For WCCUSD students, Black Lives Matter more than an election issue

Street art in support of Black Lives Matter covers boarded up store fronts on July 25, 2020 in Oakland, California. Demonstrators in Oakland gathered to protest in solidarity with Portland protests. (Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)

In the wake of 2020’s racial unrest, ignited by high-profile incidents of police brutality and disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the winners of Chevron Richmond’s annual Black Employee Network scholarship became a symbol of a movement destined to be both felt and heard for generations to come.

Pinole Valley High student Anita Chinwuba has been reading everything she can get a hold of on Black culture and history. The straight-A student’s goal is to one day advocate for ethnic studies as a requirement in high schools.

Meanwhile, Jasmine Turner at Hercules High is fighting the politicization and misinformation surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. Amid renewed calls for racial justice last year, the president of her school’s Black Student Union launched weekly meetings to discuss and raise awareness about race and equity issues in their community.

At Middle College High, Nouhamin Leoulekal has set out to negate any assumption that the BLM movement is only relevant before a Presidential election. She helped organize a schoolwide assembly to raise issues of racial justice and equity on campus, and has advocated to direct funding for programs that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline at her school.

BLM’s significance extends far beyond an election that happens every four years in Washington D.C., Leoulekal said. “Because this mentality causes individuals to overlook school board elections, policies, and allocations for academic institutions that directly affect students of color,” she said.

These West Contra Costa Unified School District students don’t need anyone to define the BLM movement for them. As far as they’re concerned, they are the movement. And although the 2020 election is over, they pledge to move forward in the name of justice for all.

Chinwuba, Turner, Leoulekal and equally impressive Middle School College student Lensaa Temesgen – all of whom happen to have grade point averages over 4.0 – were recognized as winners of the Chevron Richmond Black Employee Network’s annual Dr. William King Scholarships in a virtual ceremony held recently.

First launched in 2006, the program provides four deserving students with scholarships in honor of William F. King, a distinguished Chevron chemical engineer of 27-plus years who was active in the community. To date, the Chevron Richmond’s Black Employee Network has awarded 64 student scholarships.

Anita Chinwuba, Pinole Valley High, First Place

For Chinwuba, who earned the first place award, education is key. She’d never known race was an issue before moving to the U.S. from Nigeria at age six. She soon discovered there were preconceived notions about her race. She experienced racial profiling and learned self-hatred. But then as a high school sophomore she took a class in world history from a teacher who made it a point to teach about Africa and the achievements of Black people around the world, including in the U.S.

That completely changed her outlook, not just about herself but about her life’s mission.

“It is my hope that one day after graduating from college I can pursue a career in public policy to transform our educational system,” Chinwuba said. “Perhaps one day I can introduce a law that mandates ethnic studies as a high school requirement, so every Black child can grow up knowing their history and loving themselves.”

For Temesgen, the second-place winner, the movement is about walking the talk. In response to the West Coast wildfires, she joined her school’s conservation committee and launched a creek cleanup that eventually turned into monthly cleanups. When she became committee chair, she advocated for additional funding to purchase supplies for the cleanup events, and also created the idea of having teachers offer extra credit to students who attended, boosting participation.

Lensaa Temesgen, Middle College High, Second Place

The key to her success? “I refused to be ignored and trusted my own voice,” Temesgen said.

Leoulekal, the third-place winner, has also made uplifting Black voices at her school a focus. She advocated for curriculum about the Black experience and funding for programs supporting underserved students. While Turner, the fourth-place winner, has her mind set on systemic change in the courts. Her goal is to become a lawyer aiming to reduce bias in the criminal justice system.

“In education, young Black students only learn about their enslavement, and not the
riches and prominence of African territories before slavery or the countless innovations that African-Americans contributed toward modern society,” she said.

Nouhamin Leoulekal, Middle College High, Third Place

The Chevron Richmond Black Employee Network’s Black History Awareness Celebration that aims to do just that:  “embrace the past, educate the present and enrich the future.” Held annually during Black History Month for over two decades, the event is part of a broader effort by Chevron to provide a voice and networking platform for Black employees at its locations in Richmond and throughout the world.

“I am proud of Chevron for encouraging an environment where diverse voices are heard and all points of view are considered” said Lucia Watson of the Chevron Richmond Black Employee Network. “This event and the scholarships we provide to students will help spark new voices and ideas that will lift up our community.”

Josetta Jones, a longtime Chevron Richmond employee who recently became the company’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer, says life today wouldn’t be the same without past icons such as Lewis Latimer, who patented a carbon filament for the incandescent lightbulb, or Gladys West, the mathematician whose work on developing satellite geodesy models were incorporated into the GPS we rely upon today. Remembering these “hidden figures” can correct perceptions and serve as inspiration for young Black students, Jones said.

“They brought bold, vibrant ideas in living color to a world dominated by only one,” Jones said, adding, “What makes this so impressive is that it was not that long ago that Blacks were excluded from so many aspects of American life.”

Jasmine Turner, Hercules High, Fourth Place

Honoring influential Black figures from the past, celebrating how far they have come in society, and embracing a more inclusive future, is the spirit of an ongoing movement at Chevron Richmond and American society as a whole, officials said. Black lives don’t just matter, they are crucial to our nation’s progress.

“We all know the challenges are far from over,” Jones said. “The global pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, the economic downturn.” The Black Employee Network scholarship winners, however, have shown the commitment, will and determination to face such challenges head-on, Jones said.

Dr. King, now retired, attended Wednesday’s virtual ceremony, congratulating the scholarship winners as continued beacons of hope. Dr. King was responsible for over 40 Chevron patents before retiring from the company as a staff scientist in 2004. During that time, he was highly active in mentoring Black students in the community and recruiting Black employees to work at Chevron.

Dr. King hasn’t quite retired from the latter part. At the scholarship ceremony, he informed the winners on behalf of Chevron that, “We hire folks coming out of college.”

“And if you are doing the kinds of things that Chevron is in need of, please be sure to go to your recruiting office there and get involved with it, and let us be involved with you,” he said.