Deborah Powell has organized activities for Black History Month since she started at Hinsdale Central High School in 2005.
That first year, students came to her for help with the celebration, as she was one of very few African Americans on the school staff. Fewer than 12 students, all black, were involved in planning the activities, which took place in one day.
This year, she is chairwoman of the committee comprised of more than 60 students and staff members who planned and scheduled activities on at least six different days in February, which is Black History Month. On some days, Central’s choir and jazz band performed or students read poetry written by African Americans; on other days, outside performers were brought in.
Talia Sankari, a sophomore from Oak Brook, is a volunteer on the committee.
Sankari, who is white, wanted to learn about African American history. The dozens of other volunteers show “anyone of any background or color can come forth and celebrate this together,” she said.
Only 2 percent of the students at Central are black or African American, but inclusiveness is part of Black History month, Powell said.
“Civil rights are not just a black thing. People from all parts of the country came together and went to Washington (in the 1960s) because they wanted justice for all people,” Powell said.
Sankari holds Powell in high regard.
“We met through choir. She was assisting a student,” Sankari said.
Powell is an instructional aid with the special education department, but people at Central who have never been in a class with her know her.
“She is a huge force at this school,” Sankari said. “She says hello to everybody.”
Powell has the ability to know when students are struggling with fitting in or accepting themselves and she connects with them.
“She sees teenagers are sometimes lost and she sees them for who they really are and what they can become,” Sankari said. “She loves them and brings out the best in them. I have so much respect for her.”
Powell says that comes from having some teachers who were not kind or encouraging to her when she was growing up.
Powell also has “an amazing voice,” Sankari said.
In college, Powell majored in sociology and minored in voice. She still sings professionally, recently with the Eddie Harrison Orchestra at the Chicago Yacht Club.
She applied for a job at Hinsdale Central after getting “burnt out” working more than 14 years in the Chicago Public School system.
She knew, as a black woman, she would be in the minority. But that was the case when she herself was in high school in Rockford, she said.
“I don’t have a problem with that scene,” Powell said.
She feels blessed to work with the students and staff at Central. They in turn love and appreciate her, Assistant Principal William Walsh said.
“She is an enormous asset to this building,” Walsh said. “First and foremost, (because) everything she does is for the students, not for her. The students always come first.”
Central’s celebration of Black History Month wraps up with a show for all students in the auditorium Feb. 17. It will feature Spiritual Dancers, performance poet Billy Tuggle, and the M.A.D.D; Rhythms tap dance troupe in the auditorium.
M.A.D.D. Rhythms has dancers of all nationalities, “and that is the message I want to leave,” Powell said.