Building on a history of action

Amid historic lack of resources for Black students, Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center provides safe space, services for Black community

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Calvin Tang/Staff

A red, black and green color scheme emblazons the walls of the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center, which occupies a collection of rooms on campus tucked into the D-wing of the Hearst Field Annex building. Photographs acting as a visual timeline of Black students’ activism are on display, many of which took place at “The Wall” — a historic location across from Golden Bear Cafe serving as a space at which Black students have congregated prior to and since the opening of the center Feb. 21.

It has taken more than two years of organizing rallies, marches and demonstrations for the Black Student Union, or BSU, to obtain a five-year contract for the Hearst Field Annex space with a $30,000 annual stipend to pay for its programs.

Campus alumnus Willie Phillips said that “The Wall” served the same purpose as the newly opened center does now. When Phillips attended UC Berkeley in 1972, he and other Black students met at “The Wall” not only to socialize, but also to exchange information on political ongoings and to plan events such as Black History Month, Phillips said.

“A lot of the dialogue, debate … occurred at that particular space. It was outside and it certainly wasn’t very comfortable,” Phillips said. “That’s how things were done at the time.”

Years of mobilization: unified under Sather Gate

The only formal space that existed for Black students before the center opened was the African American Student Development, or AASD, office, according to Yoel Haile, one of the negotiators who helped reach the agreement with campus in July to create the resource center. He said in an email, however, that it served only as an office for the AASD director instead of as a space for community members to interact with each other.

“A lot of the dialogue, debate … occurred at that particular space. It was outside and it certainly wasn’t very comfortable.”

– Willie Phillips, campus alumnus

Although students originally asked for $500,000 to cover expenses such as the salaries of the director and assistant director of the AASD, the final terms of the agreement were deemed satisfactory for their current long-term goals, according to AJ Moultrie, director of communications for BSU and head of creative direction for the resource center.

Moultrie said, however, that getting those terms was not easy, adding that she experienced hostility during many of BSU’s demonstrations on campus. When 75 students, many of whom were members of BSU, shut down Golden Bear Cafe for four hours in December 2014, Moultrie said other students tried to break through their lines to get inside the café.

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Eniola Abioye, director of field operations for the Afrikan Black Coalition, added that administration was not immediately receptive to BSU’s concerns and that it took numerous emails to administration to convey that Black students were “in a state of emergency.” Haile said in his email that there were a few administrators — such as Na’ilah Nasir, the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion — who were more open to their demands.

Abioye said the turning point of the talks was when BSU members blocked Sather Gate on Cal Day in April 2015 in order to recognize the 10 demands sent to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks a month prior aimed at improving Black students’ experiences on campus. The protest garnered significant media attention and was witnessed by hundreds of prospective students and parents.

“It was great for people to see that while UC Berkeley is a premier university and one of the best public universities in the nation, the campus and administration have not been listening to what it’s like for Black students,” Abioye said.

A space of their own

Cephus X Johnson, a local activist and uncle to Oscar Grant III a 22-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by police at Fruitvale Bart Station in 2009attended the grand opening of the center and was the 2016 recipient of the UC Berkeley Fannie Lou Hamer award. He said it was a “tremendous victory” to have a source of progress and opportunities existing at UC Berkeley for Black students.

Johnson added that the location provided a fixture for Bay Area activists like himself to bring forth their demands and gather support to move forward on these issues. He also noted the importance of student activism.

“Without the voice of students in activism — protesting and demonstrating — the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center would have never come into existence by the school’s own volition,” Johnson said.

The center was created in order to show Black students they are valued and provide a space where they can “be comfortable in their Black skin,” according to Moultrie. The new resource center will also offer programming such as psychological services and mentorship initiatives.

“Without the voice of students in activism — protesting and demonstrating — the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center would have never come into existence by the school’s own volition.”

– Cephus X Johnson, local activist

“It’s amazing the new students that are coming in will see that as a norm — that there is a space for Black students to thrive,” Abioye said. “I know when I came to this campus, and for decades before me, it was a primary need for the community. We needed a space to ‘be.’ ”

The space is open to any person of African descent, Moultrie emphasized, including those from neighboring communities and schools — so as to better foster a sense of inclusion and belonging. Moultrie said she knows all too well the feeling of isolation and displacement that affects many Black students on campus, adding that she sometimes goes the whole day without seeing a fellow Black student and has never had a Black professor as an instructor in her media studies classes.

