Above: Ileia G. ’22 opens our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Assembly on January 17.
What does black excellence mean to you? This is the question Westridge student leadership groups Student Voices and the Black Student Union (BSU) posed during their January 17 all-school assembly honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Upper Schoolers Ileia G. ’22 and Saffron G. ’22 shared their thoughts on black excellence, recognizing with pride the achievements of African American people they admire and impressing upon the audience the importance of keeping conversations about representation and equity alive.
Students went on to call out examples of black excellence at Westridge, pointing to staff like Sha’Trece Slaughter ’10, alumna and current Westridge admission associate, and Dr. Zanita Kelly, director of Lower and Middle School. Both women took to the podium to unpack what the phrase means to them.
“I truly believe Westridge helped me discover my own black excellence,” said Ms. Slaughter who, partway through her speech, sang lyrics from India.Aria’s “Video” about loving herself unconditionally (and was met with wild applause). “But black excellence also carries a double meaning for me. On one hand, it celebrates blackness despite stereotypes and preconceived notions. On the other hand, it highlights that people outside the black community may have misconceptions of those inside the community.”
Dr. Kelly shared her personal experience of black excellence, describing herself as a person who knows how to “stand in her truth.”
“Excellence is a birthright,” Dr. Kelly went on to say. “I have learned that I don’t have to prove my value or my worth to anyone. I am enough. In fact, I am more than enough. And so are each of you.”
Above left: Dr. Zanita Kelly, director of Lower and Middle School, describes what black excellence means to her.
Above right: Black Student Union Co-Heads Ayiana S.-N. '20 (left) and Zaynab E. '20 explain why they chose to discuss black excellence during this assembly.
During the assembly, students also recognized the first African American Westridge graduate, Genna Rae McNeil ’65, who went on to become a professor at UNC, Chapel Hill specializing in African American history with an emphasis on race, law, and social movements, and a renowned author of four books, including the definitive biography of Charles Hamilton Houston, mentor of Thurgood Marshall. McNeil’s graduation date, as Dr. Kelly pointed out, was a full five years before a 1970 court order mandated desegregation in Pasadena public schools.
Zaynab E. ’20, co-head of the BSU, said, “Although we used this assembly to focus on black excellence and the black experience here at Westridge, Martin Luther King’s legacy extends far beyond the black community. We recognize that King’s mission of social justice is far from being accomplished.”
Upper School Student Voices is dedicated to addressing topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. Throughout the year, they raise awareness about local and global issues through assemblies like this one, Upper School “town meetings,” and open forum lunchtime talks.