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The making of Melanin Magic: A case for BIPOC groups in schools


"Do what you love: we are all born a winner." – Darius (age 19). Photo by Nathan Smith.

By Tasha Henry (she/her) and Jennifer Gage (she/her), teachers and visitors on Lekwungen speaking peoples traditional lands


“Discover yourself and be proud of your culture and who you are. Never design your day to be in front of individuals who are going to pull you down.”
– Abel Gerezgher, Melanin Magic mentor

In the fall of 2017, Carmel Bennett, youth and family counsellor at Cedar Hill Middle School in Victoria, BC, noticed that many of her counselling students were girls of colour. She quickly realized that a different support model was needed. As a biracial woman, Bennett saw a need for an exclusive space for Black/mixed/brown girls to explore their identities in a safe space. She asked her friend Ejemen Iyayi, a counsellor from Quadra Village, to co-facilitate a weekly lunchtime group nestled in the corner of the resource room. As a group, the girls chose the name “Melanin Magic” and shared their experiences with racism and discrimination. When Bennett left the following school year, Tasha Henry, an inclusive learning teacher, and Iyayi continued the weekly group, pulling in community mentors and role models to inspire the girls. As a white-settler teacher, Henry knew that the group could run only with BIPOC facilitators and mentors.


Inspired by a photography/storytelling exhibition by Nathan Smith, called “Profiling Black Excellence,” the group decided that art as intervention was a modality that could raise their voices in a predominantly white community. The double meaning of Smith’s exhibition “Profiling Black Excellence” resonated with the middle schoolers. They understood the painful experience of being racially profiled and were hopeful and eager to step into their futures as social-change agents. By 2019, the group was open to students who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, including those who identify as boys and those of Asian descent. These new members brought with them a strong mission to insert their own experience and perspectives into public spaces through art, media, installation, and fieldwork.


I Have a Dream mural panel by Tra'She and Jenny (Grade 7). Photo by Tasha Henry.

This year Jennifer Gage, a teacher in the Sooke district, and Henry co-facilitate the group with youth mentor Abel Gerezgher. Gage and Henry, both middle school teachers and mothers of biracial children, have witnessed their own children suffer from racism in the school system. They met at one of Melanin Magic’s community art interventions in 2022. Gage, a Black educator originally from Toronto, was struck by the confidence of the Melanin Magic students and the degree of empowerment revealed through the art installation. The exhibition represented silenced voices through the installation of painted jean jackets, with words and images such as “8:48,” the minutes that George Floyd was held down, or the red dress, symbolizing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The jackets were hung and strewn provocatively by Indigenous contemporary artist Tyrone Elliot to tell a bigger story of the voices that have been silenced and the ones still waiting to be heard.


Gage remembers: When I took my daughters to the installation, I was immediately impressed with the passion and pride in their work. I also realized that it was the first time my girls were in the presence of several kids who looked like them and they commented that it was “cool.” When I brought my daughter to the group meeting, l noticed the students were able to talk openly about the things they had in common, including the microaggressions they experienced in elementary school that they still carry with them. In just one meeting, it showed my daughter that she was not alone and gave her a community that she’s been longing for.


"We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams." – A. O'Shaughnessy. Soren (Grade 6). Photo by Nathan Smith.

Recently the group’s size swelled to 25 students, so the kids voted to split the meetings by gender. This would allow them to discuss topics and themes specific to their experiences. To make this happen, Henry and Gage connected with male-identifying BIPOC community mentors to meet with the boys’ group. The boys wanted to focus on the stereotyping of Black men in sports, specifically basketball, so Henry asked Abel Gerezgher, youth wellness co-ordinator and a basketball player with a passion for uplifting youth, to co-facilitate the weekly group. Gerezgher reminds teachers that when forming groups for BIPOC youth there can be historical internalized racism that affects the level of engagement or perceived stigmatization of these exclusive groups. Sensitive to these complexities, Melanin Magic students have chosen to personally invite students to the meetings with a face-to-face invitation. The weekly share-outs often include their observations of other BIPOC students in the school who seem isolated or lonely. Finding ways to connect with other BIPOC students who have a commitment to social justice projects has always been part of their unofficial recruitment plan.


Elyon, a Grade 8 student, encourages teacher-facilitators to consider how and why they would invite students to the group: “Make sure kids don’t join just for fun. Our work is important. You should personally invite people to the group; don’t just ask every person of colour to join.” As Elyon points out, the group isn’t necessarily for all people of colour; it is for BIPOC students who are passionate about social and historical thinking, social justice, and community building.


Fierce Fashion: Denim Jacket painting project by Elyon (Grade 8). Photo by Tasha Henry.

A complicated invitation

With the intention to decolonize schooling practices in purposeful ways, Melanin Magic starts each school year with an invitation to “dream together” around shared interests and passions. Out of these dreams comes a critical examination of what kinds of barriers may currently be in place to achieve that collective dream, whether it’s institutional, systemic, or otherwise. The group usually forms a “burning question” that articulates these social or cultural barriers. Their facilitators then find community artists, professionals, and activists to mentor the students through the complexity of that question, with a goal to impose this question into public awareness and community spaces. The year’s work always culminates with an art show, celebration, or exhibition that engages the community in unexpected ways. Past projects have included a podcast with artist Kemi Craig, a mural mentored by Dre Searle for the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, and a photography exhibition curated by the students with photographer Nathan Smith for the Legacy Art Gallery.


