“Baby, remember you’re important.” That’s what Aaron Perry heard everyday as he left the house for school as a child. And he believed it. Today he’s “living up to that legacy.” Mr. Perry is one of five history makers showcased last Wednesday at the Memorial High event, “History in our Eyes,” a panel of African American firsts. Hosted by Andrea Jones, Memorial High’s Multicultural Student Coordinator and Black Student Union advisor, this panel consisted of trailblazers who tapped into their greatness while ignoring negative narratives around people of color that can create barriers to success.
On that panel was Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes—the first African American to be elected into his position, and only the second Black person to serve in a constitutional office; Rep. Sheila Stubbs is the first African American elected to the state Legislature from Dane County; Carolyn Stanford Taylor is the first African American Superintendent of Schools at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; Vanessa McDowell is the first African American CEO of the YWCA of Greater Madison; and Aaron Perry, one of Time magazine’s 50 most influential people of 2018, and founder of Rebalance Life Wellness Association, an easy-to-access, free healthcare facility for men inside J.P. Hair Design barbershop on Madison’s south side.
From the audience, BSU students posed a range of questions that dug into motivation, inspiration and set backs, allowing these history-makers to illustrate to the standing-room-only auditorium that the only limitation to greatness is yourself.
In response, Mr. Barnes explained how he was inspired by attending a Historically Black College and University located on a residence of a former slave owner, and by friends he lost to gun violence. Ms. Stanford Taylor talked about how she and her siblings were the first to attend an all-white Chicago grade school. Ms. McDowell shared how she was told she would never make it into UW Madison by a high school counselor, but did. Ms. Stubbs, who was also motivated by attending an HBCU, was stopped by police on suspicion of “selling drugs” while canvassing with family in a west side Madison neighborhood and went on to win the election by a huge margin. Mr. Perry never doubted his greatness and moved through life believing it was his to have.
“It’s great to hear young people and see their fire and dedication from madison who want to hear stories and see representation of their history that they probably don’t get it their natural history classrooms,” says Ms. McDowell. “They’re our next leaders, we need to encourage them to be trailblazers.”
C.J Green and Cooper Daniel are 10th grade BSU members who plan to follow the lead. “It was inspiring to be honest,” said C.J., who also grabbed the opportunity to assist Ms. Stubbs with cumbersome totes, and then stuck by her side. “I myself have struggles, but to see other people have been through the struggles gives me more hope and makes me want to be more of a leader. I’m going to try harder in school and set my goals and higher standards in what I want to do with my life.” Cooper agreed: The panel got me thinking a lot about what I want to do in the future and how I can achieve my goals. Everyone on the panel had achieved theirs. So listening to five excellent successful African Americans talk about how they got to where they are now really influenced me.”
“Our stories can be shared, and each student has their own story,” Ms. Stubbs says. “I love history, but to actually see history and touch history is different. “I remember sitting in those same bleachers at my school and having someone say a kind word to me that motivated me to go out and make change. So if there were students who were thinking—can I, should I—I hope we gave them words of encouragement.”
- Pat Dillon