Rowland Hall junior Sophie Ayers-Harris recently had the opportunity to speak on a community panel called Black History is Utah History. Hosted by the Salt Lake City Public Library and moderated by Salt Lake City Rep. Sandra Hollins, this conversation focused on how Black history has been taught in Utah schools and why educators must do a better job incorporating this history into curricula moving forward. Sophie was one of three high school students invited to participate in the event, which also included Salt Lake City School District Board Member Mohamed Baayd. Below, they reflects on the experience.
Rowland Hall is proud of our students for using their voices to help drive conversations around inclusivity, and we welcome their perspectives as we continue on our journey to create spaces of belonging in our community.
Black History is American History
By Sophie Ayers-Harris, Class of 2022
The importance of Black history is something so often overlooked in American education. By joining this YCG project, I saw an opportunity to speak up and be a small part of reversing this trend, at least in my community.—Sophie Ayers-Harris, class of 2022
On April 15, I was lucky enough to be a part of a panel discussion called Black History is Utah History. The event was hosted by YouthCity Government (YCG), a Salt Lake City Corporation program meant to foster leadership skills in young people, alongside the Salt Lake Public Library; Angela Romero, member of the Utah House of Representatives, is a big part of directing it and making it happen. The program also seeks to get young people in our community involved in meaningful conversations about political, social, or legal issues, whether they be local, national, or even international.
I first learned about the Black History is Utah History panel when my friends Hattie Wall and Sophie Dau reached out to me and asked me to be a part of it. About a month or so before I agreed to participate, it was February: Black History Month. Over the course of those four weeks I heard in the news that parents at a charter school in Ogden, Utah, contacted the head of school to opt their kids out of participating in learning about Black history. Hearing this, I was angry and disappointed—but not entirely surprised. The importance of Black history is something so often overlooked in American education. By joining this YCG project, I saw an opportunity to speak up and be a small part of reversing this trend, at least in my community. I believe that schools ought to treat Black history as what it is: American history.
Our panel group was able to meet a few times in the month leading up to the event via Zoom, where we discussed our objective and plan for the panel. There were several students on the panel from different schools, as well as Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero, both members of the Utah House of Representatives, and Mohamed Baayd, a member of the Salt Lake City School Board. It was a surreal, refreshing experience to hear them talk about their day-to-day jobs and busy schedules, and I got to learn a lot from them about state legislation and the often grueling process of passing bills through the House and onto the Senate. It was both fascinating and inspiring to hear firsthand anecdotes about the politics within my community and state, and I still think it’s so cool that I got to talk with them over Zoom. Our focus for the panel was to have a productive community conversation about the importance of teaching Black history in schools, and also raising awareness as to why that should happen.
During the panel itself, I spoke alongside two students named Diya Oommen and Amira Baayd, both of whom attend different schools in the Salt Lake Valley. The third, non-student panelist was Mohamed Baayd. Rep. Hollins moderated our discussion by asking various questions, such as our personal experiences with Black history in our education, and why it is necessary and important to include it in school curricula. Having attended an all-Black school in New Orleans, Rep. Hollins had an education in which she learned a lot about Black history and culture. However, Diya and Amira did not share this experience, and said that they were disappointed by how little they learned about diverse histories. My education at Rowland Hall falls somewhere in between those of my fellow panelists and Rep. Hollins. In the Lower School, I learned very little about histories that were not dominated by white, Anglo-American and/or European narratives. In my fourth-grade class about Utah history, I learned next to nothing about people of color or history from diverse perspectives. This lack of knowledge and inclusion into that curriculum was and still is disappointing—I wish I knew more about the diversity in the state I have lived in for my whole life. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve taken classes with a thoughtful, inclusive curriculum.
It is so important to realize that Black history in no way is separate from the rest of American history. We cannot get an accurate, full picture of our history if we do not include a multitude of narratives from different groups, whether ethnic, racial, religious, or other identities.—Sophie Ayers-Harris
Something in particular I had to unlearn is that slavery was happening alongside the Revolutionary War, and that in the building of our country, whose principles are founded on the equality of all people, Black Americans were treated less as human—in my elementary school years, I never knew that the country I live in was built on the backs of slaves. It is so important to realize that Black history in no way is separate from the rest of American history. We cannot get an accurate, full picture of our history if we do not include a multitude of narratives from different groups, whether ethnic, racial, religious, or other identities. Without this foundation, I think that we as a society are not properly equipped to deal with the issues we see today surrounding systemic racism, such as the prison industrial complex and the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, to police brutality and disparities in healthcare—the list goes on. Prejudice and oppression based on race is entrenched into our country’s roots, and if we as a community and a country don’t understand that, we can’t get very far. At the end of the day, Black history and American history are not separate, and they shouldn’t be taught that way. They are one in the same. Everyone on the panel unanimously agreed on that, and both Mohamed and Rep. Hollins are committed to working to make Utah school curricula more inclusive.
For me, Black history is not optional. It is a part of who I am and cannot change, and I’m so grateful I got this opportunity to speak on this panel.