“I Don’t Want People in the Future to Hurt”: Kiyonnah Bell Speaks on Community, School Activism

Brynn Fitzsimmons

9/15/2021- Kansas City, Missouri

An Unfiltered Reality of Black America through the Eyes of Us

by the Van Horn High School Black Student Union

More than six months after school administration refused to show their Black History Month video, Kiyonnah Bell, one of the founding members of the Black Student Union at Van Horn High School in Independence, Missouri said her school hasn’t given up—and she hopes students at other schools will hear their story and feel inspired to form similar unions and push for change.

“I have a passion for my people. I love my people, and I remember what it felt like to be silenced, and it hurt me, and I’m still hurting today,” she said, when asked what connects the various facets of her work. “And I know my ancestors hurt, and I know I don’t want people in the future to hurt,” she said.

Bell, who now works with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) KC, recently spoke at the Teach Truth Rally and March in Kansas City, Missouri on August 28, 2021, which centered on teaching truth in schools and pushing back against proposed legislation banning critical race theory, the 1619 Project and other curricula that seeks to undo the whitewashing of history in K-12 schools.

Independence School District Refuses to Show Video

In February 2021, students from the Black Student Union at Van Horn High School in Independence School District put out a video in honor of Black History Month. The video, created at the request of school administration, was meant to be shown during school assembly. The final video, available on YouTube, was about 15 minutes long and entitled “An Unfiltered Reality of Black America through the Eyes of Us.”

“We were denied to show the video to the school by our principal and our superintendent, stating that the video was basically too progressive and it’ll make the students and the parents and some of the teachers uncomfortable,” Bell explained.

Administrators refused to show the video, claiming it was too long for assembly. Students pushed back, saying the interviews they had to include required more time. Ultimately, a TEDX Talk was shown in place of their video.

Members of the Black Student Union said the decision was an act of censorship and began a petition calling for justice. Members also participated in a panel discussion on the topic, hosted by SURJ.

Black Student Union: Future Directions and Advice

Bell said conversations between the still active Black Student Union and Van Horn High School administration are ongoing. She said that before graduating last spring, she worked to tie Black student groups at all three Independence School District schools and improve relationships and dialogue between those groups and the school administration.

“(The goal was) that the decisions that were being made about the students could then be run by other students, instead of just being made by the teachers…(when) this affects students and how we learn and how we thrive in school,” she said. “We are doing our best to become a part of the decision making processes.”

Although she herself has graduated, she is also continuing her own activism through work with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) KC. She recently spoke at the Teach Truth Rally and March, speaking on the importance of racial justice in education.

She said she hopes to see not only Black students continue to come together not only at Van Horn High School but in other local schools. While she said theirs was the first Black Student Union in the area, she said she hopes others are inspired to take similar action.

She said one of the most important parts of starting a Black Student Union like the one she co-founded with her sister was a strong support system. She said her sister initially came to her about the idea of the union, and that her support has been what helped her through the process of figuring out what worked for the group.

“Have somebody behind you that’s so strong-willed, strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-gutted, somebody that will not take no for an answer—period,” she said. “Have that community…keep them as close as possible.”

She also said the trial and error process of starting the Black Student Union and finding ways of bringing people together was often difficult. But she encouraged students working to form similar groups not to give up.

“We did not give up,” she said. “It is hard. You will get retaliation…and that’s okay. As long as your message is right and you believe in it, you’ll work hard forever. So just keep doing it.”

Published on: 9/15/2021