First Black Student Union created at Curtis High

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — This University Place school now has something it never had before, a Black Student Union. And it is thanks to three young activists.

Three students at Curtis High School decided they needed an organization as a refuge for students of color.

So, in the fall of 2020, they created the first Black Student Union in the University Place School District.

One of those students won a national scholarship devoted to activism and social change.

It likely comes as no surprise that nearly half the students in the University Place school district are white. But more than 9% are African American, too.

And that sometimes made Curtis High School an uncomfortable place for Jala Ward.

“A lot of micro-aggressions,” said Jala. “Comments about my eyes, my hair.”

For Karrington Smith.

“Questions of like my capability to achieve things,” she said.

For Monique Evans, too.

“For myself personally,” said Monique, “there were only like a couple of instances and were like, I really like recognized that I was like seen differently.”

The three friends had long had conversations about the need for a black student organization at Curtis High.

Then in May of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police officer, sparking protests that pushed the Black Lives Matter Movement to the forefront across the world.

“I think that was just like a warning to us, I guess,” said Jala, “that we needed to do something in our community to create some kind of change.”

That change blossomed into the Curtis High School Black Student Union, the first ever in University Place.

But first, they needed the administrators’ approval.

“I think that was one of their biggest concerns was like creating segregation,” said Monique. “So, that is why we opened it and we were welcome, we welcomed anyone regardless of their race.”

“And then I think we had our first meeting,” said Karrington, “I want to say like, late October, early November. And it just kind of snowballed from there.”

And they were in for a surprise.

“We also didn’t expect a lot of students that were not POC to join,” Karrington said.

But join, they did. So that mean the Black Student Union had more people than black students in it.

“Oh yeah,” said Karrington, “actually because we are a school that is predominantly white.”

Their efforts won Jala a $1,000 activism scholarship from the National Society of High School Scholars.

“Yeah, I did not expect to get that,” she said. “It was like five people (from across the country).”

Jala Ward is now at a college in Colorado. But almost certainly, the lessons of activism, of making a difference, will stay with her a lifetime.

“I feel like we’ve always been activists and advocates in some ways,” she said.

And now they have a legacy at her old high school, too.

They weren’t the only Curtis High School students organizing in the middle of a pandemic. The Asian-Pacific Student Union was launched then, too.