The Thurman Center: Evolving with Students
By Rich Barlow
Photo by Vernon Doucette
The Howard Thurman Center hosts a tea party once a week. No, not the kind that draws Sarah Palin devotees; this one is designed for fans of Egyptian chamomile and halawa confections of sesame and sugar. For the less adventuresome, bags of Lipton and Tetley are provided in wood-and-glass cases on the crimson-clothed table. Tea-lovers linger to chat at the table or lounge in the comfortable chairs and sofas in the center’s George Sherman Union basement lounge.
Sipping tea like a country squire isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think about a place dedicated to cultural programs. Yet the Tea Club lures a cross section of students. Attendees have included Tino Henrik Bratbo (CAS’13), a white New Jerseyan by way of Denmark; African American Kimberly Morton (CAS’11); and Annie Rupani (CGS’09, CAS’11), an olive-skinned Texan of Pakistani ancestry. In the words of Thurman Center Assistant Director Raul Fernandez (COM’00), the year-old club draws a group that’s “diverse without even trying.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the center, founded to offer cultural programs that carry on the multicultural, barriers-busting philosophy of the late Marsh Chapel Dean Howard Thurman (Hon.’67). Observing the milestone, the Thurman Center is evolving a new strategy to fulfill that mission. It is morphing beyond what Fernandez says was a place where only students of color came. “From our perspective, we were always for the entire campus,” he says. “But we weren’t reaching the whole campus. We wanted to be something broader.”
Director Katherine Kennedy agrees: “Our programs have always been inclusive.” The center fashioned new events to make itself a hub where students of all races and ethnicities engage in shared passions that aren’t particular to any one group. That might be tea. Or it might be the center’s Book Club or its Culture Shock blog for aspiring writers, both launched within the past few years. Walk in on these activities, Fernandez says, and you see “a little bit of a Times Square. The most diverse events that we’ve had here have been events that had nothing to do with what you look like. Book Club—all you’ve got to do is be able to read. Tea Club—obviously, you like tea. If you don’t like tea, you can still show up. I’ll serve some coffee.”
More events have meant more attendance, which increased from about 6,000 visits in 2007 to more than 21,000 last year.
Fernandez argues that the emphasis on cross-cultural activities keeps faith with the philosophy of the center’s namesake. In 1944, Thurman cofounded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, America’s first integrated, nondenominational congregation, drawn together by a common spirituality that knew no racial or creedal distinctions. “His intent was to connect people,” says Fernandez. “He said there was something called common ground, and if people can find that, whatever it is—some people find common ground around bad movies, or anime—then they can understand one another better.”
Thurman unwittingly forecast the attitudes of many 21st-century BU students, who either don’t identify themselves primarily by race or ethnicity or else are more interested in comparing notes with peers of different backgrounds. “I personally don’t identify myself by my culture,” says Jennifer Gilbert (CAS’13), who is Jewish. She attends synagogue, but does so to sing and to please her family rather than out of conviction. “I identify myself more by my experiences. You don’t choose your culture. Your experiences are something you shape about yourself.”
“My identity’s still a work in progress,” says Bratbo. “I don’t really identify by my culture or demographics. If anything, I identify with the Howard Thurman Center,” as a student ambassador, or volunteer.
Both Bratbo and Gilbert are part of the nation’s white racial majority, and race can be more crucial to minorities. But Morton and Alexandria “Sandy” Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11), for whom ancestry is a point of pride and essential to their sense of self, also value the chance to mingle with others from different backgrounds.
“I am black Baptist. That’s not something I’ve lost at the Thurman Center,” says Morton. “Raul’s correct; this center used to be very visited by students of color, and it still is. You find that common ground—which for all of us is tea—and we might have a conversation and I’ll say, ‘Oh, Tino, you’re from Denmark, that’s interesting,’ and talk about Danish culture. It’s still a cultural center, but it’s definitely more than that.”
Ocasio-Cortez, also an ambassador, stresses her Hispanic identity and Puerto Rican family. But Thurman’s writings urge readers “to act in accordance with your passion,” she says. “Some people are passionate about their cultural heritage, but some are passionate about other things that happen to have a cultural breadth—tea being one of them.”
“One of the things that allows people to expand who they are is to identify with other people’s passions. I identify with my cultural community, but I’ve learned a lot from Tino’s passion for literature.” (Did we mention the Thurman Center has a Book Club?)
You’ll still see racially or ethnically focused groups meeting at the center, from Alianza Latina to the Russian American Cultural Club. Cultural identity is especially important to students of color, says Kennedy—hence the center’s affiliated cultural groups. But “we work to make sure that is not all they focus on, by encouraging them to find that comfort zone” through other center activities.
Besides, says Fernandez, there’s only so much the Thurman Center can do to help cultural groups express themselves: “I can’t tell somebody what it means to be Russian.” ■
This story was adapted with permission from BU Today.