Black Student Union Members from Garden Grove High Find Their Voice and Purpose

Photo courtesy of Javier Castellanos/IG @bearinthepit

From left, Jade Bruce, Heavyn Agu and Natalie Martinez participate in the Garden Grove protest on June 3, 2020 with over 3,000 peaceful protesters in attendance.

When Sanaii Agu was in seventh grade, she and her family made the move from Long Beach to Orange County where the differences between communities were too large to ignore.

Agu went from living in a city that was diverse to an area where she and her older sister Heavyn were the only two Black girls at their middle school. Although Orange County has its own diverse neighborhoods in Santa Ana, Westminster and other cities, it was a culture shock to come to an area where only two percent of the population is Black.

“I think it was really different not seeing more people like me. I think it affected me more. It does affect me more, now that I’m in high school and can talk about it and have a grip on what I’m actually experiencing,” Agu said.

Starting a Club to Make A Difference

They were not the only students who were looking to connect with others from their background.

In 2018, senior Jesse Payton became inspired to bring the Black Student Union (BSU) back to life at Garden Grove High School. In the 1990s the school had a BSU, but it was disbanded after the class of 1996 graduated.

At school, Payton saw several culture clubs, including Latinos Unidos, Vietnamese Student Association and Korean Culture Club. There were Black students at school, but no club of their own.

Payton began interviewing members for her board, including Sanaii and Heavyn Agu, and pushed to make the club happen. Once the ball started rolling and BSU became an official club on campus, they made it their mission to educate the student body about Black culture by developing a safe place to have those uncomfortable conversations, and celebrating their culture with students of all ethnic backgrounds.

A racist incident at school in 2019 prompted the club’s biggest event.

A freshman English class was reading John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and when the teacher had to discuss the novel’s historical context and explain the racial insensitivity of saying the N-word, a student opposed. The student claimed it was his first amendment right to say the word as he continued to carelessly say the N-word, upsetting many Black students in the process.

“Of Mice and Men” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” were already uncomfortable for several Black students, considering the uncensored language of these novels and the fact that they are written about a Black person’s struggle through a white perspective.

“Instead of letting us read newer books that talk about racism and expand on the things we go through, they want to keep us reading books like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Times are changing, and it’s important for them to renew books,” said Heavyn Agu, who recently graduated and is the outgoing BSU president.

Heavyn Agu said that during her years in high school, her class rarely read anything written by people of color. She was only able to name two or three works written by Black writers.

Over the next few days, BSU, their adviser English teacher Shelby Laura, and the vice principals discussed the incident, which had become very unsettling for many of the class members. The group wanted to find a way to spread awareness about how the racial slur made them feel, which is when the club decided to host “Words Hurt.”

In October of 2019, “Words Hurt” became a mandatory assembly that BSU led and facilitated, where student leaders from other clubs like Latinos Unidos, Bridges and others talked about the power of words and how they affect other people. It was the first time an assembly was put together that the entire student body was required to attend.

This video was shown at the beginning of the “Words Hurt” assembly at Garden Grove High School.

The assembly brought attention not only from the school but from other district officials including Gabriela Mafi, a Garden Grove Unified School District superintendent.

Speaking Out Beyond the Classroom

But BSU’s momentum didn’t stop there. They continued to push the envelope as they began to question the institution that has taught them about a white America.

“All we learn about (in school) is white America, the perspective from a white man or a white woman, but mostly a white man,” Heavyn Agu said. “At school, we don’t get educated about the Black experience enough. We don’t get educated about Black individuals enough. We learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and they call it a day.”

Over an hour-long zoom call on June 8, the BSU board, accompanied by Laura, met with Walter Muneton, the district’s board president, to discuss their concerns, including their recommended changes to the curriculum, particularly in regarding the absence of accurate history lessons from kindergarten through high school graduation.

BSU’s activism also moved onto the streets. The group led several protests with More Empowering Events Please, a community organization formed by classmate Nicole Nguyen. Garden Grove’s protest on June 3 attracted 3,000 young activists.

“This is my city. This is where I live, and my eyes were opened because I was like, ‘Wow, it’s a majority of Asians and Latinos out here, and they were here standing behind us and really supporting this.’\ It really shocked me because I didn’t think that it would (have) as big of an outcome as it (has), so when I did see all the people that were there I just thought, ‘Wow … yes!’” Heavyn Agu said.

Jade Bruce, a recent high school graduate and former BSU vice president, Natalie Martinez, a recent high school graduate and former BSU secretary, and Heavyn and Sanaii Agu, plan to continue attending protests as they happen.

Finding Space for Catharsis Through Writing

With so much civil unrest, it’s important to find a way to release complicated emotions: rage, frustration, sadness or anything else that has built up inside. Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble in Santa Ana teamed up with Garden Grove High School’s BSU to help the community find catharsis through writing, as well as give BSU a platform and more attention to their work for their next-action steps toward Black Lives Matter.

The event “Holding Space: Through Writing” will be writing workshop where the community will be able to communicate and find their voice. The first “Holding Space: Through Writing” was held on June 23; the next one will be virtually on June 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with more dates to come.

As “Holding Space” moves forward, Breath of Fire will continue to support the community through engagement and participation. Breath of Fire will make adjustments to the event along the way to find more ways to be supportive and amplify the voices of those who need to be heard, said Adriana Alba, creative director for Breath of Fire.

In order to facilitate the event to keep it safe and transparent, Breath of Fire asks that participants RSVP via its website.

“Society and people are changing. It’s a whole different world and different perspective for people now. My advice for the older generation out there is to be open minded and to be accepting, because we don’t need to spread any more hate, or sexism, racism, colorism — all the -isms,” Bruce said.

As Garden Grove High’s BSU continues its activism and rides the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, Martinez asks for everyone else who’s dedicated themselves to the movement to do the same.

“I want to encourage this generation to not let this die down, because this generation is very used to two-week trends,” Martinez said. “This is not a trend, this is reality; it’s life that people have to go through every single day when they wake up. I want people to prepare themselves, and if they’re really into this, to be patient and passionate from the beginning to the end.”

Kristina Garcia is an intern for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kristinamgarcia6@gmail.com.