by Sharon H. Chang
BAILEY ADAMS–to my mind–is nothing less than a superstar senior. She is at least the kind of youth who inspires hope for the future (which is a lot). But far more than that she’s the kind of youth it’s cosmic to know exists in today’s tumultuous times: An empowered, no bullshit, young Black woman maneuvering a barricaded world on her own terms, in her own way–before even hitting her third decade of life.
Bailey is a not only a senior at Garfield High School, but President of the Black Student Union (she was Vice President last year) and Treasurer of all-student government or what the students call ASB. At seventeen years old, yes, technically Bailey’s a teenager. But she’s more even keel than most adults I meet. And frankly, she’s a lot more politicized, woke, down to earth and pragmatic too. She’s taken honors and AP (advanced placement) classes most of her school career because other classes simply didn’t challenge her. Though, “Senior year I’m only taking one AP class,” she explains, “because I have to focus on college apps [and] cause I’m so involved.”
I can see why. Bailey is just a little busy right now. You know, ahem, being Black Student Union (BSU) President, ASB Treasurer and applying to five colleges: Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Georgia State, Xavier University in Louisiana and Washington State University. Without hesitating she tells me her plan is to study Business and Sociology and that her top choice schools are the ones in Georgia. Bailey wants to throw herself into an experience away from home. “If I’m going to go to college and pay all this money,” she announces, “then I’m going to go somewhere where I want to go and like it.”
It’s obvious that Bailey is smart. Like really smart. Living in Skyway she could’ve gone to school somewhere closer to home. However she and her family felt a better learning fit could be found elsewhere and so instead Bailey attended public school in Central Seattle. She went to McGilvra Elementary in Madison Valley which later fed into Washington Middle School. But even then “Washington didn’t challenge me academically. It was just like a place where I went and sat,” she admits plainly. “I wanted to go to Garfield because there was more opportunities. As soon as I got there I was like sign me up for the honors classes!”
The thing is Bailey isn’t just smart–but strategically smart. For instance she takes AP classes but refuses to take AP tests which could allow her to get college credit for the work. Why? Because she values her sanity. Despite studying extremely hard and doing boatloads of homework, advanced placement high school students do not get college credit for their courses unless they can “pass” a standardized exam. Meaning everything rides on one score. If you don’t pass “all that work goes down the drain,” Bailey disapproved, “that’s what I learned.” Bailey tells me she still likes AP classes because they challenge her where general classes would not. But while “I’ll take the classes,” she resists, “I’m not taking the test.”
Third, and to that end, Bailey has some serious creative vision and steadfast drive. When I ask her what she plans to do post-college I’m obviously aware many youth wouldn’t have an answer. But Bailey is entirely confident. “The ultimate goal is by the age of forty I want to have my own African American boarding school built,” she looks me in the eye. A little astounded (and vastly impressed) I ask why a boarding school and not a day school? She has another answer immediately ready. “You have to take [Black youth] out of an environment that isn’t for them, that oppresses them and put them in an environment that’s going to help them grow,” she explains. “That’s going to make them into wonderful people when they grow up.”
Bailey knows a lot about this firsthand. In fact inspiration for opening a boarding school comes precisely from her own difficult years as one of few Black students in a mostly white advanced learning track. The difficulties started young. When Bailey was at McGilvra Elementary and it came time to test for honors placement, for example, other white families knew far in advance and had time to prepare. But Bailey was only told the day before the test was administered. “I had no preparation or anything,” she criticizes, adding that it was very unfair. McGilvra at the time, she recalls, was “pretty much an all-white school” with a handful of Black students. “It wasn’t really a good space for me to be in.”
Washington Middle School honors classes weren’t any better with non-Black students often tokenizing Bailey. “They look to you for answers ‘what is slavery like?’ Bailey shakes her head. “I don’t know I wasn’t born then,” she remembers clapping back. Then wryly to me, “I didn’t really know how to answer that.”
True, Washington Middle School does represent a much more diverse student body but remember even in diverse public schools segregation is alive and well. Very typically that segregating plays out in the sorting of students into general versus advanced ed. Students who take college-prep courses and pass them are disproportionately affluent, white and Asian, reflecting this nation’s longstanding racial hierarchy.
