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Campus, black student leaders agree to create new African American center

By Christopher Merchant


A new African American center will be established on campus under an agreement between Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and the Black Student Union, the latest progress in UC Berkeley’s African American Initiative.

members of the Black Student Union who negotiated for the resource center

Gabrielle Imani Shuman, Anthony Williams, Blake Simons and AJ Moultrie, all current or former members of the UC Berkeley Black Student Union, were in talks with campus officials for 15 months to establish the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

“To truly fulfill our public mission, Berkeley must be a place where every member of the university community feels safe, welcome and respected,” Dirks says. “It’s clear to me — from the results of campus climate surveys, many conversations with members of the Black Student Union and Afrikan Black Coalition, and discussions with faculty and staff — that African Americans have encountered particular challenges on our campus, and that there is much work to be done in this realm.

“I’m very proud that our students and the administration have been able to come together to establish this center, which I hope will cultivate in Berkeley’s African American community a shared sense of belonging as well as help serve the community’s intellectual, cultural and political needs,” adds Dirks. “This is an exceedingly important step among the many we need to take in order to build and sustain an inclusive campus climate.”

The center will be named after Fannie Lou Hamer, a black voting rights activist and civil rights leader in the 1950s and ‘60s. It will be located in the Hearst Field Annex east of Sproul Hall. The center aims to serve the academic, social, cultural and political needs of the campus’s black community. The center is scheduled to open in October.

African Americans make up 3 percent of the undergraduate student body, 4 percent of graduate students and 3 percent of faculty, compared to a state population of 6 percent who identify as black. Moreover, a 2013 campus climate survey found that African American students feel the least respected among all groups on campus.

With this in mind, in August 2015 Berkeley launched the African American Initiative, a comprehensive effort to address the underrepresentation of African American students, faculty and staff and improve the climate for present and future members of the campus community.

Blake Simons and AJ Moultrie (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Blake Simons and AJ Moultrie (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

“It’s a big deal for our students to know that our administration understands their needs and supports them,” says Na’ilah Nasir, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, adding that it’s essential for campus leaders to promote a space that makes black students, staff and faculty feel happy, healthy and empowered.

Dirks has allocated $82,885 toward refurbishing the space, which was formerly a graduate student lounge, and further funds have been requested by the BSU to hire full-time staff for the center. This is especially significant since Berkeley faces a funding gap after years of decreased support from the state.

“It’s a financially constrained time, but it’s also a time when the administration is thinking about its priorities and values,” Nasir says. “I think the students should be encouraged that the center is something the campus will really support.”

The agreement to establish the center comes after a year of talks among the administration, the Black Student Union and other campus African American groups. Nzingha Dugas, director and academic coordinator for African American student development, served as liaison between students and the administration.

“The center was a long time coming,” says Anthony Williams, a former member of the Black Student Union who graduated this spring. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Funds for the refurbishment of the center came from the chancellor’s office’s discretionary fund. Various forms of fundraising will likely be a key strategy for ongoing support.