The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

The student news site of Edwardsville High School

Tiger Times

Family, Found: Black Student Union Begins Forging Legacy of Togetherness

Que Thomas presents at BSU’s Visual Arts and Music Within Black Culture presentation, Feb. 22.

A week before Black Student Union’s most ambitious event in several years, the club’s president, junior Que Thomas, was perched on a stool at the front of a classroom, gripping her notebook and trying to figure out just what they were going to do about the balloons.

It was Feb. 15. The event in question was the club’s Visual Arts and Music Within Black Culture presentation, and it was fast approaching. BSU members dotted the array of desks in front of Thomas’ stool, torsos twisting slightly to face her as she cycled between sitting and wandering mindlessly around the room, leading a discussion. Ideas and questions pinballed from Thomas, to her notebook, to the members and back to her. Steadily, the final details were polished.

The balloons – they had to get the balloons right.

Red, yellow or green? Let’s do all three. Get some black ones, too. Should they frame the gym doors, where the audience will enter? Or should we tie them to cafeteria chairs? Both, if we can. Who can get them? No, not you, you’re already bringing the napkins. How many? That’s a lot for us to blow up. Wait no, they need to float! Does anyone have one of those machine things, the kind that pumps helium? Your uncle might? Text me if he’ll let you borrow it.

Red, yellow, black, green – the colors of the club’s logo, borrowed from the Pan-African flag. The evening’s itinerary, planned and replanned until foolproof. The members, each assigned a specific role in the presentation’s moving clockwork.

What looked like irrational perfectionism was much more. In a week, the community would size up the young club for the first time, and every detail, all the way down to the balloons, had to exude excellence. BSU had something to prove.

“People from the district are going to be there, the people who made Black Experience [in America],” Thomas told her clubmates, voice clear and gaze determined. “We need to show them we’re worth it.” 


Part I: Bringing Black Student Union Back to Life

Que Thomas is a textbook Type-A personality. That’s the first thing you’ll notice when you watch her lead. She’s not bossy, just detail-oriented, sporadically glancing down at her notebook to make sure meetings are on track, careful not to forget any tiny thing. She declined an in-person interview, opting to email instead. She wanted to be able to double-check her words, knowing she could organize her thoughts better if she wasn’t put on the spot. Thomas is deliberate – the kind of person who does things as flawlessly as she can, whenever she can.

“Quilonda’s my cousin, so I know that she’s a really driven person,” said senior DeVonte Hairston, a BSU member. “Growing up in church, because we go to church together, she’s always sung and done things like that. She’s always been driven. If she wants to do something, she’s going to try to accomplish it.”

Maybe that’s what Assistant Principal Mary Miller saw in Thomas last school year, when she asked her to bring BSU back to life.

“[Mrs. Miller] brought it to my attention that [BSU] used to be up-and-running, but due to graduates and just time itself passing, the club died down and went away,” Thomas said. “I took the opportunity, as I particularly find interest in leading and helping my peers, especially ones of color.”

Thomas wanted to give all students a place to learn, to experience unity and open-mindedness, and she hoped to create a space for Black and Brown students to find community. In October 2023, she achieved that goal. BSU had its first meeting. Word-of-mouth and mentions in the morning announcements brought students to the gathering. Social studies teacher Erin Kloster sponsored the group. Thomas led it.

“I like doing this club because I know I’m helping and educating so many people, even if it’s in a small way,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of change that I want to see in school districts as far as educating on Black history, having more diversity clubs to encourage students to learn about different backgrounds and be open to more things, and so much more. But I know that if you want change, sometimes you have to be the change, and that’s really what this is.”

That’s the thing that takes a little longer to notice about Thomas: Behind the all-business-all-the-time appearance she assumes as a leader, she cares deeply. She revived BSU to give her peers experiences she didn’t get. The Visual Arts and Music presentation was “a dream come true” for her because she “never had the opportunity to go to one throughout [her] years in District 7 schooling.” 

