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Photo from Aminata Sy

At an after-school program in West Philadelphia, a Penn student has created a space for students of African background to receive a comprehensive Black History Month education.

Aminata Sy, a College of Liberal and Professional Studies junior studying international relations, founded the African Community Learning Program in fall 2017 as a setting for West Philadelphia students of African background to receive free tutoring and mentorship

Twelve elementary and middle school students — most of whom lived in African countries before moving to Philadelphia — spend time in Sy’s house working on homework, playing games, and learning about Africa every day after school lets out.

This month, Sy has pushed the students to focus on black history. After carefully compiling a list of 23 figures — most of them closely connected to Africa, like her students — Sy asked her students to pick a person to research and present on.

The list includes figures such as Trevor Noah and Nelson Mandela. Many of the students, including Sy’s 6-year-old son Ibra, chose to research ACLP Secretary Hazim Hardeman, a recent Temple graduate and a 2018 Rhodes Scholar.

Hardeman, who attended Philadelphia public schools growing up, met Sy when they were attending the Community College of Philadelphia together and has been volunteering with the ACLP since its launch last year.

“I think there’s a sort of common approach to Black History Month — you include some of the more-known figures: the Dr. Kings of the world, the Rosa Parks, the Frederick Douglasses,” he said. 

Photo from Aminata Sy

“But [ACLP students] study a lot of figures who were actually born in the same countries that [ACLP] students were born in — and these figures probably aren’t as mainstream as some of the figures that are included in the traditional Black History Month curriculums — so I think [the ACLP] is a corrective to that sort of narrow focus.”

Aminata Traore, a first-year Medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine, has also been volunteering with the ACLP students this month. Traore, who was born in Cote d’Ivoire, first came to the United States when she was 11, and sees some of herself in the students in the program.

“I remember how it was trying to adjust to a new environment and a new culture,” she said. “I like having the opportunity to help kids manage some of the situations that I went through when I came to the United States.”

Hardeman said he feels strongly that teaching the ACLP students about African history will help them understand their identities in ways that their classroom educations might not.

“Black History Month in this country is just sort of cursory, something you speed through,” Hardeman said. “It’s looked at as outside of the American experience, or at least sort of tangential to the American experience, and that’s reflected in the ways it’s taught."

Traore agreed.  

“It’s not something that people who aren’t black pay attention to on a regular basis, so I do think it’s important for the kids to be involved and learn more about their history and what it means to be black in America,” Traore said. “Because it’s not something that’s necessarily going to be emphasized outside of spaces like the ACLP.”