A Spotlight on The Philly Black Students Alliance
By Alice Stricker
“Dismantling a corrupt system is a long process that takes not one voice but thousands.”
The Constitution of the Philly Black Students Alliance (PBSA) states “We believe it is the moral obligation of every individual in the district to be actively engaged in promoting an anti-racist learning and living environment and furthermore demand that it be shown through real non-performative actions.”
The PBSA consists of a group of powerful Black students, alumni, and teachers fighting for the voices of Black students to be heard across the Philadelphia School District. The group recently held a prominent role in the racial justice protests of 2020, acting as organizers and speakers at various events. However, despite their current presence, according to PBSA Chairperson Tatyana Roldan, the group began with a quiet Zoom meeting earlier this year. The meeting consisted of a group of Black students across Philadelphia who shared similar experiences in their supposed “inclusive, non-racist schools.” They spoke of the years of racist remarks and actions they have heard and seen by their teachers and peers throughout their time in the Philadelphia School District. In that quiet Zoom meeting, these individuals decided they must take matters into their own hands. They decided to go to the Philadelphia School Board with their complaints about the overt and covert racism every Black student was experiencing in the Philadelphia School District.
When asked what the primary goal of the PBSA is, Roldan explained, “Our main goal is to dismantle the racism in our Philadelphia schools and give Black students a platform for their voices to be heard.” However, the group understands that this is no simple task and that it will take time to achieve this goal. So far they have succeeded in providing a safe space for their fellow Black Students to express their views and complaints about their time in the Philadelphia School District, planned events to unite Black Students, and spoken at School Board hearings.
One of the current projects of the PBSA is their collaboration with UrbEd, a student organization focused on city school issues. Together they are fighting to obtain voting rights for the two student representatives on the Philadelphia school board, provide training and preparation for each student representative, and allow for more accessible information on board operations. Furthermore, they are pushing for a 15-student advisory board for the young board members. This advisory board would hopefully ensure that the student representatives are representing all young people across the district. Currently, students under the age of 18 are prohibited from serving on the School Board and the student representatives that are allowed on the board, have no voting power. Having student representatives is an excellent achievement, but as it stands, it seems largely symbolic. As Roldan puts it, “The biggest problem with having a system like this is that it gives these students a false sense of representation on the board.”
Although the PBSA and UrbEd are committed to achieving real student representation, this will require a change in the Philadelphia City Charter and in the Pennsylvania School Code. This will not be easy, and according to Roldan, it has proven difficult to get their demands heard by those who have the power to make these changes. However, the Philadelphia School Board recently agreed to three out of four their demands. With their relentless work, the PBSA and UrbEd were able to obtain the 15-student advisory board, more transparency revolving around school board operations, and adequate training for new student representatives each year. However, while this is an impressive achievement, the student representatives were not granted voting rights, a key demand by these groups. As Roldan explained, the School Board said these voting rights would be too much work for the students, and that it was not a “pressing matter.” Nonetheless, while the School Board may not be fully moved yet on this issue, other city leaders are taking notice. Both Councilmember Kendra Brooks and Executive Director of the Education Law Center Deborah Gordon Klehr have expressed support for their demands and are pushing for their voices to be heard. But of course, more support is always needed.
When asked what her White peers should be doing in this moment, Roldan responded with, “my best advice would be to become an ally.” Roldan further explained that becoming an ally doesn't necessarily mean participating in protests. It can mean sharing the Philly Black Students Alliance’s posts on instagram (@phillybsa) or “using racial and societal privilege as a way to amplify” voices of the PBSA and other Black organizations. Everyone has the ability to support what the PBSA is fighting for, and everyone must contribute because, as Roldan stated, “dismantling a corrupt system is a long process that takes not one voice but thousands.”