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Black identity student organizations adapt to a virtual world

BSU, AfriSA, League of United Black Womxn, NSA, SoCA turn toward remote events, mentorship programs to build community, welcome first-years

In unprecedented times, Black identity student organizations have found ways to continue engaging with their communities through remote events and programming, along with collaboration between groups. 

With first-years unable to organically find out about different Black student organizations on campus given the narrower virtual avenues for community building, leaders have had to find new ways to reach out to underclassmen. 

The leaders of Black student organizations directed their focus on reaching out to first-years through social media platforms like GroupMe and Instagram, according to Black Student Union Co-President Daneva Moncrieffe ’21. 

We want “to make sure they know that we are here, and we want them to be a part of the organization,” Moncrieffe said. 

Unable to hold usual in-person events like the annual Black convocation for incoming first-years and transfer students at Manning Hall, a welcome back barbecue or a Black History Month concert, the BSU has shifted some of their activities, like their Black convocation, online. The organization has also pivoted programming to a speaker series and an expanded mentorship program in the fall.

Informed by the nation’s reckoning with racial justice last summer and the impact of those events on Black students on campus, the BSU’s leadership wanted to focus on “community, love and care” when selecting speakers for the fall, Moncrieffe said. 

While charting a course for the fall, “we knew people were feeling an array of emotions and were just overwhelmed,” Moncrieffe said. “We wanted to make sure that any program that we were doing would only help to alleviate and create space to just decompress and not add to that stress.” 

Members from an abolitionist coalition at the University known as Grasping at the Root, haircare YouTuber Will On A Whim and writer-activist Adrienne Maree Brown spoke at events hosted by the BSU, Moncrieffe said. 

The BSU will continue its speaker series into the spring, she added. 

During the fall, the BSU collaborated with the African Students Association, also known as AfriSA, and The League of United Black Womxn to expand BSU Unite, a mentorship program that connects Black underclassmen with Black upperclassmen, according to BSU Secretary Ruqiya Egal ’23.

Mentors and mentees were paired based on responses to a Google form that fielded common interests like intended concentrations. From there, mentors connected with their mentees over email, text and Zoom.

19 mentors and 34 mentees, which Egal said is a larger number of underclassmen than usual, signed up for the program. 

“The Black community at Brown is very good at bringing in first-years and making sure that they feel welcome and also letting them know about the things that we do,” Egal said. 

Mentors provide their mentees information on other Black student organizations at the University, guidance on course selection and advice on navigating life on campus, Egal added. 

Building connections virtually can be challenging for Unite’s mentors and mentees, Egal said. She herself was a mentee when she came to Brown as a first-year in 2019 and would regularly have coffee with her mentor. “It’s different when you get to meet someone one-on-one versus just texting and emailing.” 

“A lot of the freshmen really benefited” from Unite, said AfriSA President Atabong Khumbah ’23, who was assigned a first-year mentee last fall. 

In conjunction with working with the BSU on their Unite program, Khumbah and AfriSA have also been migrating their programming to a virtual platform. 

During the fall, AfriSA worked with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs to host an event on African popular music’s role in creating awareness of the spread of COVID-19, Khumbah said. AfriSA, together with the Watson Institute, will coordinate an event this semester focusing on leadership and governance in Africa, Khumbah added. 

This spring, Khumbah said, AfriSA plans to start social media campaigns to raise awareness of different geopolitical issues in the continent, including those in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Côte d'Ivoire and The Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Along with larger presentations, Black student groups on campus have also focused on fostering community through more frequent casual meetings and events.

Groups like The League of United Black Womxn have focused on facilitating conversations about navigating the academic, social and dating spheres of campus life during meetings throughout the fall, said Cyprene Caines ’23, the League’s president. “It’s just about creating an intentional space that feels safe and where everyone can come and feel seen,” she added. 

The Nigerian Students Association, which formed over the last summer, has also been focusing on casual conversations through their “Chop Life & Chat” Instagram Live series, the Association’s vice president Teniola Ayeni ’23 said. “Chop Life & Chat” has covered a range of topics including Nigerian identity and gender and age hierarchies in Nigerian communities. 

While the group’s original ideas for programming for their first fall had to be shelved given the course of the pandemic, the remote nature of the semester motivated the group’s leaders to “think about ways to still bring the same energy (of in-person events)” to a virtual setting, the Association’s Founder and President Maryclare Chinedo ’22 said. 

Chinedo and Ayeni say they hope to expand the Nigerian Students Association’s work to engage with the Nigerian community in Rhode Island through outreach with Nigerian youth and political and social justice efforts. 

In order to adapt to the difficulties of maintaining connections virtually, Black student organizations have built on collaboration and coordination efforts between groups to find ways to connect first-years with the larger Black community at the University, according to Students of Caribbean Ancestry Co-President Kameron Medine ’21.  

The Black community at Brown “is small, so it’s really not that hard to get word around,” Caines said. 

While the number of avenues for community building has dwindled, the pandemic has allowed leaders like Khumbah to collaborate with other Black student organizations “more than (he) ever would have before.”

During the fall, SoCA and AfriSA hosted joint events to discuss the African diaspora and the first generation immigrant experience, according to Medine and his co-president Dashaun Simon ’21. 

“It felt like a lot more of a community was built there” in bringing students from the two groups together, Medine added. 

“The combined power and influence of two clubs (can) get more engagement and also reduce overall Zoom time,” Khumbah agreed. 


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