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On a Tuesday night in February, more than a dozen students sat in a circle in a College of Arts & Sciences classroom. They were there for a panel discussion titled What I Wish I Knew as a Freshman, hosted by Umoja, Boston University’s black student union.
The student panelists, Jordan Carter (CFA’17), Kirby Page (CAS’18), Daniel Wiley (ENG’17), and Sherifat Bakare (CAS’16, SPH’18), were leading a conversation about the culture shock that black students often experience when they arrive at BU as freshmen. The discussion was part of the club’s Unity Week, a series of events commemorating Umoja’s 50th anniversary.
The panelists stressed the importance of building rapport with professors inside and outside of class, meeting new people, and getting involved in activities you’re passionate about. Bakare shared her struggle to fit in. “I just didn’t feel comfortable,” she recalled of her first months at BU. “I hadn’t found my group of people.” But when she began working at the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, she found a home base and was able “to really put my feet down on the ground here.”
Many of the students at the discussion said that Umoja itself had been instrumental in helping them find community at BU. The organization was founded in 1967, at a time when African Americans all over the country were mobilizing around civil rights. In its early years, members fought against racial injustice on campus and in the community. They protested the University’s lack of African American faculty in 1969 and created a legal defense fund the next year in support of activist Angela Davis, prosecuted for conspiracy involving the armed takeover of a Marin County, Calif., courtroom that left four people dead, and later acquitted in a federal trial.
Today, the club’s mission is to support and represent black students both within and outside the University, as well as to educate the greater BU community about the black experience and promote unity through its forums and other events during the year.
“Umoja’s goal is to strive to create a healthy environment for black students and all students interested in black culture,” says club president Jonea Weekley (Questrom’17). “We do this through a variety of events, such as general meetings, where we discuss current topics, or larger, more formal events that are meant to celebrate the community.”
The club, with 30 or so active members currently (its events often draw crowds of 100 or more), meets twice a month, and general membership is open to all BU students. Discussions focus on issues from pop culture to education and politics. Recent topics have included the dynamics of interracial relationships and the relevance and role of black music artists in society.
In addition to hosting its own events, Umoja often partners with other student groups, like Alianza Latina and the Islamic Society of BU. The three groups collaborated last November to sponsor a spoken word event centered on intersectionality. One of the club’s biggest events was a September panel discussion cohosted with BU Students for Justice in Palestine about the connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Featuring writer and civil rights activist Shaun King, the program drew more than 300 people.
Umoja is the Swahili word for “unity,” so it seemed appropriate to kick off the celebration of the club’s 50th anniversary with a week of events in February, dubbed Unity Week, focused on fostering unity among students of color at BU.
“As the black student union on campus, it was important to us that we showcased not only black history around our country,” Weekley says, “but also black history happening every day on our campus.”
Among the events were a screening of the documentary The New Black and a monthlong social media campaign, #blackmenmonday and #blackwomenwednesday, highlighting the accomplishments of black men and women. Each post was accompanied by a brief biography and photo.
The anniversary observance was capped off with a Staff, Students, and Faculty of Color Reception at the Algonquin Club on February 24. Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), associate provost and dean of students, delivered a toast that underscored the importance of Umoja’s mission.
“Right now more than ever, we have to pull together,” Elmore said. “I want to remind you about our ancestors: any time I think it gets hard, not only am I remembering that Umoja is 50 years old, but I’m remembering my ancestors who…came through far worse. They kept their backs straight, they kept their heads up.”
For many club members, this year’s anniversary has been a time for taking stock. “At the end of the day, I’ve had the opportunity to build onto a 50-year-long legacy, and while it may have been challenging at times, it was truly a privilege to be a part of this dynamic community,” says Weekley. “I hope to see Umoja continue to expand and provide programming that is meant to bring people together to smile, debate, discuss, and celebrate each other.”
Kyler Sumter can be reached at email@example.com.