Rosa Thompson helps young black girls recognize their potential

Thompson created the Black Girl Magic Conference
Rosa Thompson
Photo by Melissa Austin Photography

Rosa Thompson, an advanced learning teacher leader in the Madison Metropolitan School District, is using her experiences to help young black girls navigate life. Thompson became the person she is today by building relationships in her community and engaging in school through various activities, and she’s relaying that to younger generations.

In 2018, Thompson created the Black Girl Magic Conference, a one-day event. The first year 80 girls took part. The following year the conference grew to involve about 450 girls. The conference gives fourth through seventh grade girls who identify as African American or multiracial an opportunity to come together for a day of learning, connecting, fitness and fun — all led by women who look like them. The third annual conference, which was set to take place May 21-22 on the Madison College – Truax Campus, was canceled, like many events, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Thompson says a mini virtual conference will be held in May via the social media accounts of the Black Girl Magic Conference and the in-person event will be restored in May 2021.

At a glance
Name and title: Rosa Thompson, founder of the Black Girl Magic Conference and advanced learning teacher leader, Madison Metropolitan School District
Racial ethnicity: Black
Birthplace and hometown: Decatur, Georgia
Education and career: Bachelor’s degree from Clark Atlanta University in early childhood education and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in curriculum and instruction. Thompson has worked in the Madison Metropolitan School District since 2009, teaching in various elementary schools (including Orchard Ridge, Emerson, Falk, Hawthorne and Schenk). She is currently an advanced learning teacher leader at Schenk.
Came to Madison: Adopted by her parents, who lived in Madison, in 1986.
Family: Husband, Alex, is an MMSD assistant principal; two kids — Mekhi, 9, and Aubrey, 1

What was it like for you growing up in Madison?
For me, growing up in Madison was an experience of finding where I fit in, especially in my elementary and middle school years. My parents were very involved in all aspects of my life and I felt connected to my church and neighborhood. But I struggled in early elementary school, until my fourth grade teacher saw something greater in me and helped me become more engaged in school and pushed me to be better. Through playing on the basketball and soccer teams, I found my peer support system, made lifelong friends, and strengthened my connection to my school and community. Growing up in Madison also taught me about how to deal with adversity, how to navigate spaces where I might be the only black person in the room, and how to advocate for myself, my family and my students.

What has been your experience as a black woman living in Madison?
Socially it can be hard to be black in Madison, especially for people who are new to the city. Professionally there have been times when parents and other teachers assume I’m not qualified to do my job. It is easy to feel isolated or lonely when many spaces aren’t welcoming to black people. I have found that the key is to create a circle where my family and I feel welcome and accepted.

How has that experience shaped you professionally and otherwise?
I came back to Madison specifically to teach in the school district that I attended and help make changes that create better outcomes for our students. My passion for teaching in Madison has come from growing up in Madison, my experiences attending school and now living here as an adult. My experiences while attending MMSD schools and Clark Atlanta University have shaped my teaching practices to advocate and create spaces for students of color, and more specifically, black girls. It’s what led me to take the teaching positions that I have. Now being in the advanced learning department, I am able to advocate for black and brown students to have equal representation in advanced learning. It is also what led me to begin facilitating groups for black girls and to create the Black Girl Magic Conference. I want all MMSD students to feel like they have a space to be who they are.

How do you navigate diversity and inclusion in the community and at work?
I participate in a variety of community events, like local festivals, Dane Dances, the Unity Picnic, which are all great opportunities for Madison’s communities to come together. At work, I participate on committees that advocate for our students and staff of color within the district, as well as always looking at curriculum, professional development and teaching with a critical racial equity lens.

Kids in a photo booth

Photo by Celebrations Entertainment

What motivated you to create the Black Girl Magic Conference in 2018?
I was running a black girl affinity group at Hawthorne Elementary School when I attended an event with facilitators planning a summit in another city. It was a community-based support network for African American students called Natural Circles of Support. There were a couple facilitators from Madison and one from Verona. The idea just came up like, “We should do something to bring all of our girls together.” We just sort of started planning it and I took the lead. The first conference was much more scaled down than what it is now. We were all in one room at the Goodman Community Center. It was just so nice to see all the girls together. They had a great time. Reading the feedback from the girls who attended, we knew we’d have to expand.

What types of activities do the girls participate in at the conference?
They have a WERQ fitness workout to start the day. We pick a Black Girl Magic playlist and it’s just fun to see them moving their bodies. Then they go into the auditorium to listen to a guest speaker. Then they go into breakout sessions. Each school attends two breakout sessions, and then the third breakout is lunch. At lunch, they’ll have a photo booth area, music and time to hang out and mingle.

What impact does this conference have on young black girls?
From the students who attended last year, I heard a lot about how they just loved being in a space with girls who look like them. They left feeling very proud of who they are. And getting to learn from African American women in our community was really cool for them. They were like, “I’ve never met a black construction project manager” or, “I’ve never met a black woman CEO.” That’s not something on career day you might hear about, but at the conference they see these women or a woman who’s a coder and think, “That’s something I can do.” It’s not all academics, all day. You get to have fun, you get to relax, you get to see a different side of our kids in an environment where everybody looks like them. And it was nice that girls who go to different schools but know each other get to have a mini family reunion.

How does this event impact the community?
We’ll see these girls in the community at different events, at church or wherever, but this connects members of our community to our girls in more of a structured setting. Many members of our community look forward to it. They’re like, “I want to help, I want to volunteer. I want to present.” I love that feeling that these women in our community really want to be a part of the girls’ lives. They’re like “I want to help these girls have an experience I never had.”

Hywania Thompson, no relation to Rosa Thompson, is a Madison freelance writer.