Sophia Simon has had a pretty rocky first year at Northwestern University. From indecisiveness about her major to fear about her future career, the Black first-year student says her experience on campus has been “all over the place.”
She says that she’s had a struggle “finding her grounding” and acknowledges that her identity as a Black woman on a predominantly white (and only about 6 percent Black) campus makes that a little harder.
Throughout this battle, she says that the Black community has been her rock.
“I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I feel affirmed and like I’m around good people. I know that if I weren’t in these spaces, my experiences would have been a lot different and I wouldn’t have enjoyed Northwestern as much.”
The spaces she’s referencing are mainly Black organizations on campus who make it their goal to improve the Black student experience. The existence of such organizations is an interesting result, direct and indirect, of the Black Student Experience Report, which was published by a special Northwestern task force in the summer of 2016.
The 2016 Task Force
This task force spent a year analyzing the experiences of Black students on Northwestern’s campus in response to the discontent Black students vocalized in multiple surveys.The report begins with an explanation of the experiences of Black students on campus and concludes with recommendations for the university.
Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, the chair of this task force and Executive Director of Campus and Student Activity, says the report was a necessary next-step after data they received from one particular question on year-end surveys from prior years.
The question: “How satisfied are you with your undergraduate educational experience?” Brown-Henderson says the answers were overwhelmingly negative among Black students.
“We saw the trend, but what we didn’t know was what experiences the students were referring to,” she says. “So the task force was charged in the summer to further investigate this and come up with some recommendations.”
According to her, the group worked with Black students, faculty and the administration to listen and learn about experiences on campus. The data and quotes in the report come from both focus groups and surveys, both of which were focused on the undergraduate experience.
Brown-Henderson says the report is crucial because it captures the 2015 Black student experience in and places it within a larger conversation about the historical Black experience at Northwestern.
What’s in the report?
“It’s comprehensive and captured the sentiment of that time,” she says. “But [it] also [says], ‘Here’s what’s historically happened at Northwestern, here’s what hasn’t happened. Here’s some of the recommendations that we are trying to echo or affirm, and here are some new things that we think our students need and are talking about.’”
The conclusion of the report consists of fourteen recommendations, three of which the university has primarily focused on thus far: increasing the number of Black students and faculty on campus, listening to Black students regularly and not just in times of crisis, and creating an academic support hub for Black students.
Brown-Henderson says the report is important for the school to acknowledge and move forward on and that task forces have been working hard on those three recommendations. She also believes that students have played a major role in supporting each other.
“It’s important for students to know what’s in the report [and] what was said in the report, as well as some of the historical knowledge that exists within the report. And [they] see how can we, as a community, collectively work to improve this experience.”
Black Student Groups Filling the Gaps that the University Won’t
Sure enough, many student leaders agree that their work fills a gap the university has failed to fill. Since the Black Student Experience Report was completed, groups like the Black Mentorship Program, For Us By Us, and the Collective — all catered toward black students — have emerged to support the Black community in ways that Northwestern has not.
Rick Wallace, founder and outgoing president of The Collective, says that his idea for the group came from his experience as a first-year Black man.
“The most pertinent issue I saw on campus was everyone asking, ‘Where are all the black men?’, and that really marked my first two years here,” says Wallace, now a fourth-year student.
He says The Collective is a group that directly responds to that issue. Black male-identifying students meet on a weekly basis and work on “building [their] own community of black men and then leveraging those relationships to make them want to show up [to larger community events.]”
Cleon Beckford is a co-programming chair of the Black Mentorship Program (BMP), a brand new program that focuses on easing the transition to campus for first-year Black students through mentorship, community building, racial identity development, and engagement with community resources.
He says that BMP is also a direct response to the needs of the Black community expressed in the report.
“BMP was really running on two different tracks, but it was being speared by Mari [Gashaw],” he says.”
After sophomore Mari Gashaw thought of a way her experience could have been improved, she brought the idea to students and faculty within the task force, and from there it took off.
Beckford says that BMP is a good example of students working with the administration to get things done. He says that “the catalyst [for BMP] was students, but when [the] administration saw the program, they put energy and resources in to support it.”
Being Full-time Students and Full-Time Organizers
Although Beckford acknowledges university support, he also attests that the group has been sustained mostly through student efforts and work. He doesn’t believe that the program, or anything like it, would have been created without students like Mari taking initiative.
“Most of these programs start with students, and the university may provide funds or resources for the students,” Beckford says. “But [the improvement of the black student experience] has mostly come from the work of students.”
Wallace echoes this sentiment, adding that the university is “waiting for the right student to come with the right idea at the right time.”
Amira Richards, executive director of For Us By Us (FUBU), acknowledges the downside to students leading most of the initiatives to improve the Black experience. FUBU is a revitalized group on campus that works to create spaces for black women-identifying and non-binary-identifying students on campus.
Richards, a third-year student, recognizes that “at a [predominately white institution] it’s hard to find intentional spaces for black women and queer black students.” She says that spaces like FUBU and Living in Color, a group made for artists of color and queer students, work to meet that need, but that this responsibility almost always rests largely on the shoulders of students.
Richards believes that placing the responsibility on students may seem acceptable, but it can actually put too much on their plates.
Too Many Responsibilities Rest on the Shoulders of Black Students
“A lot of the work ends up making us sacrifice our study time,” she says, admitting that her passion is what drives most of her work. “This week, I have three exams, but I’m also planning elections and meetings. That leads to a lot of burn out.”
Historically, oppressed people are often given the responsibility of reforming the very systems that oppress them. This, of course, adds yet another layer of oppression, and ignores the responsibility of the oppressors — who actually have the power and resources to improve those systems.
The result is often a burnt-out community that already has to deal with fighting to merely exist and now must to do the additional work to heal and build community.
Regardless of intentions, there need to be two legs to student-led initiatives that address recommendations in the Black Student Experience Report. Black student leaders need support from the university, even when the administration can’t stamp its name on the work.
The work of Black student leaders is admirable, but they should not have to do it alone.
When asked about the people who have made her first year at Northwestern a good experience, Sophia listed almost a dozen names from Black ASG senators to For Members Only. She says what they have done for the Black community has inspired her to continue that work next year.
“A lot of the work has been students, leaders of organizations constantly advocating for us,” she says. “I could go on and on about students advocating for us. Black students on this campus are truly revolutionary and it’s very inspiring to me.”