Students organize Black Lives Matter event to share Black student experiences at Augustana, call for change

More than 100 members of the Augustana community gathered both virtually and in-person to pay witness to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement Oct. 30 where students shared personal experiences, called for changes on campus and urged allies to step in.

Members of the Black Student Union (BSU) and African Student Union (ASU) partnered to host the event in the Froiland Science Complex lecture hall where attendees watched videos, heard student speeches, and listened to a performance by local musician Soleil Bashale. Many of the speeches were met with standing ovations and hugs between event organizers.

“With this event we were strictly highlighting the experiences of black and indigenous people of color on Augustana’s campus by sharing real experiences in and outside the classroom,”  said Mekhi Moore, ASA sophomore senator and one of the BLM event organizers. 

The event was originally planned to take place outside of the commons during Viking Days to achieve more visibility, however, COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to coordinate. The student organizers also decided to move it inside due to weather unpredictability.

ASA sophomore senator Tsegab Arega moderated the event for the majority of the night.

“It’s not our job to educate the campus,” Arega said. “We do it because it is embedded in our DNA to fight for equity. That is something our administrators should do, especially if ‘diversity’ is considered a core value.”

The Black Lives Matter event was carefully put together by students to make sure that politics would not take away from the experiences each Black student has faced on campus, said Onajite Taire, the ASU senator and founder of Women in STEM.

“We understood that what we were doing could be seen as controversial. We didn’t want something that could be used as a tool to discredit the entire event or discredited the entire movement,” Taire said.

The agenda for the event was to educate students about problems Black students on campus face. Organizers said they believe that change starts with policies implemented in the university.

“I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want hugs. I want policies in place,” Arega said.

Two videos, “Black Lives Matter around the world” and “Being Black at Augustana University,” played. The first talked about 2020’s BLM protests following the death of George Floyd, and the second displayed Black students attending Augustana who shared their experiences and ideas for change. 

Bashale, who opened for Hoodie Allen at the UBG concert in the spring, performed several songs including “Open Arms,” a song he’d written with a friend and local musician, Jamal, the week that George Floyd died. The audience clapped along and cheered “OK Soleil” as he sang and danced to his song “Congolese.”

“Is it for personal gain or purely because you want to help?” Bashale said between songs. “Intentions, good questions, and understanding. They’re really, really important for us to remember and exercise.” 

Speakers who followed the performance included freshman international student Alex Rosauer, ASU President and ASA international senator Gedion Alemayehu, former ASA President Luca Amayo, Moore, Taire, and Arega respectively.

Moore called for Augustana to add safe spaces, scholarships, and educational events to better support Black students. 

“Make Augustana a place that benefits all,” Moore said.

Alemayehu said some Black students have difficulties in science classes because of being excluded working with a lab partner or being seen as incapable or avoided. He also told about Black students who’ve shared “that their professors are accusing them of cheating just for scoring high on an exam.”

Alemayehu, as well as other speakers throughout the night, questioned why dominantly Black people serve food in the commons or cleaning. He said that international students face restrictions for work off campus but on campus positions are too limited, leaving few other options for international students.

Speaking at the event, Amayo said silence from allies who say they stand with BLM hurts him, adding that speaking up is vital in class, in the cafeteria and in conversations about international student employment.

“If you believe our lives matter then you need to speak up like they matter,” he said.

Amayo also called for increased diversity within Augie’s decision making structures and the Sioux Falls community.

The event was opened up for discussion, and students took that time to share their personal experiences and echo the urge for change.

BSU senator Makayla Mallett  brought up the negative mental health effects she’s felt from being perpetuated by racial jokes and comments. She draws the line of what’s unacceptable, saying, “Don’t touch my hair, period. It makes me feel foreign.”

After Arega gave a final speech, Taire invited Black students to the front by name to celebrate all their accomplishments and Moore finished the event with a prayer.

Reflecting after the event, freshman international senator Benita Manzengo said being Black in South Dakota is especially hard. 

“I’ve not been able to put into words all of the feelings as a Black person that I felt,” Manzengo said. “And hearing that from them really brought up all of the things that I really tried to repress.” 

Some of the speakers at the event expressed that when white students are not willing to reach out, Black students are left feeling lonely and marginalized. Manzengo said she related to those experiences as well.

According to Arega and Taire, awareness and advocacy were the lessons of the night. They hope that the event facilitates conversation among students and administration.

“For some reason I thought that it was better than it is,” junior Aliah Davidson said in reaction to the event. “It impacts me to think that I was not doing enough to help.”

According to Taire, Augustana students and administration can take the following steps to break down systemic racism on campus:

  • Sign a petition that will address the international student program budget cuts made by the University.
  • Support policies that are being introduced at the ASA board meetings addressing diversity in syllabi and more employment options for international students. 
  • Learn more about the accomplishments of Black people in the community and around the world.

By bringing awareness of systemic racism at Augustana, the organizers believe that they can facilitate conversation with their white peers and call for change within their community.

“Every single one of us as individuals are already battling so much as individuals, but when we come here we now have another battle which is being black or being international,” said Taire.

All gallery photos by Hunter Chear.

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