ALANA SESOW KELSEY SPROUT
KAATJE WEILAND NOAH WICKS
Edit and correction: We originally posted this article stating that 43 Augustana students were racial minorities from America. That is actually the number of black students from America. We deeply apologize for the mistake. It has been fixed.
In a humble Madsen Center classroom, a campus-wide transformation began. Yet, the modest location provided what certain students couldn’t quite find at Augustana University: a sense of comfort.
On Tuesday, Oct. 30, a 26-1-1 vote from the Augustana Student Association officially approved the University’s first Black Student Union. According to its members, the club seeks to increase diversity, unity and racial education on campus.
The only catch? To establish unity among the group, BSU meetings will remain closed to non-black students until February. Though the final approval vote was nearly unanimous, this constitutional clause sparked debate at the ASA meeting, as students discussed whether the club’s grace period fulfilled Augustana’s non-discrimination policy.
Being a minority at Augustana
Augustana is 17.3 percent diverse, yet a vast majority of these students come from other countries; only 9.74 percent of Augustana students are racial minorities from America and of these, only 43 are black.
“Imagine walking into a classroom with a hundred people that don’t look like you, that you don’t truly see that you identify with,” said Sydney Capers, BSU secretary. “And then add college and trying to get grades and trying to meet new people and trying to find friends and get into clubs.”
This can make it hard for black students to feel at home.
“I feel like as a minority, you’re trying to prove yourself to the other people in the room,” Capers said. “You’re not just representing yourself, because other people take note when you’re the only African American that they’ve maybe experienced ever in one of their classes … You just have to be cognizant of who you are trying to represent each time that you step into a new situation.”
On the other hand, senior Montrell Moore was used to environments that lack diversity. Moore, vice president of the BSU, attended a predominantly white high school in the suburbs of Minneapolis before being recruited to play football at Augustana. However, Moore still yearned “to be around different cultures.”
“Sometimes, I’ll be in class and I’ll feel like I want to say things, but then I get kind of scared and nervous, like maybe they won’t understand where I’m coming from or why I might say something,” he said. “I think having a BSU will make all of those things easier and more fluid.”
Origins and evolution of BSU
The idea for the BSU had been in junior Malik Sanders’s mind since his sophomore year. But at that point, it was just an idea. It wasn’t until he and Moore began watching “Dear White People” on Netflix that that idea blossomed into the foundations of the club.
“We kind of joked around [about] the idea a little bit at first,” Moore said. “And then we talked to some more people and we kind of looked into what other universities were doing and we saw it as a real possibility.”
By mid-July, Sanders and Moore developed concrete plans for the BSU, so they devoted the rest of the summer to spreading the word. Specifically, Sanders and Moore held an open house to gather signatures and sent out emails to find potential members.
According to Moore, the idea was generally well-accepted.
“I wouldn’t say we got any pushback at first or really at all thus far from any students or administrators at Augie,” he said. “It was a pretty smooth route to making it to a club, I would say. We didn’t have to hurdle any hurdles that any other club wouldn’t have to.”
Once Sanders and Moore gathered 10 signatures, Michelle Harvey, associate director of campus life and BSU advisor, helped them create a constitution. After doing so, one obstacle remained: official recognition from the ASA.
(Click on gallery to enlarge photos and view captions.)
Though students can unofficially gather without ASA approval, many clubs still seek recognition because ASA-recognized clubs can receive university funding.
In order to gain ASA approval, clubs must meet several requirements: have an advisor, a leadership structure, enough members, and a constitution — which must include Augustana’s non-discrimination statement.
So, Sanders, Moore, Capers and Harvey attended the Oct. 30 ASA meeting to request recognition, and the constitution they presented included the customary non-discrimination policy.
However, some ASA members felt the club’s intention to remain closed to non-black students until February violated BSU’s own constitution.
“That’s what the disagreement about it was,” said ASA President Anna Stritecky. “We were voting on the constitution that said no you can’t discriminate because that’s what they brought to us and they were saying, ‘Oh no. Once you vote on this, we’re going to have to talk about who’s allowed at first.’”
Senior Senator Matthew Moe was the only senator to vote against the BSU’s recognition. Moe said he didn’t think about the anti-discrimination clause until Stritecky brought it up in the meeting. Instead, he felt that BSU would cause unnecessary divisions on Augie’s campus.
