Bethune principal hosts photoshoot at Barnes Foundation

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley raises her fist with her staff during a recent birthday photoshoot at the Barnes Foundation. (Aliya Catanch-Bradley)

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley raises her fist with her staff during a recent birthday photoshoot at the Barnes Foundation. (Aliya Catanch-Bradley)

This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

When Aliya Catanch-Bradley, principal of the Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, was thinking about different ways to celebrate her birthday this year, she wanted to do something a little different.

“We’re dealing with a twindemic right now,” said Catanch-Bradley. “You have the COVID-19 pandemic, but you also have the ugliness of America where you’re dealing with racial injustice, racism, and police brutality.

“You have the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr., and so many others. I think we’ve hit a point of saturation, where not another death can be sustained without any kind of action.

“There are so many things going on at one time right now, so when it came to celebrating my birthday this year, I really wanted to do something different,” she added. “I wanted to make a statement, but also bring people together. I wanted it to be something that was celebratory, inspiring, and bold.”

Catanch-Bradley decided to have a photoshoot with Black female principals from the School District of Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.

A total of 30 principals, who were wearing African garb, participated in the photoshoot at the Barnes Foundation. The photos were taken on September 19 in the span of four hours.

“Our voices as women are somewhat muted, even in the midst of inequalities and disparity,” Catanch-Bradley said about the photos with the principals. “This was an opportunity for Black women who are leading schools to get together.

“It was in defiance of the rhetoric that Black women can’t get together and be supportive and loving of one another. The morning of the photo shoot was magical. To see so many women come together from different places wearing these beautiful African prints was so powerful and uplifting.

“We talked, laughed, and embraced one another,” she added. “We really had just an amazing time. What those photos show is the celebration of excellence and the beauty of our people.”

Catanch-Bradley became the principal at Bethune in 2017. The Pre-K-8 school at 3301 Old York Road currently has 536 students.

At Bethune, 43 percent of the teachers are Black men, the most in the School District of Philadelphia.

A study from Johns Hopkins University published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who have one Black teacher by third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. Those who have more than one teacher who looks like them are 32 percent more likely to do so.

Since becoming the principal of Bethune, Catanch-Bradley has created a special bond with her staff, so much so, that she also wanted her own staff to participate in the event at the Barnes Foundation. Twenty-six Bethune teachers participated.

“I told them that instead of birthday cards and gift cards, this year I just wanted to have a historic moment with them before they themselves become the next activist, writer, principal or superintendent,” Catanch-Bradley said.

“The photos with my school team were so much fun; these are the same group of people who have been with me through thick and thin,” she added. “They’re not just my staff, but we’re family.”

While Bethune students have yet to see the photos that were taken at the Barnes Foundation, Catanch-Bradley said she has plans for them to see it.

“Our students haven’t seen the photos yet, but I do plan on blowing some of the photos up and displaying them around the school,” Catanch-Bradley said. “I was also thinking about maybe putting them on our school website.

“Various organizations and other districts have also reached out to me because they would like to do something similar to what I did,” she added. “The feedback from the photos has been amazing.”

Catanch-Bradley said that what she hopes people take away from the photos is “a sense of empowerment and the defiance of defeat.”

“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and there is so much viciousness going on in the country, yet those photos speak to the fact that we can still come together with love and unity,” Catanch-Bradley said. “I want those photos to be an inspiration to my students that they do not stand alone and that they can be anything they want to be.

“We gathered that day to support them. From these photos, I also want people to see the power and strength of sisterhood. We’re Black female administrators who are always showing up for one another in solidarity.

“While we’re wearing masks now, our voices will not be muzzled,” she added. “We will continue to speak up, be leaders, and support one another. We are mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. Our lives matter and so do the lives of our children and students.”

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