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Iowa City West High students start celebrating Black History Month

Teacher, students who launched Black Student Union want to see Black history taught

Student Nadeen Mohammed hands tape Friday to teacher Amira Nash to prepare for a mural that will be hung on the front of
Student Nadeen Mohammed hands tape Friday to teacher Amira Nash to prepare for a mural that will be hung on the front office doors at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Students Ruba Ahmed-Abdelmutalab, 16, and Nadeen Mohammad, 17, spent Friday afternoon decorating the main office doors of Iowa City West High School with an image of a Black woman with an Afro.

On her shirt are pictures of Black historical figures, some with Iowa connections, in recognition of February as Black History Month.

“It sends a clear message that we value our Black students and that Black Lives Matter here,” said Amira Nash, a Social Studies and English Language Learner teacher at West High.

“She has dark skin and this Afro that demonstrates she’s unapologetic about her blackness. It’s important we celebrate unapologetically and support our Black students,” Nash said.

Throughout this week, each West High homeroom will decorate its classroom door in honor of a Black historical figure like Toni Morrison, a novelist; Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells helped further medical research; Nina Simone, an American singer-songwriter in the 1960s; and John Lewis, a former U.S. representative in Georgia and civil rights activist.

“We thought it was a really good way to involve students and help them learn about these people,” Ruba said.

“I’m hoping people will see that person and want to learn more, be interested in what that person has accomplished,” Nadeen said.

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At the end of the month, students will vote on the best-decorated doors. Students in online learning will decorate a door virtually. The winners will get prizes.

This is only one of the activities students in the school’s new Black Student Union club have organized for Black History Month.

During the second and third week of February, Ruba and Nadeen will host a virtual scavenger hunt for students to learn more about the history of Black Muslims in America.

Ruba and Nadeen did a similar presentation last month for Iowa City schools’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Learning.

Ruba, who is a Black Muslim, said she wasn’t taught about the history of Black Muslims in America in school.

They wanted to educate themselves and others on Black Muslims and how they’ve been treated in America, Nadeen said.

Nadeen immigrated to the United States seven years ago from Sudan. Before that, she had never had a white teacher.

“It was a whole shift to go from Black teachers I can relate to to a completely white school,” Nadeen said.

Black Student Union

Over the summer, Nash hosted students — at their request — who wanted to learn more about Black history in the United States.

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She and another teacher also hosted Black Healing Spaces, a time for the teachers to check in with their students during the Black Lives Matter protests.

Nash said she never had a Black teacher when she was in school in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, and West High has only two Black teachers, which doesn’t match the student demographics at the school.

“It’s important for students to see an adult who looks like them and be able to process those feelings,” Nash said.

Nash wanted to continue that momentum with the students by forming a Black Student Union, which 15 students are actively a part of. She hopes students through the club can build friendships and encourage each other academically.

Three Iowa City elementary schools and Northwest Junior High also launched Black Student Unions this year.

Ruba hopes the Black Student Union helps her Black peers feel heard and connected with each other. She wants to see Black people making an impact, she said.

Nash and the students could also see it leading to a creation of a Black History class at the high school.

“It’s really tough that it’s missing from the curriculum,” Nash said.

Spring trimester, West is offering its first ethnic studies class on power, privilege and identity.

The class has been in the works for a couple of years, and Nash hopes after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests more students will be interested.

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“I think our district is clearly moving in the direction where we want to include cultural diversity in everything we do,” she said.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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