as black children or youth.”
“If you live in a city and maybe 10 of you are in 11th grade, that’s one thing, says Henry, but if you see 70 or 100 people your age in a room, it’s hugely encouraging.”
For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences—from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community—see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.