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3 Takeaways from a non-Black POC reflecting on Black History Month

Growing up, I distinctly remember understanding the importance of Black History Month — at least on a surface level. I’m lucky enough to have had a Black teacher as early as elementary school — something I know many children of color can’t say today. Her name was Mrs. Pryor. It’s because of Mrs. Pryor that Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” became a couple of my childhood anthems.

Between my inherent nerdy love of history and reading, and my luck to have had some outstanding public school history teachers, I remember learning and teaching myself a lot about African-American history. I remember reading about the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights Movement and key leaders throughout the last 400 years: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — beyond what was in our textbooks.

As a Latinx woman, I have always felt an appreciation and reverence for the historical events and figures recognized during Black History Month, given that the histories of Black and Brown communities are inextricably connected. As I got older though and eventually moved from the classroom to the workplace, what I didn’t know was how to still authentically and actively celebrate Black History Month.

Luckily, I’m part of a generation that is unafraid of seeking knowledge by asking questions and learning from people different than ourselves. I also work at SMASH at the Kapor Center where I cross paths with #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy on a daily basis. At the Kapor Center, we pride ourselves in having an office that reflects the diversity of our nation. And we don’t just reflect it — we celebrate it!

This February, Kapor Center employees formed a Black History Month Committee and organized an excellent series of internal and external events throughout the month, giving staff the chance to participate and celebrate in a variety of ways. I was asked to write a post at the end of the month reflecting on my experience. So I went into Black History Month this year with more intentionality than ever before. And it was for the better.

Here are my 3 takeaways on celebrating Black History Month as a non-Black person of color.

The Black community shares a history of resilience.

I’ve learned that showing up is one of the biggest actions an ally can take in supporting the Black community. Two events I had the opportunity to attend were the inaugural My Brother’s Keeper/MBK Rising! Summit in Oakland and the inaugural Coalition of Black Excellence (CBE) Summit in San Francisco.

The My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) Initiative launched in 2014 under President Barack Obama in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Its goal is to address the opportunity gaps faced by young underrepresented men of color.

As one of the first supporters of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the Kapor Center was invited to be a part of the host committee for the first MBKRising! Summit. Our founder, Freada Kapor Klein, was part of the White House brainstorming in 2013 and our Chief of Community Engagement, Cedric Brown, attended the February 2014 kickoff.

Fast forward 5 years, over 650 young men of color were seated at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland for 3 days of inspiring workshops, panels, and speakers focused on building community and engaging in critical dialogue.

President Obama and the Warrriors’ Steph Curry at the MBK Rising! Town Hall. SMASH was invited to hear them speak.

Fifteen of our SMASH Alumni were invited to the summit where they had the opportunity to sit in on a seminal town hall-style conversation between President Obama and the Warriors’ Steph Curry. They answered questions, imparted their wisdom, threw in a few jokes for good measure and reinforced their support of the young people in the audience.

The strength resilience of these women was inspirational.

The most poignant part for me was the conversation that took place between singer John Legend and three women: Rev. Wanda Johnson, Dr. Sybrina Fulton, and Congresswoman Lucy McBath, all Black mothers who lost their sons in senseless shootings. I left inspired by their strength to take their families’ tragedy and channel it toward work to make sure that no more mothers have to experience such pain.

On the other side of the bridge, the resilient spirit was still just as palpable at the CBE Summit, especially as demonstrated by Black women. The summit sought to bring together and activate the Black community across industries for the purpose of education and networking. I attended with the intention of listening and learning from the different keynotes and panelists and I left inspired by the stories of resilience from the Black women that spoke.

What a treat to hear from some of the brilliant black women leaders in the Bay Area.

From San Francisco Mayor London Breed to Representative Malia Cohen, to Lateefah Simon of the Akonadi Foundation to TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot to the Kapor Center’s own Dr. Cynthia Overton and many more, I was in awe of the passion and vision they all had. I heard from venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders on various panels, all Black women, all sharing valuable insights and revolutionary ideas that it still boggles my mind that they’re still the most undervalued and least likely to get funding by traditional VCs. Instead of seeing this as a setback, these women turned it into an opportunity — if that’s not resilience, I don’t know what is.

