Torrey Pines Black Student Union hopes to inspire and educate
Ayana Johnson, a Torrey Pines High School sophomore, recently started the school’s first Black Student Union, a group of students who are motivated and determined to spread awareness about Black lives and culture through education and community service.
Born in La Jolla and raised in Pacific Highlands Ranch, Ayana has attended predominately White schools her entire life. When she arrived at Torrey Pines High School as a freshman, she and her friend Lia Turner walked around and couldn’t help but notice the few other students who looked like them. They wanted to form a club to bring minorities together so that they could feel more included and connected.
“We really felt like we needed a Black Student Union, it was an idea I’ve had since elementary and middle school but I never got the chance to do it because there wasn’t as many students or club resources,” Ayana said.
She and Lia spoke to each of the Black students individually about forming the club and if they would join—some said yes right away and some were unsure as they didn’t want others to think it was racist or a hate group.
“It is totally not,” Ayana said. The group’s goal is to bring Black students together, to inspire and inform the whole Torrey Pines community about Black culture and history and to have conversations about the ways they can help make the world a better place for everybody. She serves as the club’s founder and president while Lia is now the vice president.
“I’m very outgoing and have been since the day I was born, and I love giving back,” said Ayana. “I found my voice to help get kids out of their comfort zones and to not be afraid.”
Ayana said she was grateful for the full support she received from Principal Rob Coppo to form the union. There are no Black teachers at Torrey Pines but she was equally grateful to find a club advisor in teacher Don Collins, who has a Black husband and two bi-racial children.
“I’m incredibly proud of our TP BSU club, and I’m regularly impressed by their efforts to support diversity and an inclusive culture at TPHS. These student leaders have stepped up during a divisive time and they are helping to lead their school with empathy, open-mindedness and positivity,” Coppo said. “They are creative, dedicated and a lot of fun to work with. Their work is a shining example of one of the tenets of our TP Pledge: ‘We Take Pride in each other.’ TP BSU is a shining example of what it means when we say ‘We are TP!’”
BSU meetings are held virtually every Thursday and the club has a slate of officers including junior Kimberly Williams as secretary, sophomore Ryleigh Patterson as treasurer, sophomore Tristan Turner as publicity manager, sophomore Nylah Knight as historian and sophomore Merle Williams and junior Matan Morris as sergeants at arms. They built an Instagram page, @tphs.bsu, where there are weekly takeovers with club members sharing their unique perspectives.
As the group officially formed over the summer and began meeting in the fall, the pandemic has postponed a lot of Ayana’s plans for this year including her hopes for the group to have a big campus presence during Black History Month.
“It hasn’t been the easiest but we’re trying our best,” she said. “More people would have known about us if we were in school.”
Ayana was thrilled when Principal Coppo invited the BSU to present to the whole school during their online Student Connectedness time on Jan. 27 —she and Lia helped get the word out about what they are all about.
“It was so amazing,” Ayana said, noting afterward she got congratulatory emails from all of her teachers and supportive texts from friends. “It was such a cool experience.”
Along with her work with the BSU, Ayana is a volleyball player who played for Torrey Pines last year and with WAVE Volleyball Club. Her goal is to get a Division 1 scholarship and earn a master’s degree. She said her dad, Aaron, is her biggest motivator and rock who makes sure she is working hard every day to improve. Her motto is “I work hard while my competitors sleep.”
Ayana is excited to see how the club will grow at Torrey Pines and she admires the work being done by fellow district students including La Costa Canyon’s Diversity Equity Club, San Dieguito Academy’s Multicultural Anti-Racism Coalition, Canyon Crest Academy’s Black Student Union, Raven Diversity Network and Asian Student Union, as well as Black Student Unions from high schools in neighboring Poway Unified School District. Last month, the local student-led chapter of Diversify our Narrative spoke in front of the San Dieguito Union High School District board to encourage the district to incorporate more texts by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) authors and have more discussions on identity bias and race in the classroom.
Ayana was deeply impacted by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last summer over the death of George Floyd. She had been heartbroken and frustrated to witness the eight minutes and 46 seconds when a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck—“I can’t put words in my mouth how I felt,” she said, adding that she couldn’t help but wonder: ”What if that was my dad or my uncle?”
To Ayana, saying that Black lives matter doesn’t mean that all lives do not. She said that people cannot deny that Black people have been and continue to be treated differently in this country because of the color of their skin.
“It’s never going to stop until young voices like myself start to talk and try to educate others. There should be a Black Student Union at every school across the country,” Ayana said. “I think that it’s really important to get Black kids’ voices out there. We still have a whole life to live with the possibility of interacting with racism and that’s something we have to prepare for and we can’t change things until we work together and understand.”
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