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Newtown Allies For Change Installs Black History Month Displays In Schools



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Newtown Allies For Change (NAFC) members have created informative bulletin boards commemorating Black History Month with permission from schools, visiting Reed Intermediate School on February 3.

Newtown Allies For Change is a grassroots advocacy organization run by volunteers to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in Newtown with a mission “to center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in Newtown.”

“I’m going to make a trivia contest for kids to learn more,” said Sara Wasley, a librarian at Reed, who stated she is “excited to celebrate” Black History Month with the bulletin board from the NAFC. Wasley had readily agreed to help after being connected to NAFC Director of Communications Nerlande Foote and Vice Chair Nicole Maddox by Reed Principal Matt Correia.

For Wasley, the board serves as a welcome extension of the existing Black History Month acknowledgement at the Reed library.

“On a monthly basis, we try to do bulletin boards and heritage celebrations,” she said. The school had made a display of books outside commemorating the month, and had shelves of books featuring Black protagonists for students to find inside as well.

The theme of the NAFC’s project is “Black History is American History,” and the board features details on lesser-known Black Americans who made a significant impact in the United States. The boards are adjusted per school so that they can be understood and appreciated by different grade levels, aiming to introduce students to figures they may be unlikely to learn about in school.

Foote explained that during Black History Month, schools tend to review stories about Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and Ruby Bridges with the exclusion of nearly all other Black American contributors, including important inventors.

“While we’re telling kids ‘look both ways before you cross the street’ — well, who invented that?” Foote said, citing inventor of the stoplight Garrett Morgan, a Black American, as an example. She connected a quote by Nicole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter of The New York Times, who said, “Black people are largely treated as an asterisk in the American story.”

According to Foote and Maddox, lack of education leaves a deficit in how American history is recognized, which is a large part of what the NAFC’s bulletin board project seeks to address.

Maddox explained that Black people aren’t just the first People of Color to be credited with a specific achievement, but often, they are the first person in history, and the achievement is minimized.

“Kamala is the first woman to break the executive branch, the first in American history. But, for whatever reason, we are going to de-emphasize this,” she said of the media response after Harris, the vice president took office. “Black Americans have laid foundation in this country, but are treated as outsiders.”

Maddox also referenced Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who is not only the youngest Black senator elected to Congress, but the youngest senator in US history, elected in January 2023.

The organizers expressed hopes that schools will follow in example to integrate history education with current events to help students create analytic connections.

“There are people who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge who are still alive,” Foote stated, referring to landmark events in civil rights history occurring on the bridge, including a massive racial violence initiated by the state (“Bloody Sunday”) and the subsequent Selma to Montgomery March that included Dr King.

‘All For The Kids’

Maddox stated that she hopes the nature of education demonstrated in the bulletin board project becomes “common” in schools, and said she thinks kids learn well with visuals. “This is a place for kids to see prominent Black figures that have contributed greatly to the US,” she said. “Those seeing it — it’s going to stick in their heads.”

Recently, NAFC has elected to initiate direct communication with schools instead of approaching the Board of Education for NAFC goals such as the bulletin board project or concerns about reported racial incidents.

“Within the past year, it’s been increasingly difficult to work with the Board of Education in this area,” Maddox said. “If the board isn’t going to make this their top priority, we are going to pivot.”

For other cultural heritage acknowledgements involving Hispanic and Indigenous history, NAFC provided facts to be read aloud at schools during morning announcements, sending them to the schools directly. Foote and Maddox believe that with a foundational education addressing BIPOC experiences, racist incidents can begin to diminish in number.

“Society is not somewhere we send our kids [after they graduate]; society is all around us,” Foote explained, and stated that NAFC is not political. “At the end of the day, it is all for the kids,” she said.

‘This Work’

Maddox reflects that Newtown may not see cultural changes, where work like theirs becomes automatic in this district, and social changes, where BIPOC students would be safe from racist incidents, for “a long time.” Maddox says NAFC is motivated to keep with their work in Newtown schools “because someone else’s kid is coming behind” her own children, the youngest in elementary school.

She cited a reason for NAFC emphasizing allies, people who are not BIPOC, as the majority of the organization: “It has to be the allies doing this work; we [BIPOC individuals] are busy enduring it ourselves.”

One such ally is Alison Kistner, who was present to help at Reed on January 3. Kistner has been one of a few volunteers gathering materials and assembling the boards after answering NAFC’s call to their Facebook network of 1,300.

“They were looking for volunteers and I said ‘Absolutely, happy to help,’” Kistner stated. She believes the bright, statement boards will appeal to kids who walk by, as they “see familiar faces and not-so-familiar faces.” She shared the story of Lonnie Johnson, whose story as the inventor of an iconic symbol of summer vacation stuck out to her. “The super soaker, how fun is that to read as a kid?”

Additional figures featured on the board include poet Phyllis Wheatley, musician Chuck Berry, Senator Maxwell Frost, Vice President Kamala Harris, and others.

Continuing Education

The bulletin boards are displayed outside of school libraries, and will remain at those locations throughout February.

Those interested in NAFC events and education can attend the final installment of the 1619 Project, a docuseries created by Nicole Hannah-Jones that seeks to review the continuous, pervasive consequences of slavery in contemporary America. This viewing will be held on the second floor of Trinity Episcopal Church on February 23 at 6:30 pm.

Foote and Maddox encourage those who plan to attend to catch up on the first installments of the project before joining, although it is not required. Group discussion following the viewings so far has been “great” according to Maddox, as individuals can share and inquire “without fear of judgment.”

Adults looking to test their knowledge can attend Black History Month trivia hosted by NAFC at Reverie Brewing Company on February 26 from 4 to 6 pm.

Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Newtown Allies For Change Nerlande Foote applies letters to the organization’s latest Black History Month bulletin board display at Reed Intermediate School.
At Newtown Middle School, Newtown Allies For Change created a display of autobiographical information of significant contributors to American culture and history accessible to the age group, pictured.
Newtown Allies For Change created this bulletin board for students at Middle Gate School to learn about important Black figures in America during Black History Month. —photos courtesy Nicole Maddox
Pictured is the completed bulletin board created by Newtown Allies For Change at Reed Intermediate School, which was in progress when The Newtown Bee visited organizers Nerlande Foote and Nicole Maddox for an interview.
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