At the start of Black History Month, first-year student Philip Miheso said: “sometimes difficult truths must be spoken.” What followed was an exploration of difficult truth and lived experience in a slam-poetry style format, presented by a handful of students who are also members of the Augustana Diversity Working Group—the impetus behind a number of other powerful Black History Month events.
“We wanted to plan events throughout the month to celebrate being black,” said Omotayo Segun-Omosehin, a third-year biology major. Along with slam poetry and speeches, those events included panels and open discussions, a healing circle, film showings and a braid and rap, all paying tribute to black history and also tackling those difficult truths, including racism and discrimination. The Black History Month events concluded with a panel on Friday afternoon, followed by a cultural celebration that evening. All of the events approached the same underlying theme: facilitating conversation, education and understanding.
“It was really important to us to not only spread awareness but to create opportunities for discussion,” said Rama Taha, a first-year environmental student. “It’s all about gaining different perspectives.”
Rama, along with Omotayo, Philip and two other students, each presented at the opening event, and are all a part of the Diversity Working Group. The group is not only concerned with events one month out of the year but looks at diversity and inclusion on campus as a whole.
However, the group has struggled with feeling adequately represented on campus, from gaining funding to getting others to come to their events, which they have continued to put on despite the difficulties that accompanied beginning the initiative in the first place.
“The nature of these events is difficult,” Philip described, and not just in reference to the sensitive subject matter. “The people who are already engaged are the people who generally continue to come, but the ones who don’t engage are the ones who often let racism become the order of the day, whether consciously or not.”
Fellow student and diversity working group member, Nathalie Hewa Dewage, agreed. “There are a lot of ways to be racist, whether on purpose or accidental,” she said. “Saying the n-word to a black person is racist, but coming up to [a person of colour], making an assumption and saying ‘your English is really good’ is also racist, just in a different way.”
Members of the working group concede that these are difficult conversations to have, and they have taken it upon themselves to make space for these conversations to happen. Hannan Mohamud, a fourth-year student who spearheaded the Diversity Working Group, expressed frustration with the lack of space available. “There currently aren’t any supports or resources specifically for dealing with racism,” she said. Organizing Black History Month events was one way to create this space.
It was important to the group to discuss these issues, even if the responses to them were not all that positive. Anonymous feedback from fellow students expressed concern that the slam poetry opening, especially, “went off of the essence of black history month.” The students who presented whole-heartedly disagreed.
“You can’t only talk about the good, and leave out the bad,” said Philip. Which is why talking, and open discussion, drove the events that followed.
Sessional instructor and the Diversity Working Group’s faculty lead Feisal Kirumira, who also spoke at the opening event and was involved in those that followed, introduced the month’s events as “borne out of many stories of difficulty and stories of delight. But these stories are not particular to Augustana nor are they particular to this time and the people here. Rather, these stories of difficulty and delight reverberate across time, space, and relations.”
Although there is still much work to do concerning racism and discrimination, not just at Augustana but in society more generally, these students’ passion and initiative have sparked a good start on campus.