Black history is vast.

I actually began February on PTO — a group of friends and I had planned a trip to Nashville. In the midst of the honky tonks, cowboy boots and gentrification, we found remnants of the city’s Black history and community. One of the first things we did in Nashville was seek out hot chicken, a local specialty. Originally, we were told to go to Hattie B’s. Luckily, we did our homework and went to Bolton’s, a black-owned restaurant, instead. Watch Ugly Delicious (Episode 6) on Netflix to understand why.

We also made a point of visiting Woolworth’s on 5th, the site where a young John Lewis and other student activists staged lunch counter sit-ins as part of the Civil Rights movement. It was a sobering experience sitting down in a restaurant that would’ve turned away four out of the five of us back in the 1960s. On the other hand, the gratitude we felt for the freedom fighters that made it possible for us to dine there made the pineapple upside-down cake bread pudding the waitress recommended that much sweeter.

At Woolworth’s on 5th in Nashville, TN where John Lewis and other student activists staged lunch counter sit-ins as part of the Civil Rights movement.

When I got back from Nashville, my education continued as I got to learn about the personal histories of some of my Black coworkers via the weekly brown-bag lunch series organized by our BHM committee titled Conversations on Blackness. The first conversation I attended focused on multiracial families. This conversation especially resonated with me since I am Latinx on my mother’s side and white on my father’s. Everyone’s story was different, yet the same feeling of trying to reconcile one’s identity across two cultures rang true across my colleagues who were on the panel. It also rang true to me.

I left not only knowing more about my coworkers but feeling more connected to them too.

Which brings me to my final takeaway…

Black is beautiful.

Only recently did I come to understand just how revolutionary this statement is. It gained popularity in the 1960s, yet its roots stem further back to the 1930s and the Pan-African racial identity movement. It’s amazing how internalized eurocentric standards for beauty remain in communities of color — I still remember the Crema de Concha Nacar my grandmother used to lather on her face to lighten her complexion. My mom was not of the same mindset, so that legacy wasn’t passed on to me, thank god!

And fortunately for the world, this mindset is changing on a larger scale. No more was it evident than at the 2nd Annual Black Joy Parade and Festival in Oakland! The Kapor Center BHM Committee showed up strong and proudly swagged out with signs proclaiming the messages, “This is What Black in Tech Looks Like,” “Brilliance is Everywhere,” and other positive affirmations.

The Kapor Center Black History Month Committee at the Black Joy Parade in Oakland.

Marching ahead and behind the Kapor Center down Broadway were a variety of organizations, ranging from dance troupes, social justice activists, tech company ERGs, musical groups, Corvette enthusiasts, the Black Cowboy Association — all unapologetically displaying their joy in the heart of Oakland.

The music and dancing continued among the dozens of vendors selling their artwork, beauty products, and clothing, and promoting their causes and businesses. One moment that stuck with me was when the group I was with (all Black women, including my girlfriend) stopped by a booth selling products specifically made for African-American hair. The thoughtfulness and pride the vendor took talking about the all-natural ingredients that would accentuate, not deny, their curls was beautiful to witness.

My colleagues share their personal histories growing up in the Bay.

My 2019 Black History Month celebration concluded with the last of the Kapor Center Conversations on Blackness panels titled “Born in the Bay.” Four of my colleagues talked about their childhoods growing up in the Bay — from Oakland to Berkeley and just outside the immediate area. They talked about the nostalgia of the community they called home and the hurt of seeing it change, through gentrification and displacement, before their eyes over the years. What was undeniable to see was that despite these disruptions, they still glowed with pride in the legacy they carried forth of the irrepressible Oaktown culture deeply informed by its Black residents.

Black History is American history, which makes it my history too — to witness, to learn from, to listen to and to celebrate. To other non-Black allies, I hope you join me in celebrating Black History, not just next February, but every day of the year. Despite the pain of their history, past, and present, the Black diaspora continues to emerge stronger, more joyful in its self-validation and determined to be more resilient than the day before.

What’s more beautiful than that?