If there has been any doubt about the power of grassroots organizing, a recent gathering at Howard University (HU) ’s Blackburn Center, has, to some degree, given some hope to the disillusioned. For much of the day on Friday, Dec. 4, student leaders and administrators from a bevy of local universities engaged in raw, thought-provoking dialogue with their administrators about problems black students face on campus. These talks bore some similarity to those I participated in at the height of my undergraduate career at The George Washington University (GW).
This daylong event came on the heel of successful uprisings at universities across the country, each one fueled by frustrations about what black students have described as an institutional lack of regard for the daily hardships they endure and white supremacy’s chokehold on higher education. Last month, protests at the University of Missouri and a strike by the revenue-generating football team compelled the board of trustees to oust the president and chancellor. In the nation’s capital, officials at Georgetown University announced that they will rename two buildings memorialized for university presidents who arranged the sale of enslaved black people in 1830s to pay campus debts.
While these incremental gains have elicited rounds of praise from those on the sidelines of this ongoing fight for social justice, some white people have been perturbed, even going as far as to form white student groups on their campus in response to “reverse racism and discrimination” against students of European descent.
But students and administrators who attended the event at HU, named “HU Beyond Dialogue” agreed that there’s much work to be done in ensuring that black students — descendants of what’s arguably the most marginalized and victimized ethnic group domestically and globally — can matriculate safely and with the holistic support that has been guaranteed to their white counterparts since the creation of Harvard University, America’s first college, in 1638. Decades after Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the merits of school desegregation, this nation has yet to atone for its past and see to it that black students can thrive mentally and emotionally in academic environments.
As Friday’s discussion revealed, reaching that goal would be a huge undertaking, like that of knocking down a building, brick by brick.
Throughout much of the day, dozens of participants from more than half a dozen local colleges and universities divulged qualms about on-campus racial profiling, financial aid troubles, academic settings that are unwelcoming to black students’ ideas, the lack of diversity, cultural insensitivity, the aggression of the university security personnel, dearth of meeting space for black students, and other microagressions that ultimately deter academic achievement. Administrators later weighed in, pledging to destroy barriers that impede racial progress on their respective campuses. In true millennial fashion, guests recounted the activities of that morning and early afternoon on social media, using #HUBeyondDialogue15.
While it remains to be seen what will come out of this meeting of the minds, few students left the meeting confident that some incremental change will take place. Leslie Ogu, a junior at GW and president of its Black Student Union (BSU), said he’s been waiting for an opportunity to affect change since his freshman year. Weeks earlier, Ogu and his colleagues representing a slew of student organizations protested in the middle of their campus, later making some headway with university officials in their talks about on-campus racial tension.
Lisa Pointer of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) too reveled in the chance to have her voice heard months after a student said officers from the Metropolitan Police Department “brutalized” him near at ATM. During breakout sessions, she conversed with students from other schools about solutions they thought could curb racial insensitivity and create equal access to opportunities for black students. Later that day, she and three of her UDC colleagues reported to the larger group, a feat that she chronicled on Facebook. Stanley Berry, also a UDC student, took to social media in a similar fashion. Though he expressed thanks for the event, he lamented that administrators led the discussions instead of letting students have their say.
Thus ended what will most likely be one of the most beneficial sessions in those students’ college career outside of the classroom. In his award-winning book “The Miseducation of the Negro,” African-American historian Carter G. Woodson touted the benefits of gaining an education in this manner, reminding us that sitting within the confines of a white-centered academic structure ensures that we’ll remain cogs in the machine of white supremacy. The same remains true for students at historically black colleges and universities, many of which were founded with support from “well-meaning” white people. Without some form of on-campus or extracurricular involvement that contextualizes their studies, college graduates are nothing but theorists and parrots of the texts their teachers touched on during discussions.
The efforts of those who converged on HU last week are a testament to the importance of racial and cultural student groups. As a college graduate and one-time black student leader, I can guarantee that institutional change in the university setting will be slow to come. Like the student leaders at Friday’s meeting, my colleagues and I discussed the same issues with university administration during closed meetings with some promise that things will get better. Years later, much hasn’t changed. That’s why incoming black students, no matter their state of residence, ethnic group, and socioeconomic standing, have a resource in campus organizations and multicultural resource offices that represent their interests.
Those aforementioned entities can spur into action during times of racial unrest, pooling the tangible and intangible resources student leaders developed in parlaying and working with members of the community.
In organizing and preparing a presentation for the policy makers, these young brothers and sisters have groomed themselves for a much more multifaceted battle that’s unfolding beyond the boundaries of their campuses. Hopefully, they also learned that people in positions of power will do and say anything to quell an impending uprising, especially when it’s led by “angry” black people. At the age of 20, I didn’t have any conception of that. Future experiences with people in positions of power — of any color — would give me the taste of reality that has made me a proponent of grassroots organizing and truly black-centered institutions four years out of undergrad.
Unknown to me at the time of my campus involvement, the code of conduct among black student leaders at GW incorporated ideals inspired by Marcus Mosiah Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Understanding that institutions ran by white people had no intention of ensuring progress as black people saw it, Garvey espoused the building of a black nation, a remnant of which I saw in the collaborations between the BSU, Caribbean Student Association, Organization of Latin American Students, Minority Business Student Association, and GW NAACP during my junior year. In forming those bonds, we also practiced all of the Kwanzaa principles, especially Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), and Ujamaa (cooperative economics).
A couple years earlier as a freshman, black students in positions of power took me under their wing and guided me along my path of enlightenment. The next year, I launched ACE Magazine, a student-ran multicultural publication and antithesis to the GW Hatchet, the main campus publication that often painted black campus leaders in a negative light. That very same year, I served as a board member of the Black Men’s Initiative, a program dedicated to ensuring black males at GW graduate on time and without trouble. Toward the end of my undergraduate career, black student leaders held weekly meetings to keep up the spirit of unification within our community.
Today, I maintain genuine relationships with many of the brothers and sisters I’ve built with in my time at GW, all due to the hurdles we had to jump together in creating at atmosphere welcoming to black students. While our methods and skill sets are different, the respect for black life and passion for our people unites us. Indeed, I couldn’t have built these kind of relationships if I had the mindset that white people had about affinity groups. If anything, their unwillingness to let black people celebrate their blackness is more than enough reason for us to build our own institutions and control our destiny within this ever-increasing interconnected, globalized system.
The group of students who gathered at HU carried out that mission with passion and poise last week. While that’s commendable, they too must carry the spirit of Thurgood Marshall and Carter G. Woodson and be relentless in pushing long-lasting, structural changes for black people. That means not just taking their administrators at their word, but perpetually holding them accountable and encouraging students coming after them to do the same. To do less would be a mockery of their legacy and an invitation to just be another cold, powerless black body at the table of white supremacy.