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Fenland school celebrates Black History

A teacher who grew up without inspirational role models is ensuring that students at her school have a different experience.

As part of Black History Month, which takes as its theme this year ‘Saluting Our Sisters’, Debi Benson is leading a four-week celebration of Black British women and their achievements.

As Citizen Lead at Marshland High School, and a black woman herself, she is aware of the importance of young people seeing ‘people who look like them’ succeed and achieve.

Teacher Debi Benson said when she was growing-up in the area, there were no role models for her, and she wants to ensure current students are not in the same situation.
Teacher Debi Benson said when she was growing-up in the area, there were no role models for her, and she wants to ensure current students are not in the same situation.

“I grew up in Wisbech, adopted by a white family,” she said. “This means that when I went to secondary school, I had no one who looked like me to inspire me and help me to feel seen and not an ‘outsider’.

“Every day during Black History Month this year, black British women who have played a role in changing lives of black women and girls will be highlighted during our school notices, which are shared at the start of each school day. These will also be on display on the TV screens around the school.

“The different curriculum subjects will be highlighting black British women who are prominent in their subjects. We are looking to help girls and boys know who came before them – if they see it, they can be it.”

Inspirational names featured across the month include singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading; artist’s model Fanny Eaton, who posed for artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti; poet Phillis Wheatley; Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole; singer and actress Evelyn Dove, who was the first black singer on BBC Radio; Ama Amo-Agyei, founder of wellness brand Plant Made; and Tendai Moyo and Ugo Agbai, who created Ruka Hair products for Black hair.

Other success stories set to inspire the students include book publisher Margaret Busby; Britain’s longest-serving black MP, Dianne Aboott; former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman; composer and violinist Dr Shirley Thompson; author Zadie Smith; and Olympic medalists Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Dame Denise Lewis, and Tessa Sanderson; as well as Tumisha Balogun, founder of a youth culture agency; the chief executive of the Diana Award, Tessy Ojo; equality, diversity and inclusion specialist Ellisha Soanes; and the creator of Donate 1 Create 1, Samantha Yetunde Richards.

“I always tell students that we should celebrate what makes us different, to be seen on our own terms, be that race, gender, sexuality, faith et cetera,” continued Ms Benson. “We all need to know that we can. There is so much discrimination in society – even if it is passive, it still impacts individuals and their life chances.”

Launched in the USA in 1970, before spreading across the globe, Black History Month acknowledges the exceptional achievements of black people in ‘shaping history, inspiring change and building communities’.

Ms Benson has been leading the events at Marshland, a member of the West Norfolk Academies Trust, since 2013.

“At Marshland, we work to ensure that we recognise events like this, but we also work to incorporate these practices to be discussed throughout the year and not just for the day, week or month they are highlighted,” she added.

“Marshland is such an inclusive school. We are working to celebrate everyone and show students that difference has to be a good thing.”

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