JAMAICA ESTATES — Adrionna DaGuillard, a senior at The Mary Louis Academy, greatly admires black women who have made a difference in society, whether it be out front or behind the scenes.
As a member of the school’s African Heritage/Caribbean Club, she has had the opportunity to learn about the contributions of women like Katherine Johnson, the NASA scientist who played a key role during the space race by calculating the trajectory needed to get Apollo 11 safely to the moon and back.
“And as a black woman working for NASA in the 1950s and 60s, she overcame boundaries and racial discrimination,” Adrionna said of the woman whose story insired the movie “Hidden Figures.”
“She really inspired me. Her story taught me that I should never let anyone or anything stop me,” Adrionna added.
The African Heritage/Caribbean Club is one of the largest organizations at The Mary Louis Academy, boasting some 40 members. Its goal is to promote African and Caribbean cultures and instill pride in student members.
For Black Catholic History Month in November, club members at this girls’ Catholic high school are renewing their goals and reviewing their reasons for joining the organization.
Senior Amara Hall, the club’s president, said she wanted to be a part of it “because I wanted a place where I can show people my culture and also expand my knowledge of other African and Caribbean cultures I wasn’t familiar with.”
She has learned a lot, and not just about culture. “I’ve learned how to approach situations differently and make sure I take other people’s feelings into consideration. Because with different backgrounds, there are different ways of life and different ways of understanding,” she explained.
Adrionna, who is also the president of the school’s Black Students Union, has been a club member since her freshman year.
“As a freshman, I was worried about not being around black students in my class. But joining clubs like this one helped me find other people who know about things that I’ve experienced as a black student and as black woman,” she recalled.
Christina Sama, the school’s psychologist, is the club’s moderator. She sees her role as that of a facilitator. “I really just want to be an additional ally to the black students, helping them to advocate for their society and helping to further educate our community,” she explained.
Just like her students, Sama has learned a lot from her club involvement, particularly about the ways minority groups have faced discrimination.
“I think for me, it was learning about the microaggressions out there; learning that language matters and where it matters. How we present ourselves and how we interact with others can make a huge difference,” she explained.
Many of the club meetings involve frank, honest talk about life experiences.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020, club members spent time consoling each other. “I was at home because COVID shut down schools,” Sarah Wilson recalled. “And I’m pretty sure I was on the phone, on FaceTime, with Amara and a couple other my friends. We were distraught.”
The George Floyd tragedy and the Black Lives Matter movement that followed inspired The Mary Louis Academy to establish the Black Students Union.
The African Heritage/Caribbean Club offers members the opportunity to learn about prominent figures in Black history.
Sarah enjoyed learning about entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919), the first black female millionaire in the U.S. “She was the first black woman in America who made her fortune from creating her own hair care products. And honestly, if it wasn’t for her, we probably wouldn’t have all these great products today,” Sarah said.
Amara pointed to baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson as someone whose life story is meaningful to her. “He really inspires me because he played baseball and I play softball. He broke the barrier for African Americans playing baseball. And right now, I am one of two African American girls on my softball team. So I really connected with him on that and I want to break barriers just like he did,” she said.
Adrionna, in addition to Katherine Johnson, also professed admiration for Kailee Scales, the first managing director of Black Lives Matter Global Action Network, who is a graduate of The Mary Louis Academy. Scales is currently CEO of Pencils of Promise, a non-profit organization that builds schools for underprivileged children in Guatemala, Ghana, and Laos.
Ann O’Hagan-Cordes, the school’s principal, said the African Heritage/Caribbean Club plays an important role on campus.
“The club members provide a safe space for our students to discuss important issues in society, exchange ideas and embrace their cultural identity,” she explained.