In a time when the U.S. is divided on issues of race, the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) believes now is more important than ever to make students feel heard during Black Heritage Month. The office is offering events to allow students to communicate their perspectives and feelings about Black heritage in ways that fit with their passions.
OMA is working with community and university partners to host a total of 26 virtual events ranging from movie nights to walkathons during the month of February in celebration of Black Heritage Month. Winston Jones, OMA acting director and associate dean of students, said the goal of the events is to create an environment that celebrates diversity as well as Black history.
“It should be every day that we celebrate differences and celebrate success and celebrate contributions,” Jones said. “However, in a time where the world is very divisive and the community is trying to figure out where we stand with issues of race, difference and the roll and space for Black folks in the United States, I think it’s important to have celebrations and occasionally have hard conversations like we do during Black Heritage Month.”
Jones said all the events aim to educate students and give them a voice on racial issues as a direct response to the social movements, protests and political shifts that occurred across the country over the past year.
While events in recent years focused on memorializing and remembering prominent Black figures throughout history, this year OMA felt that taking action and speaking up regarding issues of race was a more pertinent theme of events.
“We would have been encouraging memorials, conversations, discussions and peaceful protest, but right now we can’t do any of that because of the pandemic,” Jones said. “It creates a void that we feel because we want to use those methods also as folks who were not only helping students go through it but believe in the missions and ideals also.”
Among the 26 events, OMA Assistant Director Nicole Luckett said she was particularly excited about one which will span the entire month — the Black Heritage Month Centre Gallery exhibition.
OMA and the Centre Gallery are officially collaborating to celebrate not only Black Heritage Month but also to feature artwork that celebrates other months like LGBTQ+ History Month and Women’s History Month down the line. Although located on the second floor of the Marshall Student Center, access to the gallery is entirely virtual this year due to safety regulations related to COVID-19. Students can access it via the Centre Gallery section of USF’s Center for Student Involvement web page.
Luckett said the goal of the partnership is to allow students to participate in each heritage or pride month by expressing themselves in ways they are most passionate about.
“One thing that we’ve really been talking about across our departments is, for example, let’s say that someone is an activist and they want to protest, but their form of protest isn’t actually boots on the ground and out in the streets, walking and protesting but they’re passionate about art. So they can be an activist and have their voice be heard and their story told through another medium,” Luckett said.
Students can submit artwork of all types to the gallery through the application on BullSync. The gallery accepts drawings, paintings, poetry, short stories, photography and even vocal and dance performances.
The pandemic created many challenges for OMA pertaining to student participation and staff retention, according to Luckett, so the directors have been trying to create or collaborate on events that give students many virtual options to increase attendance and engagement.
One of these virtual collaborations is a walkathon to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was pursued and shot while on a run in Georgia, on Feb. 23.
Participants can post a picture of themselves with the hashtag #BullsWalkWithAhmaudArbery after walking the recommended 2.23 miles, to match the date, at any location they choose. Luckett said she hopes the event will give people an opportunity to get up from their desks while honoring Arbery.
“People can do it at their own pace and at their own time,” she said. “We just thought it’d be another good way to get people up and moving, and to do it for a really good cause.”
Some of the events OMA is hosting are simply meant to educate the community about what it is like to be Black in the U.S. As a way to encourage discussions on the growing issue, the office developed the Enlightenment Workshop Series, which introduces topics that affect Black people like racism and workplace discrimination as well as ways to combat them. The next installments of the series will be Feb. 9 and Feb. 23 from noon-1 p.m.
“Dr. Ruthmae Sears [an associate professor of mathematics] and a team of other Black faculty members have been putting on sessions that cover anti-racism and implicit bias, and although it’s put forth by Black faculty and staff, it’s open to everyone,” Luckett said. “I like the format that’s being presented because it is demonstrating not only the importance of history and significance of Black culture, but it’s also educational for our white counterparts to understand and know what it means to be a Black person in America.”
So far, the workshops have been well received, according to Luckett, with 25 to 30 people in attendance. There is no limit on how many people can attend the workshops.
Other OMA events include movie nights, in which students join a Microsoft Teams meeting and watch Netflix together. Featured content this year includes “Hidden Figures” and the first episode of “Self Made,” which is inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African American self-made millionaire.
Some of the events are more discussion based than the movie nights. QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) and Coffee, an event hosted during other heritage and pride months as well, hosts students for an hour of discussion on the intersection of race and gender. Luckett said that these conversations allow her to really hear the students.
“Students’ voice is really important so … one thing that I’ve been really trying to do is ensure that their voices are heard and that the student experience is what’s most important,” she said.
Black Heritage Month events occur nearly every day throughout the month of February, and Luckett hopes to see an even greater turnout by the end of the month so the department can hear from more students and educate more members of the community.
“The overall goal is to educate USF and the Tampa Bay community on the importance of history and the significance of Black culture,” she said. “That educational approach is really looking at the contributions that the Black community has made to society in the present, past and future.”