La Jolla High School Black Student Union strives for ‘more open-mindedness on campus and less stereotyping’

Demonstrators march in La Jolla in support of the Black Lives Matter movement June 12.

Following a summer that saw thousands take to the streets in the name of racial justice and police reform, La Jolla High School this fall will have a dedicated Black Student Union.

While there has been a BSU presence on campus in recent years, it was in partnership with M.E.Ch.A., a Chicano unity and empowerment organization, and was known as BECHA.

This year, BSU, helmed by 16-year-old Diyln Norris and faculty advisor Whitney Brooks, will push for social change on a campus that in 2019 had a student population that was 55 percent White, 28 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Black, according to the California Department of Education.

Dilyn, not typically one to step into a leadership role, was moved to act after the deaths of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a White police officer pressed his knee to his neck for about eight minutes during an arrest May 25 in Minneapolis; Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot in her home March 13 by White plainclothes officers in Kentucky; and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was pursued by three White residents and fatally shot while jogging in Georgia on Feb. 23.

“It wasn’t the first time [I have seen things like this]. I’ve seen videos, but I was tired of hearing and seeing stuff like that happen,” Dilyn said. “Watching these events, I felt really mad and at the same time, I was looking at myself and asking what can I do to push for change, to do something to support [the Black Lives Matter movement] that was going on. The recent ongoing events around the country made me want to step up. It was a big push for me to want to get involved and push for change, but I have the support of my friends and family and Ms. Brooks.”

BSU officers have been appointed, and the club is taking student member applicants, with a first meeting planned for early November. Dilyn said he would need to speak with the officers and members to determine their mission and goals.

“I would personally like to see more open-mindedness on campus and less stereotyping,” Dilyn said. “In the time I have been at La Jolla High, I’ve been called ‘whitewashed’ because I don’t act thuggish and am not athletic. That irritated and offended me, and while it only happened a few times, I want to see less ignorance at our school. People don’t realize what they say. It just happens.”

La Jolla High School
La Jolla High School’s student population in 2019 was 55 percent White, 28 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Black, according to the California Department of Education.

Off campus, he also has experienced racial profiling, he said. He recalled a recent trip with his father in Chicago in which they were driving and were pulled over “because the [police] thought we stole the car.”

Dilyn said he would like to see the La Jolla community continue the momentum that started this summer with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in town and “push for more equality.”

Brooks said she would like to see the students of color on campus come together to empower one another and “discuss the Black experience, focus on the community service, share their experiences and struggles and encourage each other to take leadership roles in the school and the community.”

At La Jolla High School, she said, “there is always a handful of Black kids,” and by having a BSU, “they can feel their image is valued in the school and their cultural experience.”

Brooks said she attended Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego and was one of three Black students. “It can be isolating,” she said.

A rough road

La Jolla High School hasn’t been without problems when it comes to race relations.

As recently as January 2018, an editorial cartoon that ran in the school’s student newspaper was criticized for depicting offensive racial stereotypes. At the time, students said the cartoon was intended as a satire of an H&M clothing advertisement in which a Black child wore a sweatshirt reading “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”

In light of a controversial cartoon depicting offensive stereotypes that was published in the Jan. 23 La Jolla High School newspaper, Hi-Tide, some representatives from Barrio Logan College Institute are calling for the resignation of Principal Charles Podhorsky.

The illustration depicted nine people wearing hooded sweatshirts with different stereotypes on them. One read “Kool Kids Klub”; another showed a Latino man with a mustache and a gap between his two front teeth and wearing a “#1 (Juan) Cool Beans” sweatshirt.

The Instagram handle @racismatljhs provides students a platform to share stories of racial insensitivity. One post from a student in the Class of 2015 detailed teachers using racial slurs in the presence of students. A student from the Class of 2021 told of a Black student being expelled after a fight with White students, but the White students were not expelled.

The path forward

La Jolla High’s current campus administration is “super supportive” of students of color and the BSU, Brooks said.

At the start of this school year, principals in the La Jolla Cluster of schools in the San Diego Unified School District attended a workshop with guest speaker Bettina Love, author of “We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

La Jolla High Principal Chuck Podhorsky said his school’s faculty “really embraces that work and dug into that as a staff to look at how we can better support our students and actively be agents of change.”

Podhorsky said he “couldn’t be prouder” of the Black Student Union and that “the thing that makes me most proud as a principal is when students step up into leadership roles and have those positive voices. … I look forward to seeing what they do.”

Further, La Jolla High English teacher Glenn Morgan is raising funds through to “immerse my 11th-grade and 12th-grade AP [Advanced Placement] English students in two novels that speak clearly to social justice issues facing African Americans and all people of color in today’s society.”

As of Nov. 1, the effort still needed $2,267 to purchase 75 copies each of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead and the 1953 U.S. National Book Award-winning “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Morgan will receive the materials only if the project is fully funded by Nov. 29.

“There’s been support, but I’ve actually gotten some appallingly ignorant private messaging about [this],” he told the La Jolla Light. “If the idea that [Black, indigenous and people of color] students should not fear for their lives every time they encounter police or see themselves represented in the education and civic life of this community [is political], then I am being political. It’s more than politics to me as an educator — it’s a moral imperative.” ◆