Summer program opens possibilities for Salem’s young Black students

Students at the Zenzele Learning Center play an icebreaker game on Saturday, July 3 as founder Oni Marchbanks, left, looks on (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Eighteen Salem kids gathered Saturday at the Kroc Center to learn about brain surgery – but Oni Marchbanks first asked them to put on a crown.

The ornamentation was intended to give participants an aura of royalty during the inaugural session of the Zenzele Learning Center, a science and technology program focused on Black students.

“What do you do if the crown doesn’t fit you?” inquired Harmony, one of the group’s younger members, holding the sparkling piece of cardboard, a quizzical expression on her face.

“If the crown doesn’t fit you? You put it on and you wear it anyway!” said Marchbanks, drawing murmurs of agreement from the adult mentors in the room.

Harmony, seeming satisfied, put the slightly-too-large crown on her head.

The exchange reflects the purpose behind Marchbanks’ latest venture, a science, technology, engineering and math-focused learning program geared toward Black elementary and middle school students in Salem. The Zenzele Learning Center is a new offering from Marchbanks’ Salem nonprofit, Equity Splash, and aims to raise the share of local students who take STEM courses in school, and pursue careers in those fields after graduating.

According to a program flier, just 2% of Black high school students in the Salem-Keizer School District are enrolled in Achievement Via Individual Determination, a college prep and leadership program, and just 3% are taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes. They make up about 1% of the district’s student population.

Zenzele is a labor of love for Marchbanks, who plunged ahead even after being turned down for state and private grants to buy laptops and other equipment to support the program’s launch. Rather than give up, Marchbanks went ahead anyway with a near zero-dollar budget, teaming up with Satya Chandragiri, a school board director and Salem psychiatrist, to line up scientists and medical professionals of African, Latin American and Asian heritage to speak to students.

The Kroc Center agreed to host the program for free, and the Urban League donated money to provide lunches for kids.

“It was incumbent on me to try to do something,” Marchbanks said during the first session. “We can’t do everything, but we are doing something.”

Marchbanks by day works at the Oregon Employment Department, but has spent years in Salem running Equity by Design, a nonprofit consulting company focused on anti-racism education. She and her family have been fixtures at civil rights events and marches in Salem for years, and Marchbanks has served on a number of advisory committees including the Salem-Keizer School District Budget Committee, the city’s Human Rights Commission and the Community Police Review Board. Her second nonprofit, Equity Splash, was recently incorporated and began hosting small business bazaars to highlight local Black-owned businesses last year.

Students at Zenzele Learning Center listen to neurosurgeon Dr. Maurice Collada during an inaugural session at the Kroc Center on Saturday, July 3. (Courtesy/Satya Chandragiri)

Saturday’s session included a lesson on mindfulness meditation, as well as presentations from Candice Elliot, a counselor originally from South Africa who works in psychiatric emergency medicine, and Dr. Maurice Collada, a Salem neurosurgeon originally from Cuba. Both fielded questions from students, and students also worked to make a model of different parts of the brain to learn more about how it functions.

“They were riveted, engaged and asked all the questions,” Chandragiri said in a text following the first session.

Rachel Bruneau, who brought her two daughters to the program, said she’s tried to teach them about equity and expose them to things they don’t necessarily learn in school, which motivated her to sign them up.

Bruneau knows Marchbanks through their day jobs at the employment department, where both serve on the equity and inclusion council. She said she wanted her daughters to learn from “somebody who’s a strong facilitator” like Marchbanks, and hoped the program would expose them to more of Salem’s diversity.

“We’re kind of in a bubble where we live,” she said, referring to their west Salem home.

Students at Zenzele Learning Center construct a model of a brain during an inaugural session at the Kroc Center on Saturday, July 3. (Courtesy/Satya Chandragiri)

Marchbanks said three more day-long sessions are scheduled for Saturdays on July 16, Aug. 20 and Sept. 17. Kids must pre-register and slots are currently full with a waitlist, Marchbanks said. Most of those signed up came to her through word-of-mouth, and anyone interested can contact her directly. She plans to offer sessions monthly until the program secures funding to expand to include more dates and space for more kids.

Marchbanks hopes through hearing from professionals and learning about Black history and culture, students will see themselves having a chance in fields like research and health care that otherwise might seem inaccessible, and get the message that they belong in advanced classes, she said.

“They’ll know they can walk into those doors because they’re empowered to do so,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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