A sisterhood of high school seniors came together on Friday, to be their school’s first graduating class.
50 young women from the all-girl charter high school, Brooklyn Emerging Leaders Academy (BELA), received their diplomas in Bed-Stuy, where their school is the only all-girls high school in the neighborhood. All graduating students are college-bound, with $900,000 in merit scholarships. Three-quarters of the students will be first-generation college students. Their achievements are what the founders of BELA, Nicia Fullwood and Shannon Riley, had hoped for when they set out to create this school.
“Shannon and I worked at another school in downtown Brooklyn,” Nicia Fullwood says. “A lot of our young people were traveling from Bed-Stuy to go to school in downtown Brooklyn.”
The families of their then-students told Fullwood and Riley how they would like to see a similar school in Bed-Stuy. Fullwood thought it would be good for those girls to attend an all-girls school in the neighborhood they were growing up in. BELA first opened in the Fall of 2017, co-locating with two public schools at 125 Stuyvesant Avenue.
The elements of BELA include an international baccalaureate program, a STEAM program, weekly wellness classes, and a mentorship program where about 12 students are assigned to a faculty member, who guides them through their four years of high school. As it says on its website, BELA’s mission is “to empower each young woman to be the best version of herself. Through a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, service-learning initiatives, and a commitment to cultivating a spirit of ownership within each young woman, BELA students will attend and graduate from college.”
“As a school, we’re deeply grounded in our core values,” says Fullwood. “That’s sisterhood, scholarship, strength, and service. We start every morning with a sisterhood circle, which is an opportunity for us to gather as a community and talk about why we’re here, and the rewriting of the narrative of what it means to be a Black and Brown young woman in Bedford-Stuyvesant.”
Radha Radkar, the department leader of Ethnic Studies who also teaches 10th grade ELA, speaks warmly about the sisterhood aspect at BELA.
“There’s something almost mysterious that happens,” Radkar explains. “It’s like, ‘we’re all in this together and we’re all going to make it through this together’. That “this” changes over time.”
Indeed it did. This graduating class not only experienced being BELA’s first students, but also the upheaval from the COVID19 pandemic, and doing both hybrid and remote learning at different times during this past school year. This took away opportunities for the students to experience their sisterhood circles while sitting on rugs in their classrooms.
“We needed to pivot,” Radkar says about those adjustments. “I think it was a really hard adjustment for all of us. Our spaces are such a big part of why our classes feel so different, and they end up being taken away. But for me as a teacher, I didn’t let go of the principles of community, collaboration, those four core values.”
These students also faced the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter rallies.
“That was a really intense and tender moment for our community,” Radkar says. “We’re always giving kids space to lead the conversations around these kinds of discussions. We held school-wide Zoom calls to just process, and that’s just the BELA way. We give young people to be heard, and to express what they need and want for themselves and each other.”
“It was definitely a challenging year,” Fullwood says. “But we leaned on each other to be able to get through it.”
Friday’s graduation ceremony marked both the end of the challenging year and the end of a four-year journey through BELA for its inaugural class. Fullwood remarks that the sisterhood that had been building up during the past four years showed its strength as the 50 young women came together one final time. Their valedictorian, Nyasia Bailey, who will be going to Sarah Lawrence College, made an emphasis on their unity throughout the ups and downs they all faced.
“As sisters do, we leaned on each other for support,” Bailey told the crowd during the ceremony. “Through it all, we had to speak more, participate more, learn more, grow more, together. We are a sisterhood of dynamic characters who have formed extended lifelines. This was a really trying four years and I’m proud of us for getting to the end of the beginning, together.”
The ceremony’s keynote speaker, Taiia Smart Young, author of “Famous! How to Be the Star of Your Show: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Embracing Her Fabulous Self”, and who is a sorority sister of a board member, Brenda Canty, added to BELA’s message of strength and sisterhood by encouraging the girls to find five mentors to help them navigate through life.
“I believe we need more than one,” Smart Young tells Bklyner. “You need five people who play a different role in your life. I don’t believe in the concept of being self-made. None of us are self-made; we all need someone else. So that’s really what my speech was about.”
One significant element to Friday’s ceremony is that it took place one day before Juneteenth, which was celebrated for the first time as a federal holiday this year. Although BELA’s community marked the date a week earlier, it still was special for the graduates to celebrate the day before an important date in Black American history. Even Smart Young says it was a “cherry on the cake”.
“It’s nice that our country as a whole is starting to recognize some of these things and reckon with our past,” Fullwood says. “I am just humbled that the young women that graduated from BELA will hopefully be sitting at those decision-making tables one day and making sure that the narratives of all folks are at the tables, and all voices are heard when decisions are made.”
Bailey encouraged her sisters to do this as she wrapped up her valedictorian speech on Friday,
“As black and brown women, being in the walls of BELA was a safe haven for many of us. We were spoiled, allowed to speak freely, and given each of our own opportunities to shine. It has been a space that has allowed me, and all of us to grow as young women. Don’t expect this entirely in the outside world, but demand it. We are forces to be reckoned with. I see all my sisters’ strengths shine through and I’m excited to see us run the world in the near future, together!”