African American Initiative expands support, aims to better campus climate

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The African American Initiative at UC Berkeley is aiming to continue working to increase Black recruitment and retention rates. The initiative was created in 2015.

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Despite budget cuts faced by UC Berkeley, the African American Initiative, or AAI, hopes to continue its efforts to increase Black recruitment and retention rates, bolster support systems and cultivate a better campus climate.

In order for Black students to have a better UC Berkeley experience, campus needs to focus on equity and justice, according to Takiyah Jackson, AAI committee chair and the African American Student Development director. In fall 2020, the AAI hired its first academic counselor and four students to provide support services for scholar recipients, Jackson added.

“Getting more Black people on campus is not easy but it is within reach and possible to do,” Jackson said in an email. “The more difficult thing is to dismantle all of the systems of oppression that are embedded in the history of our country and our campus. Black people don’t just deserve to be on this campus, they deserve to thrive and be accepted and supported.”

In 2014, respondents to the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey felt the environment, both at UC Berkeley and systemwide, was least respectful of Black students. In response to the survey results, the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley compiled a list of 10 actions to alleviate and redress such concerns.

According to its website, these events served as the impetus for the AAI’s creation in 2015.

In the most recent 2020 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, 61% of respondents identifying as African American reported feeling disrespected on the basis of race, up from 48% in 2014. For comparison, only 16% of all student respondents in the 2020 survey felt similarly.

Microaggressions, anti-Blackness, imposter syndrome, low numbers of Black faculty and unequal access to research, career, advising and mental health resources are some challenges Black students face at UC Berkeley, according to Mia Settles-Tidwell, campus Division of Equity and Inclusion assistant vice chancellor and chief of staff.

“The campus is working towards co-constructing with experts from the Black community trainings that help address Anti-Blackness in all aspects of the campus, classroom, and community,” Settles-Tidwell said in an email.

Securing greater success for Black students will require additional steps, Settles-Tidwell added, beginning with the creation of a “Black Standing Committee” to monitor the progress of the AAI. Further actions include carrying out recommendations from the Chancellor’s Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and creating a structure for a “proactive and timely response to incidents that negatively impact the Black community.”

As a part of the broader campus initiative, the AAI began providing scholarships to incoming Black students in 2018, with recipients receiving $8,000 annually for up to five years. The first cohort included 28 students, and 42 additional AAI scholarships were administered during the 2020-21 academic year, Jackson added in the email.

Increasing the representation of Black students at UC Berkeley is one of the main pillars of the AAI program. According to the UC website, 5% of freshman admissions and 4% of enrolled students in the 2020 freshman class identified as African American, compared to 6.5% of California’s population and 13.4% of the United States.

According to Jackson, the AAI is currently exploring ways to support incoming and continuing students, such as expanding the African American Theme Program for housing to create a community for Black students.

In addition to the AAI, Jackson said various other campus stakeholders have played a pivotal role in reaching a “critical mass” of Black students on campus, such as the Black Recruitment and Retention Center, the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Changing UC Berkeley’s culture, however, is not limited to specific campus groups, Jackson added.

“It is also going to take everyone who is a part of this campus to commit to dismantling the ideas and beliefs that interfere with Black students’ access to true belonging on the campus,” Jackson said in the email.

Contact Kaleo Mark at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kaleomark_dc.