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Student voices amplified: Diversity Council celebrates cultures, empowers students at BHS

Student voices amplified: Diversity Council celebrates cultures, empowers students at BHS

Familiar faces surrounded Siham Ibrahim as she walked to the front of the lecture hall at Burnsville High School to present on the morning of Oct. 27. 

Siham Ibrahim speaks at the Diversity Council meeting

As the senior prepared to talk about the mission, vision and goals of one of her affinity groups at the first Student Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council (DIBC) meeting of the school year, she was joined by people she’s gotten to know in a variety of ways over the last few years. Some of them were fellow members of the Black Student Union and Muslim Student Association, affinity groups of which Ibrahim is the president. Some of them were people she knows from class. And many were friends from other affinity groups Ibrahim has gotten to work with more closely since the council held its first meeting in March. 

BHS administrators established the DIBC as a way to bring students from a variety of different groups together during the school day, giving them a platform to discuss issues they face and a structure through which they can guide the school’s equity work. Administrators have also made the affinity groups themselves more accessible by building meeting times into the school day so every student has the opportunity to participate. 

Since Ibrahim began attending the DIBC meetings, she has been joined by student representatives and staff advisors from her own affinity groups, as well as representatives from the Asian Student Association, the Indigenous Student Council, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Gender Sexuality Alliance, the Student Council, Burnsville Strong, Somos and Alma (for creating solidarity and safe spaces for Latinx students), Believe Transform Evolve (for helping young men of color grow into leaders), Community Strong (a Muslim men’s group), and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) college prep program. The affinity groups represent students from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, but Ibrahim and her classmates are bonded by their desire to support each other, work for positive change, and strengthen the sense of community at Burnsville High School. That bond has been there since the first meeting.

“The first one didn’t seem like different worlds colliding. It was like a reunion more than anything. One thing we do well is fostering that kind of community. I think it’s because we feel like we’re all in the same boat and we’re able to easily relate to each other,” Ibrahim said. “Every single group tries to make their group as accepting and fun and entertaining as possible. We take pride in our affinity groups.”

Patricia Leonard speaks at the diversity council meeting

More than 240 students are part of affinity groups at BHS. So when planning began around forming a representative council of 45 students and staff, BHS brought in Diversity, Equity and Belonging consultant Patricia Leonard as a community partner to help facilitate early meetings and establish structure and procedures. Leonard emphasized the importance of good communication practices and making sure the council remains student-led while being supported by advisors. One of the council’s first steps was to provide information to incoming freshmen about what affinity groups are available to join at BHS.

“When I first heard about this work with affinity groups happening (at Burnsville High School), I knew I wanted to participate,” Leonard said. “For 8th graders coming up, this is now a great opportunity for them to understand, ask questions, and learn in more detail about all the cultures that are here.”

Last spring, the council came up with an idea that has become its primary project this school year - a Culture Week that will give every affinity group an opportunity to share aspects of its culture with the entire school community. It will be modeled after Homecoming week, with different theme days, activities, performances, clothing, and foods being featured throughout the week. Leaders from each affinity group also decided on events their own groups will coordinate that will support their mission, vision and goals for the year. For example, students from the Black Student Union looked at how the school celebrated Black History Month last year and talked about ways it could be improved this year. 

three students at the diversity council meeting

Landen Parkin is a language arts teacher at the high school and an advisor for the Gender Sexuality Alliance. He said it’s not only important for students to share who they are, but for them to see that they’re supported by school staff and know that their ideas, questions and concerns will be heard.

“I think the most important thing this group does is provide opportunities for a lot of students who feel like their voices weren’t being heard, not just being able to display their culture and share it with their peers, but having their voice echoed by administration and teachers,” Parkin said. “One of the things this group does so well is break down those barriers. The students are able to change the school in their image, make it represent who they are, and allow them to see themselves as a part of our district and make it reflect them.”

Parkin didn’t even know what the council was when then-Associate Principal Frannie Becquer invited him to a meeting and asked him to participate.

“Frannie laid out the vision for it, bringing in students and making their goals happen, and after one meeting I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I said ‘I want to be involved in this.’” he said. “I want to make sure the school is a place they feel comfortable and supported and their individual cultures are celebrated.”

Ibrahim said she has seen BHS take more steps to embrace its multiculturalism over the last couple years and was pleasantly surprised when the Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Council was formed.

“I was shocked at the amount of support from students and staff last year,” she said. “It’s a reason I have pride for this school. We have an open mindset and I can go to the administration and just talk and have my voice heard.”