USF students celebrate Juneteenth despite state legislation

USF students voiced their concerns over new legislation that pulls government funding from diversity, equity and inclusion programs. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/UNSPLASH

To biological health science junior Shakiela Boothe Rodney, diversity programs on college campuses create a home away from home. These programs, which are being threatened by new state legislation, allow students to celebrate culture and mutual experiences, including commemorating Juneteenth with their peers.

Rodney is the president of USF’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She has been involved in the program since the spring, working with her classmates to advance the status of racial and ethnic minorities at USF. 

“It is so important to be able to share experiences with people of similar interests and backgrounds. Also, historically, people of color have been held back scholastically and financially. Diversity programs give us the opportunity to catch up,” Rodney said.

To the NAACP vice presidents, public health graduate student Calandra Peterkin and sociology senior Luidzy Gabriel, Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate the freedom of enslaved people in the United States and the progress Black Americans have made. June 19 was established as a federal holiday in 2021 to commemorate the ending of slavery in the U.S. in 1865.

“It’s a time to celebrate the history we’ve made in businesses, classrooms, the work force, activism. I love it,” Peterkin said, who attended Juneteenth events and put together outfits to display her pride in her culture.

Juneteenth is celebrated on the day when 250,000 slaves were declared free in Texas, the final state to abolish slavery. Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the U.S. army arrived in Galveston Bay to enforce the freedom of slaves. 

“It means freedom, it means the day that our people were allowed to be released from their shackles and start a new life,” Gabriel reflected.

Diversity programs are being impacted by a new Higher Education Bill signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on May 15. Senate Bill 266 states that Florida universities may not spend any federal or state funds to “promote, support or maintain any programs or campus activities that…advocate for diversity, equity or inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.”

“It’s not like I don’t feel welcome at USF specifically, but rather targeted. If USF were to start making changes to what we can and cannot do because of the new legislation, then I would feel differently,” Gabriel said.

Over 150 years since the end of slavery, minorities are fighting for equality in the U.S., but Juneteenth is a celebration of the progress that has been made, Peterkin said.

“It is a constant reminder of everything African Americans have gone through and a reminder to the rest of the diaspora of how far we have left to go to achieve racial equality,” Rodney said.

Campus diversity organizations, such as the NAACP, allow members to connect with peers that share their cultures, beliefs and experiences.

“It has boosted my overall view of USF. I was able to aid in sustaining the community [among] my peers and talk about issues that were important to us, like the recent laws,” Rodney said about being involved in a multicultural organization on campus.

Peterkin agreed that diverse organizations on campus allow minority students to connect with others.

“It gives us a place where we can identify. A place of belonging. It also connects us to our history.  We’re also able to teach about our impact and why we matter,” Peterkin said. “There’s a lot of us that represent first generation college students and families… Our diversity programs also connect us to international communities where we came from.”

Gabriel said being a part of a diversity organization is “a great feeling” because she is able to relate to the members and connect over shared experiences.

At the bill signing ceremony in Sarasota, DeSantis explained that the use of government funds to support diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campuses is considered an “impos[ing] and ideological agenda.”

Members of diversity organizations, like Rodney, are worried the bill will threaten the programs they call home. 

“The new legislation has made me question whether the things I love and have caused me to feel at home at USF, will remain. I am of Jamaican descent, so the fact that my club could lose funding from the school is very scary,” Rodney said.

Peterkin said she fears the consequences of the higher education bill.

“[I fear] the possibility of my history being erased. It already is hard being a minority at a [predominately white institution]. I feel like the very few spaces we have are being erased. I don’t think it’s fair to erase and impact funding for diversity while we who make the campus diverse still pay our money to make the university what it is,” Peterkin said.

While the legislation does not ban these programs entirely, it does create another obstacle for organizations to work around. Third year biology senior Jadyn Russ, president of USF’s National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), said the organization does not receive funding from the university, which has made it difficult to financially maintain the council.

“Funding is already hard for our organizations and councils to attain, so I can only imagine how much of a hit we will take,” Russ said.

Black Student Union ambassador and third year biochemistry senior Michael Bourne III said the new legislation emphasizes the importance of his organization’s mission to educate students and unify the USF community.

“As a Black man, I already [know] that I’m not always welcomed or looked at with kindness first,” Bourne said. “It just shows the amount of work we have to do to get on the same playing field as those not affected.”

Despite the new legislation, data science junior Wellington Gray believes USF has lived up to its reputation of being a diverse and safe campus.

“I’ve met tons of people from all over the world and have had mostly positive experiences relating to safety and diversity. I have had a few negative experiences but never on campus and I mostly attribute them to how Florida is instead of USF,” Gray said.

The Black Alumni Society (BAS) celebrated Juneteenth on June 17 with food vendors, music and an academic panel at the Sam and Martha Gibbons Alumni Center.

Graduate student and linebacker Brian Norris spoke on the student panel at the event. Norris and his peers offered a student perspective on how minority USF alum can assist minority students as they pursue their degrees. Despite DeSantis’ bill, Norris said he still feels safe and welcome on campus because of the athletic department’s dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I’m happy that Juneteenth is now a national holiday and continues to grow each year as more people understand the significance of it,” Norris said.

“The legislation on diversity funding should motivate more young people like myself to vote and make sure we have a voice when it comes to decisions made on our behalf.”

BAS partnered with NAACP to share information about the federal holiday on social media. Peterkin said they chose to educate their followers online because many college students receive the majority of their news from their social media accounts.

“I think that the support that we have been fighting for is going to continue to be something that’s never ending,” Russ said, who is helping NPHC share the meaning of Juneteenth on social media as well.