Cultural centers take center stage in campus protests

Amy Scott Nov 23, 2015
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Cultural centers take center stage in campus protests

Amy Scott Nov 23, 2015
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When Jeffery Beckham Jr. was in college, the Black Culture Center was a refuge on a predominantly white campus. It had everything from poetry readings and live jazz to study groups and networking opportunities.

“As an African-American student, the Black Culture Center offered amenities and culture and comfort that you may have been hard pressed to find in other areas of the campus,” Beckham said.

That campus was the University of Missouri in Columbia, where earlier this month the chancellor and system president resigned after students protested their handling of racist incidents. Not long afterward, the sign at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center was vandalized.

Beckham, who graduated in 2003, remembers being called racial epithets and seeing a Confederate flag flown from a dorm window during his time at the university. He says the Black Culture Center was much more than a place to hang out.

“It effectively provided a social environment and a community that allowed you to connect with other students to do the ultimate thing that we were there for, which is matriculate through college and get a degree,” he said.

As protests over the racial climate on college campuses have spread in recent weeks, students have demanded more resources for cultural centers like the one at the University of Missouri. Yale University agreed to double the funding for the Asian American Cultural Center, the Afro-American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Native American Cultural Center. Last week, Princeton University officials agreed to set aside dedicated space for cultural affinity groups, as well as housing for students interested in black culture. Brown University committed to add staff to its Brown Center for Students of Color, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and LGBTQ Center, as part of a $100 million plan to promote diversity.

The first black cultural centers emerged in the late 1960s, as the Civil Rights movement led to a push to make college campuses more inclusive, said Edward Pittman, associate dean for campus life and diversity at Vassar College.

Pittman attended Vassar as a student in the early 1980s, when the Intercultural Center was just a space in the basement of a dorm. Today the expanded ALANA Center has dedicated staff and programs like mentoring, lectures and career development. Students who feel connected and thrive in college are more likely to graduate, Pittman said.

“I think cultural centers and faculty diversity are all factors that contribute to student persistence and student success,” Pittman said.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, black students represent less than 6 percent of undergraduates, in a majority African American city. For many of those students, the existing Office of Multicultural Affairs is a lifeline, said Rana Saeed, a freshman representative with the Black Student Union.

“It’s kind of been another home for me,” she said.

But the office is located off the main campus. Students plan to discuss moving it to a more central location when they meet with the university president and other administrators next week.

“The only place for minorities to feel in a safe space is so far away from campus,” said freshman Milena Berhane. “I thinking having that space here would show that ‘You guys are here, you guys are students, you matter just as much as everyone else.’”

But even some advocates of campus diversity worry that students seeking a dedicated cultural space on campus will self-segregate.  

“I think that does create very insular situations in which people are not interacting with a diverse population, which is what all of us have been fighting for such a long time,” said Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology at Princeton.

Advocates of campus cultural centers say they’re often the most inclusive organizations on campus.

Non-black students frequented the University of Missouri’s Black Culture Center and served on its staff, said Harold Bell, a former student and staff member at the center.

“It was a welcome spot for everybody,” he said.

When students of color feel supported, they’re better able to navigate the dorms, dining halls and classrooms where they spend most of their time, said Vassar’s Edward Pittman.

“Cultural centers become one stage of institutions becoming more inclusive,” he said. “I think the ultimate end is when every place on campus feels that way for students of color and LGBTQ students and others who often feel isolated.”

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