This year, Waunakee High School’s first Black Student Union has offered something the district previously lacked – a place where students of color could gather and talk about issues uniquely affecting them.
The club’s advisors, Chuck Murphree and Brett Wheeler, talked to the Waunakee Rotary Club about this new student organization during Rotary’s May 21 virtual meeting.
Murphree said at the end of the last school year, he talked to a black student who was having issues within the building directly related to race.
As Murphree got to know the student, he asked her if it would be helpful to have a place to talk with other students about issues and her feelings as a black student at Waunakee High School.
“She loved that idea. And that’s how the idea started,” Murphree said.
When the 2019-2020 school year began, Murphree began to explore it further. He noted that the Waunakee school district has equity goals in place. With his own background at Middleton High School working with students of color and equity, he began to see if students were interested, and many said they would like a place to talk with one another.
“A lot of the students, they would say they really didn’t see other black students in any of their classes or during the day,” Murphree said.
The BSU was approved by the school board and administration in the fall of 2019.
They began recruiting students, and the organization, now with about 18 members, grew.
The members met Tuesdays during contact time at school.
“We started out just doing a lot of teambuilding, getting to know each other. And it was for them to get to know Brett and I as well. And that teambuilding turned into setting goals for BSU and what we wanted that to look like, what kinds of things did we want to talk about … with teachers, administration,” Murphree said.
The club also talked about issues in the community and the country.
After building a strong foundation for the organization, the members could move onto issues around the school. One was the use of the “N” word, Murphree said, “when it’s used in songs or downright toward students.”
“Both black and white students were saying it was an issue around the building,” Murphree said. “That was one of the first things that we started to really focus on and try to develop some training and also training with staff, when they hear it within the classroom, how do they respond?”
Wheeler said he appreciated that they were able to create an environment for students who may have had no sense of belonging to then belong to something.
“That empowered them, as well, I think – them getting to build relationships with each other, with us, to have a couple more trusted adults in the building when they had a concern, or just simply for support and just in general. It’s always good for kids to have connections with as many adults as they can,” Wheeler said.
The students have begun to mentor younger students and plan to resume this in the fall, even if virtually. Murphree noted that BSU is not limited to black students; white students have joined, as well.
“The mentoring, I think, is going to have a great impact for kids who are coming up, as well,” Murphree said.
Murphree reiterated how important it is for students to feel connected.
Wheeler said guest speakers have been brought in, as well.
“We feel like it’s important for these kids to see adults of color who have had successful careers,” he said.
The students also attended the Black Business Awards presentation at Madison College, honoring black business leaders with successful careers who had done meaningful work in Dane County. The club was acknowledged at the awards as the BSU from Waunakee. Plans were in the works to visit other college campuses.
As the BSU reached out to others in the Dane County community, it received attention, and news reports about it in the Waunakee Tribune and on Channel 3000 have increased awareness.
“But through that, we had also a lot of leaders around Dane County reach out to us and our students,” Murphree said. Among their goals are expanding the organization.
Wheeler said one of his favorite outcomes was hearing excitement from students as the school celebrated Black History Month for the first time. Once or twice a week, students would participate in the school announcements and share a fact about black history.
“They would bring up important figures and names that people may not have heard and just connect them to everybody’s daily life, so people realized what kind of impact black Americans had in our society,” Wheeler said. “That was really cool. I think that was something kids were really happy about.”
Initially, the club faced some challenges. Some perceived it as threatening, Murphree said, but now it is perceived as a positive influence.
In the future, the Waunakee BSU students would like to collaborate with other BSUs in Dane County.
Wheeler said during professional development days, teachers have heard from speakers about equity issues. He noted that students could speak to them, as well. Memorial High School, where Wheeler worked in the past, offered similar programs that were appreciated by both students and teachers.
One Waunakee Rotarian asked about the homogenous staff and administration in the Waunakee district, and how the students felt.
Murphree said he asked students prior to starting BSU about having a white man leading the organization.
“The very first thing that they said to me was, ‘Mr. Murphree, who else is going to do it?’ There’s truth to that because every teacher in the building and administrator are white,” Murphree said.
After the media attention, Murphree said he also heard questions in the black community about what two white men were doing leading the BSU.
But other black leaders realized that Murphree and Wheeler had the students’ best interests in mind and that “it’s not really about the color of their skin,” Murphree said.