Seniors on Black History Month Panel “Pay It Forward”

Victoria Martin ’21 wants to be able to reflect on her more than 12 years at Hutchison and know that she did what she could to make things easier for black students who came after her. Victoria was one of six seniors who participated in a candid panel about race relations this week at Hutchison to commemorate Black History Month. The other students were seniors Nia Drayton, Dakota Shelton, Camilla Johnson, Kiya Brown, and Micah Watkins.
“Ten years from now, I want to be able to say I left Hutchison better than I found it,” says Martin. For the panelists, leadership means being part of change from within. Several girls remembered how older students took them under their wings and encouraged them to “hang in there, it’s worth it.”

With graduation around the corner, Nia Drayton ’21, the current student council vice president, says Hutchison has prepared her well for college and she appreciates the opportunities afforded to her during her four years at the school. Drayton was happy to share her experiences and help the more than 100 girls who attended, both virtually and in-person, see the Hutchison journey through her eyes. “I felt I was seen and heard,” she said.

Drayton and Martin say they felt it was important to caution peers to be mindful of their words and actions because harmful words cannot be unheard. People don’t forget, says Martin, who still remembers unkind actions and words dating back to sixth grade.

That’s the sort of genuine communication that Eryka Jenkins, director of student inclusion and belonging, hoped to inspire with the panel. The students credit her with building a strong network of support for black students and providing a safe space to share concerns and then move on in a positive manner.

“The panel amplified student voices, allowing them to share with peers what it feels like to be a black girl at Hutchison,” says Jenkins. “That felt like the right message for this year’s Black History Month program.” 
Kiya Brown ’21 credits Hutchison with providing her terrific opportunities, including discovering her “true passion” – poetry. But perhaps the most valuable lesson is the chance to come into her own and “become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

“The panel was an opportunity to be ourselves and share our true, raw opinions, without feeling like we had to tiptoe around anyone, and it was well-received,” says Brown, noting that talking about sensitive issues around a predominantly non-black audience is a skill she has honed at Hutchison and one that will serve her well in college and beyond.

When she entered Hutchison in seventh grade, Brown recalls feeling like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. “I felt like I walked into a 50/50 situation where I was 50% student and 50% educator on racism and speaking for the entire black race. People would ask about me and my entire culture,” she says, admitting that it was a difficult time. Fortunately, a sophomore pulled her aside and promised her it would get better. With different schedules and a broader student body, Brown has thrived in upper school, and she now makes the effort to informally mentor middle school girls.

“I am very proud of these girls,” says Jenkins, who has been at Hutchison for five years, most recently as a health and wellness specialist in our Crain Center. “The girls in this senior class have always expressed an interest in paving the way for those who come behind them. In an incredible display of maturity, they are looking beyond their personal experiences for the greater good of our Hutchison community.”

Head of School Dr. Kristen Ring agrees. “When we say we want to develop the leaders of tomorrow, girls who speak up for themselves and navigate the complexities of our world with humility, respect, and confidence, this is what we’re talking about.”

Micah Watkins ’21 wants the girls who attended the panel to understand we all play a role in moving our communities forward. “I want my white peers to understand that they can play a role in helping us combat racism. It’s a large role, and we need everyone’s help,” added Watkins. Like Brown, she values the opportunity to get outside her comfort zone to discuss tough issues such as racism, colorism, and cultural appropriation. 

Jenkins agrees that engaging in civil discourse to share different perspectives is key to establishing trust and building community. Earlier this school year, Jenkins and visiting scholar Sarah Wilson hosted senior girls in civil discourse sessions to practice how to talk to one another about difficult issues. She believes the panel this week was a success for both the panelists and the attendees.
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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.