Originally published in the South Seattle Emerald
by Ari Robin McKenna
On Monday, a virtual ceremony was held to honor the 2021 Black Education Matters Student Activist Awards (BEMSAA). In addition to parents, mentors, friends, and teachers of the award winners, the event was attended by former NFL player Michael Bennet (who awarded Mia Dabney the Pennie Bennett Award), Seattle Seahawks player Bobby Wagner, former BEMSAA award winners, BEMSAA board members, and members of the media.
KyRi Miller, Aneesa Roidad, and Mia Dabney each received $1,000 in recognition of “exceptional leadership in struggles against racism — especially with an understanding of the intersections with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, class exploitation and other forms of oppression — within their school or community.” The awardees were introduced by a teacher or mentor, who spoke about their defining characteristics and about the work they’ve done, before handing the mike over to the awardees for an acceptance speech.
BEMSSA founder Jesse Hagopian, who is a Garfield High School teacher and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, introduced the award recipients by saying, “The youth that you are going to meet today are not accepting the school system as it exists, are not accepting the society as it exists.” Ayva Thomas, BEMSAA board member and the Assistant Director of Racial and Educational Justice for the Northshore School District, added, “I saw a common theme across all three of you: you knew and recognized and understood that the school could not be dislocated from community, and so you really brought community into the school, and you brought the school into community.”
Alekzandr Wray, a former ethnic studies and humanities teacher at Garfield High School and the current ethnic studies program manager for Seattle Public Schools, was referred to by KyRi’s mom as, “The beacon and the light in my son’s high school experience.” Wray met KyRi Miller as a sophomore in his AP World History class, and had this to say about why he nominated him: “He [KyRi] found himself consistently in positions of leadership, whether that be with ASB, ASG, helping keep current events current at our school, and keeping the conversation going. But the big thing that really stood out to me and made KyRi’s dedication to activism — and to the black community specifically — was the leadership role he stepped into when we worked with community artists from outside of Garfield to come into our school and then brainchild a mural that was going to reflect the black community of Garfield … It took a lot of vision, a lot of consistency, and a lot of hard work.”
KyRi Miller, who will be attending Dillard University in New Orleans next year, spoke about the connection between the activist work he did while at Garfield High School, and the future he is working towards. “My long term goal is to be an actor/director … But I don’t want to just be considered one of the ones that only acted or only directed, I want to be one of those actors or directors where people think, ‘He made a difference. He made a change.’ I want to work with different people on how to change the mindset and the way that Black people and People of Color are depicted in different media and entertainment businesses. There’s more to it than just being a slave or a gangster. We’re brilliant people. We’re excellent. That’s what I want to show. I was able to show a little bit of that at Garfield — especially with Mr. Wray — in that mural … I’m very humbled by it [the BEMSAA award], and I can’t wait to keep pursuing, working towards my all-time goal.”
Rita Green, a BEMSAA board member and longtime education advocate, spoke about awardee Aneesa Roidad, whom she has worked alongside in the NAACP Youth Council (NYC) since 2017. “She has been with us for five years now. Dedicated, hard working, my right hand person. She’s going to be great. She has developed so many policies …This young lady has been with me since she was a freshman and I’m going to miss her dearly.”
Roidad, who is finishing up the gap year she took in part to continue her work with the NYC, will be attending Harvard University in the fall. She spoke about how the NYC has set a precedent for whatever future career should call. “We’ve done so much as an NYC community; it’s been really beautiful to get to see the growth and to get to see how not only I’ve changed myself into a better leader and a brighter person, but just how everyone that the youth council touches and everyone we bring into the community … how they shine when they’re given the opportunities to. I’m not exactly sure what work I want to do in the future in terms of a specific career path, but I definitely know the feeling of what it is to do this work, and I just want to keep bringing that feeling into the world, and bringing that love and bringing that beauty.”
Jon Greenberg, an award-winning educator who teaches at The Center School, spoke about Mia Dabney, whom he’s worked on initiatives with in the NYC for the past three years. One initiative Greenberg mentioned was Dabney’s involvement in Policy 1250, which passed in March, and creates Seattle School Board student advisory positions. He also said, “Mia has emerged more so this year as an advocate for mental health, wellness — especially among BIPOC youth … NYC has a demand about increasing opportunities and mental health services, and Mia has been embodying that forever. In fact, she’s the one who came up with norms. We make sure as a group we’re honoring each other and ourselves, and slowing down. And so that’s solidified in the norms that Mia created … She always focuses on connection over productivity. She focuses on community over individualism, and really uplifts everybody, makes everybody better.” Michael Bennet also presented Dabney’s award in the name of his mother, Pennie Bennett, saying, “To be able to have the sense of empathy for everybody else’s experience, says a lot about your character. I’m honored to be able to have this award for you.”
Mia Dabney, who will be returning to Cleveland High School for her senior year after the summer, is planning to pursue a career in medicine where she will be able to address issues of race and gender within that sector. She said, “My favorite quote is, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ That’s the quote I live by, because I want to be a part of that change, because I want to be that change in my community and beyond.”
The BEMSAA awards have now been presented to 20 students since 2017. The principal source of its funding was a settlement from a lawsuit after a Seattle Police Department officer maced Hagopian in the face, unprovoked. Because someone caught the incident squarely on video, he received a large settlement, and has generously decided to fund these awards, with some assistance from Bennett and Seattle rapper Macklemore.
Before the ceremony ended, others chimed in to congratulate the award winners, and to encourage their continued growth. 2019 BEMSAA winner Rena Mateja Walker Burr congratulated this year’s awardees, as did Bobby Wagner. South End Stories founder Donte Felder also chimed in, advising, “Don’t get complacent … Keep pushing. We need you. Community needs you. Your families need you. The next generation of families need your brilliance.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). He writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
Featured Image: Images of Mia Dabney, Aneesa Roidad, and KyRi Miller courtesy of the award winners.