And Thomas’ passion, her determination to meet the needs that no one met for her, it’s a little infectious. Hang out around her for too long, and you might find yourself unable to leave. 

At least, that’s what happened to sophomore Kynnedi Cooper. At the beginning of the school year, she was Thomas’ friend. When BSU started in October, she joined as a member. Now, she’s about to enter her fourth month as vice president.

“Oh my gosh, the friendship I have with Que,” Cooper said. “It started outside of BSU, but with BSU it grew so much more because now we talk more, and we’re actually learning about each other as we go.”

They balance each other out, each willing to take some stress off of the other’s shoulders and distribute it equally.

“It’s hard doing a thing like this by yourself,” Thomas said. “She helps me with planning, leading meetings, spreading word about events and club meetings, important scholarship opportunities and more. Basically, whenever I feel a bit drained or burnt out she is there, and when she feels that way, I am there.”

As vice president, Cooper takes notes during meetings and sends Schoology and GroupMe messages out most Sundays and Wednesdays, reminding members of meeting dates, suggested materials and more. Perhaps most importantly, she matches Thomas’ passion. She puts time into the club, and it pays off each time she sees BSU’s impact on the school.

“To have this type of crowd in a predominantly White school is a progression in the community,” Cooper said. “We’re not just stuck in one place. The principal, he’s all with us on BSU and everything. The fact that everybody was able to help us set everything up when we needed it, and the flexibility and cooperation between the staff and the group itself, it shows growth.”

Exhibit B of the power in Thomas’ passion is Guidance Counselor Cierra Gater. In August, Ms. Gater was facing her first full year as a counselor at EHS, working hard to keep up with a heavy caseload and clinging onto every rare minute of free time she got. But when BSU started, she began sacrificing a few hours, coming to a few meetings, and something told her she should keep coming back. 

Kynnedi Cooper presents at BSU’s Visual Arts and Music Within Black Culture presentation, Feb. 22.

“I felt something. It wasn’t even what I saw,” Ms. Gater said. “Sometimes you get that tap on your shoulder and you don’t know who it’s coming from, but it’s like, ‘You got an extra hour. You got an extra minute.’ I see the smiles on their faces when I walk in. I feel the joy that they feel when I’m there.” 

Around late-January, Ms. Gater officially took over Mrs. Kloster’s position as BSU’s sponsor. Thomas said Mrs. Kloster was busy sponsoring multiple other clubs already, and they all “made the group decision” of handing over the role. Ms. Gater saw how hard Thomas was working and couldn’t turn her down. She remembers having a conversation with herself, thinking, “Okay, she wants this bad, and she’s asking for help. Let me be the one to help her.”

Since then, she’s met the responsibilities of sponsor head-on, planning out the last months of the school year and looking to collaborate with other activism clubs on campus so BSU doesn’t become “invisible.” Throughout it all, she’s found a hard-working partner in Thomas.

“As a leader, I can see she is passionate about this,” Ms. Gater said. “The other great thing about specifically me working with her is, for some reason, our brains are sometimes interlocked. We’ll sit down, and we’ll have an impromptu meeting, and we’ll both pull our notebooks out, and we’ll have the exact same points we want to talk about.”

The three of them, Thomas, Cooper and Ms. Gater, comprise BSU’s core. They’re the leaders, all devoted to turning ideas into action and making lasting change. It’s stressful, demanding and time-consuming, and yet, there’s no way they could quit now – and they don’t want to.

“I will say leading the club can be hard because it’s difficult to get students motivated and involved in a club that we just got up and running,” Thomas said. “But the group we have so far works together in many ways to spread what we do, and to make it fun even through the difficult times.”


Part II: ‘My Little Knucklehead Cousins’

Around Thomas, Cooper and Ms. Gater, a family has amassed. Any member will tell you that’s what EHS’s Black Student Union is, before anything else: family. On Thursday, Feb. 15, exactly one week before the Visual Arts and Music presentation, the members stayed familial, even as they faced down their most demanding challenge yet.

