Black students and faculty at UC Berkeley celebrated the opening on campus Tuesday of the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center, a gathering and community space for the small minority of Black students at Cal. The idea for the center took root in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, but several of the 200 or so who attended the opening made clear such a space had been lacking for decades, never mind, years.
Yvette Gullatt, head of diversity and engagement in the Office of the UC President, spoke at the opening of arriving at Cal as an undergraduate and feeling overwhelmed and isolated. With nowhere to go to find community with fellow Black students, she sequestered herself in the Moffitt Library all day and made few friends. Speaking of the efforts made by the students who campaigned to get the center open, Gullatt, who went on to get three degrees from Cal, said: “I am so proud of you. You have shown that persistence works. I hope that this space will always be filled with people as it is filled now.”
The center, which is located in the Hearst Annex building, houses the African-American Student Development (AASD) office and will be a central resource for the Black community on and off campus, said Blake Simons, one of those who fought for the center.
“While the … center is dedicated to the retention and academic/professional matriculation of Black identified students, anyone can use it,” said Simons, who was hired as community development specialist at AASD shortly after he graduated Cal. Black students used to meet up in the former AASD office, then overseen by AASD director Mama Nzingha, but it was far from ideal. Simons describes it as being as big as the diminutive kitchen in the newly opened center. Simons said the decision was made to name the new space after Fannie Lou Hamer because “often times we hear about Martin Luther King Jr., but not about Black women who contributed just as much, if not more to the Black freedom struggle.” Hamer, who died in 1977, was a voting-rights activist, civil rights leader and philanthropist who was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
According to UC Berkeley, just 3.2% (947) of undergraduates, and 3.7% (405) of graduate students at Cal are African-American. (These numbers only include US citizen and permanent resident African Americans — international students who self-identify as Black are excluded.) And growth is slow — in 2012, African Americans accounted for 3.7% of undergraduate enrollments across the whole UC system; in 2016 it was 3.9%
UC Berkeley has had a dedicated Division of Equity and Inclusion since 2007 which currently has 150 full-time staff members. Gibor Basri, professor of astronomy (now emeritus), its first director, was replaced in 2015 by Na’ilah Nasir, a professor in the Department of African-American Studies.
Speaking at the center opening, Nasir stressed the ongoing importance of making and holding spaces for the Black community. “We mustn’t forget all we have gained and how far we’ve come,” she said.
Nasir joined many of the actions that began in 2014 in which students protested what they described as a hostile environment for Black students on campus.
Helped by two local activist groups — the BlackOut Collective and the Afrikan Black Coalition — students staged demonstrations and marches starting in December 2014 in the wake of the Michael Brown death in Ferguson, MI. On one of the protest days, the students gathered on campus with a view to marching through the city only to discover noose effigies hanging from Sather Gate and other spots. An anonymous artist collective later took responsibility for the action. Black Student Union members continued to campaign and negotiate with Cal Chancellor Nicholas Dirks until eventually, in August 2016, the university agreed to give the students a space and funds to convert it.
The new center has a library and lounge, a study space with computers for students, a kitchen and office cubicles. Previously a graduate student lounge, it was shabby, smelly and uninviting when the university made it available to the Black student body, according to Simons who oversaw its renovation. (The first offer of a basement room in the student union building was turned down.) With a budget of $83,000, the rooms are now freshly painted, including bold stripes in the colors the Pan-African flag, and there’s new furniture and carpeting.
Simons said the new space will give them the ability to run programming and academic services, as well as the library/study space that meets the needs of the community.
As for what the new center means to him, Simons said that its opening makes all the challenges that he endured as a student at Cal worth it.
“I will forever have pride in my heart for what we accomplished as a community,” he said. “Being one of the founders of the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center is definitely one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had in my life — as I know the sacrifices that I made were in honor of my ancestors. I am excited that students will have what I didn’t, which is a dedicated center that serves Black students’ socio-emotional needs, retention, professional development, and academic success.”
Simons and ab, a former Cal student who also works full-time at the AASD, hope that through the new center they will be also be able to forge meaningful partnerships in the Black community beyond UC Berkeley.
“In the future, we hope to work with B-Tech, Berkeley High, Oakland High schools, as well as Richmond schools,” said Simons. “We hope to establish a pipeline to local communities, so that at a young age students from these communities know that they belong at UC Berkeley.”