A Young Change Agent Makes Her Mark

Harlem Academy alumna Madisyn Cunningham ’19 has always been a leader who stands up for what she believes in. Now, as a sophomore at Riverdale, she is having an even greater impact as co-founder of Black Students Demanding Change (BSDC), an organization working to implement racially equitable reform in private schools. “What started as a fun group chat for Black private school kids in New York City soon turned into a group of dedicated students ready to make change,” says Madisyn. “We amplify Black voices and translate concerns into actionable steps.” 

The organization set out to achieve its goals by writing a reform agenda, a list of demands to school administrators covering culture, accountability, representation, education, and support – all aimed at helping private schools become more inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist. “We want to strengthen our school communities,” says Madisyn.  And they are. So far, thirteen schools in New York City have committed to implementing BSDC’s reforms, and the group also has a chapter in Maryland. “Our main goal for the future is expansion,” she says.  

Madisyn is helping to spread the word by saying yes to opportunities to share her group’s mission. Last November, she was asked to participate in CUNY Graduate Center’s “Youth Leaders for Black Lives” Zoom panel, sharing her insights with an audience of Ph.D. candidates in urban education. “Speaking on the panel was great,” says Madisyn. “I was honored to have my hard work recognized, and it was nice to meet other young Black activists. During the panel, I talked about how schools can better support Black students by fostering conversation and de-stigmatizing efforts to confront biases. Confronting bias is not wrong; it needs to be done.”

For Madisyn, the work of social justice is deeply personal. “As a Black, gay, young woman in America, I would have no rights if not for generations of activists before me,” she says. “That’s why activism is important to me. So much more needs to change, not only for my communities but for every marginalized group.”

At Riverdale, as she juggles classes like algebra 2 honors, sports, and clubs, Madisyn also uses her leadership skills to empower younger classmates. “I love Riverdale!” she says. “The workload isn’t light, but I’m managing well. I’m also on varsity basketball and track. However, my proudest moments are when I talk to middle schoolers of color here and tell them it’s possible to make a difference at any age,” she says. 
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Harlem Academy is an independent school (grades K-8) that drives equity of opportunity for promising students, guiding them to thrive at the highest academic levels and one day make a mark on the world.