Thomas welcomed everyone into the room with little compliments of outfits, hair and makeup. The members plopped down into desks, tired from the school day, and began offhandedly discussing where they would pick up food after. The first few minutes of the meeting involved the entire group trying desperately to convince Hairston, the designated MC of the presentation, to put on a bald cap and do his best Steve Harvey impression when the time came. He respectfully denied, promising to wear a suit, that’s all. They joked that he was embarrassed. “Leave the man alone,” someone called out, grinning, and the group laughed and moved on.

Everyone in the room knew how difficult the task at hand was going to be. The plan was to arrive and prepare everything only one hour before doors opened to the public. There was food to be laid out and a Promethean Board to be rolled into the gym for PowerPoint presentations on Black history. Thomas would have to warm up her voice to sing “The Black National Anthem,” and sophomore LaZarria Thomas – unrelated to Que – would need one last rehearsal with her Afro-Kuumba dance crew before they performed their afroetics and hip-hop routines. 

The rest of the members would be busy double-checking that everything was in place, ensuring the sound-system worked and, of course, inflating the balloons.

And yet, they all took that moment together at the beginning of the Feb. 15 meeting to relax, to tease Hairston and to be themselves, together. It was homey, insular, familial. 

“People can be open about things,” Hairston said. “People can talk about things that we don’t usually talk about in class or anything like that. The moment I first went in and talked and just had a good time, I was like, this is something I really want to do, and I think other people should do it, too.”

As a Black student in a predominantly White school, Hairston often finds himself on his “Ps and Qs” around the general student body, for fear of being looked at differently. When he arrives at a BSU meeting, he can drop that.

“It really just feels like a family,” Hairston said. “I’m with my regular family. I can be myself. I don’t feel like I have to be in a box or anything with them.”

It’s an accepting space, and not just for the students involved. Ms. Gater said people of color are often taught to “code-switch” to make those around them more comfortable. Her tone, vernacular, style and hair are all things that she has found herself code-switching throughout her life, but she doesn’t feel that pressure in BSU. “We can say those funny phrases and we get it,” she said. There’s no fear of judgment. She knows the club will understand. She can give the kids a little tough love, and she knows that they know that it’s really just love. 

“They enjoy the bullying,” Ms. Gater said. “It’s like being around family, a bunch of my little cousins and nieces and nephews, and they need a little structure.”

Junior Rahsaan Shepherd, a member of BSU since October, said that the club has not only given him an accepting space, but it’s made him a more accepting individual. He thinks more critically, is more aware of his surroundings and treats people with more respect.

“Now that I’ve joined, I’ve taken an approach to actually analyze what I say to somebody because I know it will have an impact,” Shepherd said. “Whenever you learn the history of how people were treated back in the day, it kind of ties into today because you think more about, ‘Oh, this person was treated like this back then. We should try to strive away from that in the future.’”

That accepting, familial atmosphere also helps BSU to be productive.

“You can’t do it alone,” said junior Shawn Mitchell, a BSU member since January. “You’ve got to come together as one and get the work done. It makes the process faster, too”

Mitchell gestured to the decorations, food and Black history posters sitting on a nearby cafeteria table in anticipation of the audience’s arrival.

“All this stuff over here, you can’t do this alone,” he said. “We’ve got everybody working together.”

They all lean on each other, especially on their leaders, unafraid to ask for anything they need. In the hour before the presentation started, Ms. Gater was approached constantly. How do we tie these balloons onto those chairs, Ms. Gater? Where do we find the Promethean Board? When is the food coming? Does my makeup look weird, Ms. Gater? Do you have any lotion?

She laughed every time, then sighed, shook her head and muttered, “Those are my little knucklehead cousins.”

