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Creating a Space for Belonging

Creating a Space for Belonging
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Ona Wilcox, a fifth-grade teacher at Pine Hill Elementary, saw a need within her school community and took action. Wilcox created “Belonging,” an after-school book club for elementary-age girls of African and African American descent.

A sense of belonging shapes a child’s identity and plays a crucial role in their overall well-being, said Wilcox. Being part of a group or community allows individuals to develop a sense of self, and self-worth, through shared values, experiences and connections. 

“I attended SoWashCo Schools as a student and some of the racial trauma and struggles I faced I saw still happening today 30-some years later,” Wilcox said. “I started this group to give these girls a place to be together in a community space.”

belonging students

Students: Hayat Tajudin and Liya Adefris

The after-school program aims to create an empowering space where young girls can cultivate confidence, celebrate their identity, and build a foundation for future success. Black girls, like many other marginalized groups, face unique challenges that can impact their self-esteem and overall well-being. 

“I have seen instances where classmates are telling kids as young as 6 that their skin looks like poop, resulting in them starting to hide their identity already at that young age,” Wilcox said. “Other comments classmates make regarding students' hair or names sometimes aren’t meant to be hurtful; they might be coming from a place of curiosity, but they still affect that child when they hear it. I want to give these girls the tools they need to acknowledge their feelings.”

Students are encouraged to show up to Belonging as their genuine selves and to share their stories. Students read a book together, accompanied by an affirmation for each month’s reading. The books the students read are written by authors of color and cover social topics these young girls face.

“I liked it when we read the book “Don’t Touch My Hair!” because people were always trying to touch my hair without asking,” said third-grader Evelyn Berry. “In the book that happened to her too and she told them to stop.”

“My favorite book we read was “My Skin is Beautiful” because it inspires me to love my own skin,” said first-grader Elizabeth Fomukong.

belonging student

Student: Adriana Brooks

The girls also engage in activities that help them embrace their identities. Using multi-skin tone crayons and diverse coloring pages are among their favorite crafts.

“It’s important to have skin-tone crayons and coloring pages that show people with features like theirs so they see themselves represented,” Wilcox said. “They get so excited to find a crayon that matches their skin or their friend's skin.”

Elementary school is a critical time in a child's development of confidence and self-worth. Belonging seeks to address challenges by providing a platform for positive reinforcement and community building.

“The girls are learning the healing language right now, so that when these negative or hurtful events happen they can carry that knowledge with them and communicate it with other people in the world who don’t understand,” Wilcox said. “We so often see kids in middle school and high school who have been hurting – they’re angry and don’t know how to express what they’re feeling. If you don’t address the confusion that young kids experience when they’re confronted with these comments, the confusion can turn into serious hurt and anger that requires a lot more bandaging.”

Entering its second year at Pine Hill, the club has positively impacted Belonging members. Teachers have reported that students who previously were withdrawn are now more willing to share who they are and embrace their individuality.

“I like coming here and hanging out with my friends, it's a lot of fun.” said third-grader Bethel Thomas.

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how you look,” said fifth-grader Neria Senyonga. ”What matters is the you on the inside.”

Belonging has expanded beyond Pine Hill and added new social clubs at three other SoWashCo elementary schools, Crestview, Cottage Grove and Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion. Between all four schools, there are more than 70 student members.