According to the spring 2017 campus census, 3.2 percent of undergraduate students are Black. In a campus climate survey conducted in 2013, 42 percent of African Americans at UC Berkeley reported experiencing exclusionary or hostile conduct.

African American studies professor Nikki Jones said one way to understand the campus climate is what Yale University sociology professor Elijah Anderson described as “white space,” or a public space that is predominantly occupied by white individuals. The same spring 2017 campus census showed that white students were the most represented ethnicity among undergraduates on campus, making up approximately 25.8 percent of the student population.

“In these spaces, there’s often a burden placed on people of color, especially Black people, to prove that they belong,” Jones said. “They have to prove it in everyday interactions, they have to prove it just walking from class to class and they have to prove it when they’re in the class.”

Moultrie said Black students internalize the idea that UC Berkeley was never built with them in mind. She pointed out how many of them attend class in buildings named after slave owners buildings that BSU previously demanded the administration rename. In fact, the resource center is situated right next to Barrows Hall, named after former UC Berkeley president David Barrows, who aided the Confederate States Army in manufacturing weaponry.

“We can say this (resource center) was meant for us, was built for us, was designed for us, down to its carpeting,” Moultrie said. “Everything in here is just dripping with Blackness and the love for our culture.”

Nasir said BSU should be proud for acquiring the resource center space, adding that the campus administration appreciated the students’ efforts to make these plans a reality.

According to Nasir, two years was a quick time frame for the university to not only obtain and allocate the space, but also provide the center with funding.

“It’s typically a process that takes a long time,” Nasir said. “So, to me, it really signaled that this was a high priority for the campus.”

Before the formation of the resource center, the administration also launched the UC Berkeley African American Initiative in September 2015, aiming to address the needs of the African American campus community. Objectives included improving minority recruitment and retention rates, fundraising for scholarships geared toward Black undergraduates and increasing diversity in hiring among faculty.

Nasir said the initiative has already addressed some of the problems under its purview. For instance, she said, the campus has done a significant amount of engagement with Black alumni. The opening of the resource center itself is also indicative of the initiative’s progress, she added.

“I think that the next step is for the students to really live in the space, and really figure out what kind of programming they would like and what kind of staffing would work best,” Nasir said. “We need to settle in the space. … Then we will assess what additional needs may be.”

Time to grow

The resource center has yet to obtain a signed agreement from the chancellor’s office regarding permanent funding for its programming, according to Moultrie. Nasir said the funds would be allocated by July 1.

“I think that the next step is for the students to really live in the space, and really figure out what kind of programming they would like and what kind of staffing would work best.”

– Na’ilah Nasir, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion

In the meantime, the resource center is focused on hiring a director and an assistant director for the AASD and ensuring that the programming budget is secured, Haile said in an email.

Abioye said there is not a conclusive timeline for what will happen once the resource center’s contract for the Hearst Field Annex space ends in five years. Haile said in his email that if the campus cannot find a more permanent site comparable to the annex, the resource center will remain where it is for another five years. There is also a possibility that the space in which it now resides will be made a permanent building so the center can remain there.

Moultrie said the five-year term would be used to gauge how many students use the resource center and if there would still be a need for it after five years. She emphasized that despite concerns regarding its contract, the resource center is not going anywhere.

“Our community feels as if there’s a little bit of anxiety surrounding whether or not we’ll be able to keep this space,” Moultrie said. “We intend on training and mentoring future leaders to sustain the space.”

Nasir also affirmed UC Berkeley Chancellor-designate Carol Christ’s support for the betterment of the campus’s Black students, stating that she believes Christ will be a partner in preserving the resource center.

Nasir added, however, that the struggle for Black spaces is not unique to UC Berkeley. The UC system as a whole is still grappling with how to meet the needs of its student population, especially its Black students, according to Nasir.

“I think it makes a very salient statement that Black students at this university fought for space and won it, and so we can serve as a model for Black students in every predominantly white institution that they deserve to be there and they should fight for their space,” Abioye said.

Fionce Siow covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fioncesiow.