For Black History Month, we sat down with three educators in our ambassador program to learn how they are celebrating Black history with their students and communities. This is the second installment of the series, and we hope you enjoy our conversation with Denise Ndukwu!
Denise Ndukwu is a counselor at Michigan City High School in Michigan City, Indiana. Read on to learn how she celebrates Black History Month and what it means to her to be a Black educator.
RaiseMe: How do you celebrate Black History Month?
Denise: Well, I like to read about Black people that aren’t widely celebrated. There are many heroes in our communities that don’t get a lot of recognition. I like to seek out those stories and read about them. About two years ago on NPR, there was a Fresh Air segment on books that were written by Black authors from the Harlem Renaissance. I like to seek out Black authors that you don’t necessarily hear about and read their novels. We always hear about and celebrate authors such as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, etc., but there are many lesser known authors whose books aren’t widely known, like John Oliver Killens, a favorite of mine, so I always like to celebrate by reading a good book.
RaiseMe: Who is a Black leader you admire?
Denise: Reginald Lewis. He was the Chairman of Beatrice International. He passed away in 1993. While watching the Olympics in the 80’s there were many television ads for Beatrice. I remember thinking that Beatrice must have sponsored all of the ads that year because there were so many. Then one day I read about Reginald Lewis and how he owned Beatrice International. I was impressed because growing up the thought of a Black man owning such a large international corporation was foreign to me. As I read about him and his career, I thought, ‘Wow, what a great story!’. I enjoyed learning about him because his story is not often told when teaching students about Black history. It was transformative. He was a leader in the business world and the first Black person that I learned about who had acquired such a large multinational company.
RaiseMe: Can you tell me about your experience as a Black educator, specifically working in high schools as a counselor?
Denise: I take great pride in my work as a school counselor with all students every day. As school counselors, we are trained to approach our work with a multicultural mindset. I am fortunate to work with a diverse group of counselors in a very diverse school district. Thirty five percent of our students are Black. Do I feel a responsibility to provide that safe space (for Black students)? Yes, I do. However, I feel a responsibility to be the best advocate not only for the Black students but for all of my students, and to guide them to academic and personal success. Some Black students come to see me because we share the same cultural identity. It’s a safe space for them. But as a Black person of Caribbean descent my experience may not always be identical to my students. That is the nice thing about working in the school that I do. I learn from students about their backgrounds and cultural traditions and histories and share aspects of my background with them. In terms of having a feeling of responsibility, I feel glad that I’m here because my experience as a student was a lot different when I was in high school.
There were no Black counselors at my school. I didn’t meet a Black counselor until I went to college. Back then the role of the school counselor was different. I did not feel I could talk to the counselor about things that were bothering me or that were personal. I basically saw my counselor to schedule my classes and moved on. And I never got a welcoming vibe in the guidance office. It was all very business-like. I want it to be different for the students that I serve.
RaiseMe: Do you have any words of advice for other Black educators?
Denise: I would say be authentic. Come to your profession knowing who you are, and knowing your role as an educator and being proud of that. Because being an educator is a big deal; you are shaping the minds of young people. Be prepared to learn from the students as much as they learn from you.
The students are very impressionable, whether they’re five years old or whether they’re fifteen. Students know when you are sincere about their education and seeing the possibilities in them. It is important for all students to see educators and counselors of different hues and backgrounds given the global society we live in today. It’s an honor to be an educator and I am grateful to have found my space as a counselor. I think most educators take their role in the lives of young people very seriously. It’s important because they’re not as many people entering the teaching profession now, and even less for Black educators.
RaiseMe: How is your school celebrating Black History Month?
Denise: We are fortunate to have a Black History Month committee in Michigan City, that with the help of community partners, sponsors a series of events throughout the month of February. There is an annual Black History Quiz Bowl that many local students from schools and organizations take part in. The high school is fielding a team this year. In addition to that, a student group called the Bulletin Board Brigade is responsible for decorating the bulletin boards around the school. The students thought it would be a good idea to highlight local Black residents who have made local and national history.
The most recent organization to form at Michigan City High, at the urging of the athletic director, is our Black Student Union. We’ve never had a Black Student Union here, so that’s really kind of cool. They have been involved in celebrating Black History Month by decorating the cafeteria with posters of famous Black Americans and sharing Black history facts daily, during morning announcements.
RaiseMe: Can you tell us more about the Black Student Union?
Denise: The club is open to everyone, not just Black students, to come and learn about Black culture. The intention is for students to have a place to talk and celebrate and share. At the first meeting, the students talked about advocating for new classes that they thought would be good additions as electives to the curriculum. For example, one of the students said, ‘Well, we’d like a Black history class or a Women’s history class.’ They talked about things in the community that they wanted to improve and things that would shed a positive light on their school. They talked about organizing community service activities. There were many different ideas being discussed. It was really wonderful to see because it seemed like the students didn’t have a place where they felt they were being heard. They wanted a place to talk about issues and to reflect on things that were happening in the community and at school. It was just great to see a lot of kids come out and get involved.
Editor’s Note: RaiseMe has made edits to quotes to provide clarity.
Educator Voices is a series highlighting some of the high school counselors that make up the RaiseMe educator community. Read on to hear their journey into the educator profession and some of the ways they are impacting student’s post-secondary opportunities.