When 6 p.m. hit, there were only about five people sitting in the bleachers. This was a reality the young club had prepared for. “Tonight’s presentation might not be packed. We’ve accepted that,” Ms. Gater had said earlier. They knew they made an impact just by getting those few people there, by going beyond the planning stage and proving that they could make an event like this happen. 

“The fact that it’s not just talk, we’re not all bark – that’s what I love,” Cooper said. “If we’re just saying stuff and we’re not actually doing it, how much of a difference are we really making? The fact that we’re actually taking action just proves how much we care about it, which is going to help people get more interested and care about it more as well.”

BSU’s hopes for the evening had already been fulfilled when those five people arrived. When a whole hoard of audience members flowed into the cafeteria 10 minutes later – well, that was just an added bonus. 

Students, children, grandparents and couples, so many that a line formed outside the gym doors, slowly made their way to their seats. Cooper smiled, calling it “heartwarming.” Rows of bleachers filled up quickly. The entire club huddled in the hallway with Ms. Gater, and finally, the culmination of months of growth began.

Guidance Counselor ierra Gater gives opening remarks at BSU’s Visual Arts and Music Within Black Culture presentation, Feb. 22.

Ms. Gater said the opening statements, before passing off the mic to MC Hairston. He introduced Thomas, who belted “The Black National Anthem” to massive applause. There was a brief presentation on the origins of Black History Month, then junior Mihlali Kapatamoyo talked about moving from Zambia to America, and the new language, foods, people, and clothing he found here. He showed the audience the Zambian shoes he was wearing. “Some people say Zambia doesn’t have clean water, clean food,” Kapatamoyo said. But the city he’s from, he told them, has skyscrapers, stores similar to Walmart and even KFCs. 

After Kapatamoyo, the afro-kuumba dancers took the floor, with dots and lines painted on their faces in traditional patterns. Drum-heavy songs reverberated around the gym as the dancers performed their afroetics routine.

LaZarria Thomas and her Afro-Kuumba dance crew perform at BSU’s Visual Arts and Music Within Black Culture presentation, Feb. 22.

“It feels good because I really don’t get to do things like this here,” said LaZarria, the student who volunteered to bring the dance crew to the event. “It feels nice to bring something new to the school.”

Then, Hairston led four audience volunteers in a round of Family Feud-style Black History trivia, in which the winners received Starbucks gift cards, before the dancers came back for their hip-hop routine. The presentation ended with the entire audience on the gym floor, performing the largest group “Wobble” EHS has seen since homecoming. Walking out of school that night, Thomas felt like she had witnessed the beginning of change for both EHS and BSU.

Now, the club is looking ahead. Thomas would like to host a similar event next year, hopefully even better than this year’s presentation. “This year was a learning experience,” she said. In terms of meeting-to-meeting goals, the club wants to make the student body more aware of the fact that BSU is not just for Black students. They welcome everybody – that’s what makes them a family.

“I think because of the dynamics of how the world is set up and how it’s been set up for hundreds of years, words like ‘Black Student Union’ can be aggressive to some. It can be scary,” Ms. Gater said. 

But to her, it’s never too late to learn about the people around you. 

“The world looks like us,” she said. “When you walk out into the world, you’re going to run into another Ms. Gater. You’re gonna run into another DeVonte. You might have a Que as your boss. The world looks like us. They talk like us. They walk like us. So, it’s never too late to learn a little more and to be around this type of atmosphere.”

And by intentionally creating a second family for anyone who happens to stumble into a meeting, they’re going to show EHS that they’re worth learning about.

“When you go into it with that mind-frame to say, ‘Hey, this group welcomes everybody and we want people to come in and learn more about our culture,’ then we automatically treat each other like family,” Ms. Gater said.

She gestured to Hairston, who was standing nearby.

“This is my little cousin, whether I want him to be or not,” she said. “If I see him out on the streets, he’s my little cousin there, too. Nothing changes.”