Shaniya Butler and her dad, Rondell Butler. Black Lives Matter New Haven Photo.
Shaniya Butler has wanted to be a pediatrician for as long as she can remember. This summer, she got a $1,500 boost for her budding medical career from Black Lives Matter New Haven—just in time to buy books and supplies for college.
Butler and Ty’Jair Bember, both of whom graduated from James Hillhouse High School last month, are the inaugural recipients of the Black Lives Matter New Haven Scholarship Award, an ongoing effort to help young Black New Haveners pay for their next steps in a year turned on its head. The scholarships come from the group’s growing scholarship fund, which was born and largely community-supported in the midst of the pandemic.
“It makes me feel amazing,” said Butler, who is headed to the University of New Haven with a plan to study health sciences. “I'm very grateful for it. It will help me pay for some things in college. It's also very important, because around here we don't get a lot of opportunities. Having scholarships—it gives us those opportunities.”
This year, members of the group were able to raise enough to award both students $1,500. Butler, who lives in the city’s Newhallville neighborhood, hopes to go from UNH on to medical school. Bember will be attending Porter & Chester Institute in Hamden. After losing his mother earlier this year, his studies at Porter & Chester mean he can stay close to home, where he and his grandmother are caring for his 11-year-old sister.
For Butler, the scholarship was welcome and surprising news. She’s had her eyes on pediatrics since she was a student at King/Robinson Interdistrict Magnet School, and someone pushed a slip of paper into her hand asking what she wanted to be when she grew up. While students around her got older and changed their minds, she never wavered.
Black Lives Matter New Haven core members MiAsia Harris, ala ochumare, Sun Queen, Ashleigh Huckabey, and Sy Frasier. Black Lives Matter New Haven Photo.
She said the choice always felt natural—she hates seeing other kids in the neighborhood suffering or in pain. She likes caring for her younger cousin, who is now eight years old. By the time she was in high school, she’d developed a love for chemistry that made her want to know what existed beyond color-coded datasets and valence electrons. She said she’s excited to take that knowledge into her classes at UNH this fall.
“It gives you a new perspective of the world,” she said. “I ask a lot of questions, so it's very good for me.”
The scholarship also became a sign that she made it. While Butler has long excelled in school, this year “has been really stressful,” she said. When schools went remote in March of her junior year, she didn’t expect the transition back to in-person learning to take almost 15 months. Her time playing basketball and volleyball for Hillhouse was cut suddenly short as schools shuttered and classes stayed online.
She struggled to stay motivated as she watched her teachers work through a screen. Even after returning, school was a balancing act: she kept her grades up while working a part-time job at Cracker Barrel in Milford. She’s holding tight to a visual she has in her mind, of her bursting through a school’s doors in a starched white medical coat.
Bember. Black Lives Matter New Haven Photo.
Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Sun Queen said she was excited to give out the awards as a celebratory start to the summer. Hillhouse holds a special place in her heart: she graduated from the school in 2001 and was on the volleyball team during her time there. While she selected Butler after getting a nomination from her gym teacher, Black Lives Matter New Haven Co-Founder ala ochumare chose Bember.
In early June, they drove to Butler and Bember’s homes with large checks, buzzing with excitement. In a video the group posted, Butler’s smile is infectious, even beneath a mask. Queen and ochumare both bestow blessings upon her, and include a word of advice: it’s okay to not always know the answer. They intend to support and expand the scholarship program in the coming year.
“It was my duty to do that,” Queen said. “We always talk about the fact that we’ve got to serve the community. It felt good to be a reflection of the community."
She added that she sees it as part of the group’s natural growth in New Haven. Black Lives Matter New Haven started with neighborhood coat and mitten drives six years ago. In addition to its anti-racist organizing work, the group has become known for its backpack, coat and mitten, and hygiene drives and public gatherings dedicated to arts and culture, whether in the streets or on a screen. On the same day that its five core members awarded scholarships, they also distributed hygiene kits to thousands of New Haveners.
“This is a beautiful thing,” Queen said. “We’re taking care of our community, first and always.”
To find out more about Black Lives Matter New Haven or contribute to the scholarship fund, click here.