As Henry says, decolonizing field trips and using instructional time to do this work in the community is one way the group intentionally occupies private and public spaces that have historically remained closed to them. Liz, a Grade 8 student, advises, “If you are starting a BIPOC group, you have to have an open mind. You have to know how to support kids of colour. You can’t dismiss their experience. Don’t have an agenda of what you think the group should be or do. You don’t want them to feel more restricted in a place that’s meant to make them feel safe.”


Rising Sun mural panel by Tabi (Grade 8). Photo by Tasha Henry.

Often when the students meet, they grapple with the complexity of what it means to identify as BIPOC. As Tabi, a Grade 8 student who has been in the group since Grade 6, reaffirms, “Make sure you have BIPOC leaders in the group, teachers, or older students. Students have to be able to relate to you when it comes to racism.”


Teachers who want to form BIPOC groups in schools may have good intentions to run an anti-racist curriculum, but lesson plans alone don’t ensure institutional change, nor do good intentions. Racism and discrimination are permitted to operate in spite of education’s attempts to “erase bullying” or engage in “culturally responsive” professional goals, and that is precisely why student voice and agency must be at the forefront of any discussion of inclusion when it comes to schools. This isn’t to say that anti-racist programs don’t have impact, but there has to be larger community engagement leading the learning. Having student-led groups that work with and for the communities they hope to empower is a necessary presence in any school, but especially in schools where the white culture remains dominant.


Silhouettes of Hope painted by Gabby. Photo by Tasha Henry.

Sustaining the magic

When students can frame their own vision of community outside of their school’s walls, they get to imagine the world they want to live in. Several Melanin Magic mentors have described what it was like for them to attend public schools in Victoria. Some of them tried to form Black student unions or BIPOC student associations and had been told by the school staff that the groups had to be inclusive (available to all, including white students). It may seem like a response grounded in equity, but this kind of response points to the misunderstanding of the difference between equity and equality; a misunderstanding that further oppresses and perpetuates the need for the group in the first place. As Sophia, a former Melanin Magic student, attests, “A teacher once said to me ‘I don’t see colour; I just see a great person.’ Why doesn’t she see me as Black and a great person? The two are related!” This kind of microaggression closes down any discussion of race and identity under a pretence of equality that forecloses on any opportunity for a meaningful relationship, let alone a learning one.

While white teachers are working to understand their own fragility and embedded belief systems and misunderstandings, the students are already opening the conversations that need to happen. Parker Johnson, Melanin Magic mentor, encourages teachers to understand their role, as well as the limitations of that role. He recommends, “Always do the work in collaboration with students of colour. Take the time to craft a diversity, equity, and inclusion role as a collective, with student input where they can describe what this role looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Listen to who students want as their facilitator and then ask who the best people are to be in that role.” This type of student input could drive any school goal or district goal around inclusion.


Melanin Magic logo design by Dre Searle.

Melanin Magic, now in its seventh year running, and the longest running BIPOC group in the Greater Victoria School District, hopes that every school can sustain a BIPOC-student-led group. “It’s a fine balance between grant writing, community relationships, facilitation skills, including understanding white fragility, and enough structure so that the kids see their ideas impacting the communities they live in,” says Henry.


Chloe, a Grade 6 student, sees the necessity of such groups in schools. “There should definitely be a group in every school because where else would you feel safe enough to share these experiences? Make sure you do something fun, and make sure you let the kids invite new kids to the group. It should not be a group that just talks; it should be a group where people get to share experiences from different schools.” Gage and Henry recommend hosting the group during instructional time and to stay flexible but purposeful in the content and facilitation style. Most of all, as Henry says, “Students should leave your room lighter and more emboldened each week.” When asked what is the “magic” in Melanin Magic, Tabi says, “Even if we are talking about systemic racism, we have fun, we like to sing a lot, and laugh. Yeah, we like to laugh a lot.”


Melanin Magic’s advice for teachers starting a BIPOC group


Do

  • meet in a cozy, closed space that feels like a living room.

  • circle up and start with a check-in. We always acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples whose land we are on.

  • have food or tea to share—become a family, clean up after yourselves, and say thank you.

  • meaningful fieldwork: get out on the land; visit art galleries or museums; start conversations about art and representation.

  • take the bus together.

  • establish some “rules to gather” around respect, kindness, and listening. No cross talking! Sit in a circle.

  • invite “cool” guests and mentors, including parents, professionals, aunties/uncles, and local BIPOC business owners. How will we know what we can do if we don’t see it first!

  • work with your hands while talking (beading, painting, eating, or making music are our favourites).

  • name someone who champions you in your life when in the gratefulness circle. Hold them in your heart.

  • leave your meeting making sure everyone feels lifted up.


Don’t

  • have the group always meet at lunch—that’s when we want to see our friends. Have it during class time.

  • always talk about heavy stuff or talk too much—make sure it feels safe to share.

  • put an announcement on the PA—that’s embarrassing.

  • think all Black/brown kids will have stuff in common. Let us pick who we invite to the group.

  • decide what you think we should do. We have ideas.

  • have us on display in assemblies or presentations. We are not a performance group.

  • be too open-ended. Have a focus or a project. (We always work on something together; otherwise it gets gossipy.)


Connecting. Photo by Nathan Smith

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