Celebrating Black History Month With PCHS Counselor Mrs. Clay-Williams

February celebrates Black History Month, when the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans are commemorated. Each year, Port Chester High School partakes in honoring the month through raising awareness on Black education and culture. 

Mrs. Clay-Williams has served as a counselor for eight years at Port Chester High School, but has also led various other activities, including coaching the cheerleading team for a year and co-advising the Slam Poetry Club and the African-American Club. This year, inspired by the African-American Club’s eagerness to learn more about Black History Month, Mrs. Clay-Williams took the initiative to help educate the student body, specifically in the area of education and historically Black Colleges. 

The Port Light had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Clay-Williams about Black History Month, its significance, and about her story as an African-American woman serving as a school counselor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Amy: Which college/university or historically black college/university (HBCU) did you attend?

Mrs. Williams: Well, honestly, I did not attend an HBCU. So as it relates to Black History Month, the reason why we’re focusing on that this year is because being the club advisor, it came up that students were asking about HBCUs and they happened to be asking about my sorority, which is a historical black sorority. So kind of like they were asking more and more questions. So it kind of evolved that way where you guys want to learn more about it. Last year was a different type of theme that I built was more about the culture. So now we’re taking the culture and taking it piece by piece. And hopefully each year they can learn something and not just them;  any student. Because a lot of students are looking at the board, it’s out there. A lot of teachers, they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know there were that many HBCUs.” And I’m like, “Yeah, me too.” So you start researching it and making people more aware, you know?

I had no one to tell me that there were HBCUs available to me that I could have attended to become more aware of my culture and how that could have helped me involve even more of who I am. So now that I hear students asking about these things, I want to be able to be that voice and be that tool to help them get that knowledge before they have to make a decision. Had I known about all these HBCUs, I may have gone to one. And I don’t know, I could have been one of those historical people on the wall or in history that could have been the first to do this or first to do that. So actually, I am the first. I feel like I am one of the first African-American people in this building to want to bring awareness to something that I didn’t have.

Amy: Yeah. So would you say that black history and celebrating it is like not only bringing awareness but also brings comfort and representation for those who are part of this community? 

Mrs. Williams: Well, I would say that it helps them feel included. We all know that when you feel like you’re the minority, you may feel like, well, there’s nothing for me. Like some of the students in the school that are African-American. Our school is predominantly Hispanic, right? So we want to bring inclusivity so that everyone can feel welcome. I feel like I try to do that with all my students. They don’t have to be African American for me to help them and to teach them something. I’m always going to be that counselor that’s going to help, you don’t have to be my student. That’s how I’ve been molded. I want people to know that you’re not alone or you don’t have to walk alone, there’s someone willing to go the little extra mile to just give you that piece of comfort.

So, yes, I’m helping those students because I didn’t have an African-American club. I think all those things would have helped define me a little more had I had those opportunities. High school is a time to venture and get all the opportunities that you can soak up because 20 years down the road, when you look at a yearbook or when you think about your high school, you don’t want to feel like, “Oh, I didn’t like high school because there was no one there like me.” There was no one there that helped me learn about my culture. And a lot of parents don’t teach it at home, which is why it bothers me that they want to take a lot of the African American culture teaching out of the classroom. And that’s really going to hurt even more because where are they going to learn it?

It’s important for us that we can even if it’s not taught in the classroom, if it’s taught in the club, if it’s taught in a conversation, that we keep our culture because it’s important.

Amy: You mentioned you were part of a historically Black sorority, as well. What was that like? 

Mrs. Williams: Actually, that’s the misconception, because sororities and fraternities are different when it comes to my sorority. When it comes to what people normally think a sorority is, you’re only in it when you’re in college. My sorority is a lifetime where I’m still active in my sorority.

I still do community service. My sorority is Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. And we have different values that we go by. Our stance is about sisterhood, public service, and scholarship. We do a lot of community service where we reach out to people who are in need in our communities and we give back. When my sorority was founded back on January 13, 1913, there was a fight for women’s rights. My sorority members, the ones who founded this sorority, felt that it was injustice, that women didn’t have rights to vote or to work. They wanted to be on the front line to fight for our rights, African American women’s rights to vote. And not just African American women, but all women. We were a part of that civil movement. 