Which means that even when Bailey purposefully chose Garfield for high school–also a diverse building renowned citywide for its racial justice activism–she still found, yet again, that her advanced classes were mostly white. “Yeah, I notice when we do our assemblies it’s like Black and Brown [kids], the white kids you can’t really see them,” Bailey observes with a dry smile and small laugh. “And then you get to your AP class and it’s like wow where did you guys come from??” It’s uncomfortable for Bailey like the time students got to read Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal book Their Eyes Were Watching God in AP Literature–but Bailey was the only Black person in the room.
The message is clear. As generations of brilliant Black women have noted it’s not easy to be a smart, savvy Black woman in a world that doesn’t think that’s what you should be. It’s oppressive and hard. Though Bailey talks light of the struggle and it’s clearly not slowing her down–the struggle is real. That’s what finally drew her to BSU meetings her second year of high school. “It was a place I could come and talk about Black issues cause I couldn’t really do that in those AP classes,” she relays thankfully. “And [BSU] were a take-charge group that took action when needed.”
To be sure, BSU action is serious political action that puts most adults to shame. “Sophomore year we did a march to the police precinct,” Bailey tells me. “It was Trayvon Martin’s. That was my first one.” Junior year, when Bailey was Vice President, BSU met with mayor Ed Murray to ask pointed questions about the fatal shooting of Che Taylor by Seattle police February 2016. “We asked, ‘Why did you agree with your chief of police that the shooting protocol was right on before you even looked at the tape?’” Bailey recalls, and, “‘Why would you want cameras on the police where they could manually turn it on and off? That’s just a waste of money.’”
That same year BSU staged a Black Lives Matter die-in on a balcony inside their school building. “We sectioned it off with caution tape and had people lay down [with] posters over them which represented people killed by the police,” she described. The impact was profound. Many students eyes were opened, she says, with some getting very emotional. “They didn’t think that many people [had been killed] cause in the media it’s just here and there. But it’s way more than just that.” The die-in is also how BSU got a lot of their new members this year.
“I feel like there’s a process that a lot of Black people go through,” reflects Bailey wisely, sitting back in her chair. “First you’re realizing what it looks like…getting followed in the store, getting pulled over more, things like that.” Then, she says, you get mad. “Like, ‘Why are you doing this!?’” You get involved. “You go to your BSU, you go to your marches, or what not.” But then Bailey feels there has to be even more. “After your marches and stuff you’re like, “Okay something has to be done…We need to do something and we need to plan.”
She is gravely sad, frustrated and angry post-inauguration. “We’ve seen how our own city is corrupt,” Bailey disparages. The Mayor calls Seattle “a safe place,” she chides, yet documented Muslims weren’t allowed to be with their families when President Trump issued the travel ban; a recent two-week inquest into the death of Che Taylor produced mixed outcomes, officers involved have not been indicted; and now Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, who she’s known since middle school, was also just fatally shot by police in January. “So where exactly,” Bailey cuts, “is this ‘safe place’?”
Still, Bailey is undeterred and resolute. If anything she’s more driven. Remember she’s the Black girl who’s not just smart but strategically smart with creative vision and steadfast drive. In this moment, Bailey is trying to do as much as she can for Garfield’s Black students “to make sure that they’re okay.” She has an open door policy where others can come talk to her anytime and for Black History Month, BSU is doing a whole month’s worth of important workshops on subjects like colorism and knowing your rights.
Garfield High School has a nice motto: A clear head, a true heart, a strong arm. But BSU’s motto (Bailey tells me was chosen by fellow member Felecia Bazie) slices through the country’s current haze with especial precision: Because of them, we can.
This seemingly simple address delivers a poignant reminder now to shake off disorientation, be in community, and remember those that have pioneered before us. For the future–despite a national time of confusion and chaos–Bailey’s vision remains crisp and crystal clear. “How can we make sure that we’re giving back to the community, our Black community, make sure that the ones that come after us are supported in still continuing this on?” She instructs, “We have to sit down with people and come up with a plan on what we want in our communities.
So that they know.”
Sharon H. Chang is an award-winning author, scholar, and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her inaugural book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World was released in 2015 to very positive reviews. Some of her short-form pieces have appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and The International Examiner. In 2015 Sharon was named Social Justice Commentator of the Year by The Seattle Globalist.
Featured image by Sharon H. Chang