“I’m sure the officers had good intentions with everything, and I share a lot of their goals in a lot of ways, but I think their application of it is kind of flawed,” Moe said. “I’m afraid that the club is going to be another clique.”
Moe’s vote garnered mixed reactions from students. According to Moe, some people praised him for speaking up while others were more hostile.
BSU Treasurer Sara Telahun Birhe said that the anti-discrimination argument is invalid because every club can be seen as exclusionary is some way. While race is always a sensitive issue, Telahun Birhe hopes that students understand the BSU’s goal: to create community for marginalized students.
“We have a club that is doing the exact same thing as most clubs on campus, but we are being targeted because it is racially based,” Telahun Birhe said. “People are more likely to act viscerally to this idea more than they would knitting club.”
According to Stritecky, involvement, not discrimination, fueled the controversy. She said the conversation was different because the BSU explicitly asked people not to come to their meetings.
Yet, Dean of Students and ASA Advisor Mark Blackburn attributed the discussion to a simple misunderstanding. According to Blackburn, the grace period’s benefits are twofold: providing refuge for students of color while giving them enough time to craft a message for the student body — a message that would educate others about the historical stigmatization of black culture.
“People thought that [the club] was closed off to anybody who was not black before February and that wasn’t the case,” Blackburn said. “It was like, ‘we’re here, you come in and join,’ but they wanted to make sure that they have everything in line in order [to do that].”
Blackburn also disagrees with the notion that BSU will contribute to division on campus, racial or otherwise.
“You have international students and you have the African Student Union and you have Muslim students,” Blackburn said. “It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing with Christianity and some of the students who have Cru and all those organizations.”
Essentially, Blackburn believed that Augustana has a duty to live up to its core values, and BSU is one way to do that.
“If on our core values, we claim to be open and welcoming and inclusive, and then we get upset when student groups like this come to fruition, that kind of scratches my head a little bit,” Blackburn said. “Are we practicing what we preach or are we preaching?”
In the end, senators voted and approved the constitution as is, with the non-discrimination clause.
Stritecky said that she does not want the no and abstain votes to reflect poorly on ASA as a whole.
In its first month as an ASA-approved club, the BSU co-hosted an on-campus speaker and partnered with the International Club and the African Student Union for various events during International Education Week.
Yet, the real focus of the club is February: Black History Month. During the month, the BSU plans to hold an event every week, educating students on black culture and bridging the gap between white students and students of color.
“We are trying to spread that love, community, and culture to everyone,” Telahun Birhe said. “For me, it’s about creating a relationship between black students and other students on campus so that … we get away from these biases and assumptions.”
Ultimately, Sanders wants the whole campus to be interested and ask questions–not just about the BSU but about black people in general–so students feel more comfortable, aware and confident while speaking to someone that is not white.
(Click on gallery to enlarge photos and view captions.)
Netflix show inspires BSU president
Malik Sanders first got the idea for Augustana to have a Black Student Union from watching Dear White People, a Netflix series which features a group of black students at a predominantly white Ivy League college.
“That sparked my interest to bring unity amongst us on campus between all races,” said Sanders. Now in his senior year, he knew he had to start a Black Student Union because otherwise, he said, it might never happen.
“It’s my senior year … and before I leave I just wanted to try to get things better on campus for the students who have yet to come here,” he said.
From the first time she met him after he transferred to Augustana from West Point Military Academy, Michelle Harvey, who Sanders calls “Ms. Michelle,” knew that Sanders was outgoing and wanted to be involved in the Augustana community. Now, she said that he has been very encouraging to the students in BSU and to her, as the adviser for the club.
“As he’s been starting this group, he’s been a really good supporter of students in the process, saying ‘good job,’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re amazing’ and really being encouraging,” she said. “He’s playing an encouraging role to all the students really well. And to me, really.”
The BSU has had six meetings so far, but they do not call them meetings. They call them “kickbacks,” because they are not strict, said Sanders. About 20 to 30 members come to every kickback, he said.
Sanders said that he has two goals for BSU. The first goal is to bring unity among all people of color on campus. That bond needs to be made so that all students feel safe and at home with each other, he said. BSU’s end goal is for the whole campus to be involved and want to be involved, he said.
He said that he wanted people to be more comfortable and “less socially awkward” when speaking to someone who is not white. Getting people to be friendly and comfortable around each other is important, he said.