We focus on women empowerment, especially equal pay, women in economic development, educational development, and national awareness, physical and mental health, political awareness, and environment. We have chapters all over the world. We have chapters in England, Japan, Canada, Germany, Virginia Islands, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahamas, South Korea and Nigeria. If you look on the wall, our sorority is the largest and we do the same work in each country. 

In our sorority, we have lawyers, we have judges, we have newscasters, and everywhere you go you will see someone of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, someone of power, someone of authority. That’s the character that we try to present, that we are strong, we are convicted, we are confident. As a counselor,  I fight for my students. I advocate for my students in the same way that I would do in the community with my sorority. It’s just who I am. So that’s why that sorority was the best one for me, because I see them doing the things that are important to me.

Amy: How has your identity as a Black woman affected your path in pursuing your career?

Mrs. Williams: I think it’s still in line with me wanting to be a change agent. In my position, there aren’t a lot of African American people who actually even get jobs in education. So I don’t know if being an African American woman really pushed me into this career, but I had a school counselor who was a different race. He told me because I was a female, and I don’t know if it was because I was African American, that I didn’t need to go to college, that I should just go and work. And I was a student. I did sports and everything. So I had like a 90 GPA in high school. I had already worked in the admissions and the guidance office, I was always helping. If I had believed what he said and allowed him to influence my life and take away my dreams, I wouldn’t be here now and have helped over thousands of kids. 

Which is why the National School Counselors Week theme is to help your students dream big. He did the total opposite.That is why I don’t limit students to any dream. If you want to pursue something, I’ll help you get there. I think about what happened to me, with people trying to diminish my dreams or diminish my character because I’m a woman or a black person, and I kind of like to break barriers. There’s a lot of people doing this career that do it for the money, but then there are few of us that really care about the work that we’re doing and the legacy that we’re leaving. Which is why I will always go back and pull those African-American girls, all those women, anybody who wants to do something, and make sure that this person, even if they can’t see it now, can achieve what they want. 

Amy: What was one Black historical figure you looked up to?

Mrs. Williams: Those people were not really put in front of me, to be honest. Like I said, I didn’t really learn a lot. I did meet Rosa Parks. When I was in elementary school, she came to my school. I never really saw myself because I didn’t get a chance to learn. I just learned these figures, these names. So I kind of feel like I could make my own legacy. I looked at them as people who did things for me in history. But now I have to make my history, which is why I put on my door “I am Black history” because one day I feel like I could be one of those people that could be history.

And what about the people who are here with you right now? You can learn from them. I don’t have the chance to sit down and talk to Rosa Parks, or I don’t may never be able to meet Michelle Obama, but I can emulate them. I can make my own path, where the people around me will remember me in their history or in their future. There’s two important things when you have your tombstone right? you’re gonna have the date you were born, and the date that you died, right? To me, the most important thing is not those two dates, it’s the dash between. 

Amy:  What does Black History Month mean to you?

Mrs. Williams: I hate that they put the word month there. I wish they would just say Black history. Because, you know, I just feel it’s a time for us to celebrate. I want to celebrate those people because if it wasn’t for them, there would be no me in doing what I’m doing. So I try to not only celebrate those contributions, but to also remember that I still have work to do. And I try to do that every day. So it’s not really about the month, but the month is where we’re going to help other people recognize and bring attention to it. So to me, it means appreciating, celebrating, and creating opportunities for everyone to learn about our history.

Amy: Why do you think it’s important for you as a counselor to help promote Black History Month within the school community?

Mrs. Williams: Well, it goes back to what I said, to give people awareness that we are here. So that’s why we as educators have the first responsibility to get to know who we’re teaching, because how you teach to them is going to be different for each person. You have a Black or White, and Asian person, they all have different cultures. If you don’t know about those cultures, how are you going to teach them and incorporate their cultures? They need to see themselves in the lesson in order to identify with that. People learn better when they can see themselves in the literature. You want to see yourself in somebody who has achieved something.

So that’s the reason why I feel like it’s important for people to know Black history because they need to know. Do we have to do every lesson? No. But let an African American kid read something by an African American writer, or do research on it. So that’s to give them this small experience.

I keep telling students, “Follow your career. Do what you love to do,” because it’s important. I could not do this the way I do it without having the passion. When you learn your purpose, you go full forward with it even when you get aggravated. I get disappointed by some students who don’t take advantage of certain things. But my purpose is to walk with those who feel like they’re alone or to pull people along who feel like they don’t have it. This is my purpose.

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