Dija Manly understands the power of leadership and the effects of action. At La Follette High School, where Dija is a senior, she is intentional in her decision making, deliberate in her action plan and passionate about the issues she champions. She’s an 18 year old scholar with an exhaustive resume of activism and academic achievement that will certainly catapult her anywhere she wants to go.
As a founding member of Save Our Students, a group inspired by the Parkland High School shootings, Dija crusades for common sense gun laws. As a youth leader for the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, she works with local politicians to develop projects and plans that teach consent and promote the end of high school rape culture. As a youth leader for GSAFE, she leads consent workshops at LGBTQ+ conferences and champions safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students. As a Minority Student Achievement Network member, she attends conferences designed for students to address policies that affect students of color. And there’s much more. Dija’s a Black Student Union co-president, a youth court juror, a student council member, has been an intern at Columbia University and is a current one at UW-Madison. And the list still flows on.
In her role on the African American Youth Council, a student advisory board to Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Dija is a voice for students of color that delivers ideas for how the district can better support them or concerns about how they feel it’s failing them.
From her perspective, the district needs to do more to ensure that students are heard -- students with concerns about “ feeling uncomfortable in school, feeling you’re being a target, having police officers target you in the hallways, racist encounters with teachers or peers.”
As for her own voice, it has been a part of change in high school dress code policies that target females. It has contributed to the organization of the largest student walkout in Wisconsin history, this one to denounce gun violence. It has encouraged students to take their own action. And, as a student council member, it brings topics to La Follette students such as how to discuss racism in the spaces shared by white students and teachers—a discussion she says is often unsatisfying when she broaches issues like systemic racism and how it’s the undercurrent of the achievement gap.
“If it’s a race discussion in a classroom setting I always feel like the angry Black girl telling you what you’re saying is racist,” says Dija. “They (white students) don’t think about the intrinsic ways racism exists in their life. They use othering coded language like ‘kids in the hallways,’ so I’m always the person who’s asking, why aren’t they in the classroom, why don’t they feel comfortable in the classroom? They’re not thinking about the bigger picture when we talk about the achievement gap, so I’m the person saying there’s more to their story than you realize—it’s not like kids don’t care, there are systemic reasons behind that gap.”
BSU Advisor Johnnie Milton calls Dija “a treasure of intelligence, natural beauty, black pride and voice for the under represented... a true change agent of La Follette.” In that role, she is a voice that aims to encourage students to consider Historically Black Colleges and Universities,
“schools that are made by people that look like them, and for people that look like them” by escorting students to tour HBCUs.
“We send 25-plus students to one or two states so they know they
don’t have to just go to UW,” she says. “We know that UW has a large number of racist incidents and small number of POC. We want to let them know they can go to a place where they get a quality education but are surrounded by more students that look like them.”
One thing you will not hear from Dija, however, is that her own accomplishments are the gold standard for “Black Excellence” (she is first in her class of 400) because she sees excellence on a wide spectrum of interests, activities, strengths and ways of being.
“The Black excellence initiative should validate other people’s forms of success—non traditional ways to success defined by each individual, Dija says. “Black excellence is a great mindset to have but you can’t force a mindset, you can’t force your staff members to truly believe in black excellence, even if you are showcasing excellent black students.”
So what’s Dija’s long-term plan? She will likely attend Stanford University, located near her family in Oakland, California, but is also considering Harvard from where she recently received her acceptance. Either way, she plans to study either biomedical engineering or biological engineering. Her plan is to create affordable gene therapy treatments. Excellent.
- Pat Dillon