Words by Bathscheba Duronvil and Kokayi Nosakhere
For Southern Oregon University (SOU) Black’s students, upon arrival a new reality starts to set in. Every Black college student choosing to reside in Southern Oregon must come to a certain peace about the experience before them. For an extended period of time they are going to learn what it feels like to be almost entirely surrounded by (so-called) White people. It dominates the psyche.
Perhaps because of the current atmosphere in the country, the current enrollment of students self-identifying as Black on the Southern University of Oregon (SOU) campus decided to do something this year – something more active than previous years.
The following thoughts are from the mind of Bathscheba Duronvil. She is a Freshman, business management major. She says she may change her mind and secure a BA in Education with a minor in African Studies. She is VP of the Black Student Union (BSU) on the SOU campus.
1) Why did you assume a position of leadership inside the BSU? There are not a lot of Black people in Southern Oregon, why is there a need for the club? Are there enough members to justify a club?
There are numerous reasons why I stepped up and took the leadership position for BSU. For starters, I am new to Ashland (and the West side in general) so I didn’t know what to expect when coming here. It never occurred to me that there would be such a lack of diversity in such a “pro-black”, pro-lgbt+ community. For my first month here, I felt so alone to the point where I isolated myself from everyone, because there were barely any people of color here. It sounds selfish, but one of the reasons I took the leadership position was so I wouldn’t feel that lonely and be surrounded by Black people.
But the biggest reason I took the leadership position was because every time I brought BSU up to students, some would trash our name. It wasn’t until I sat at my first BSU meeting that I believed the rumors people were saying. BSU is funded so well and has all the support it needs… but they don’t really do anything. And I couldn’t take it anymore, so I kind of just suddenly threw my opinions to BSU on what we should do and the members loved it. So gradually I became the vice president as a freshman at SOU.
Where do I even begin on how much this school, this town and this state needs to be educated on Black culture? I transferred from Minnesota and have been in Oregon for about two months now and my experience here has been different in a scents of how racism is presented. Back in Minnesota, I describe the form of racism I grew up in as “republican racism.” People were more out loud to call me a nigger and I could clearly see the uncomfortableness in White peoples faces as I walked down the streets at night.
It was easy to spot racism in Minnesota because people showed racism physically. Here on the other hand, in this small bubble of a town, racism is more mentally aggravating. My first week I was here I was actually really happy. It came to a shock to me of how nice people were to me as I walked down the street. Everyone wanted to talk with me and I felt as if all the attention was all on me.
But heading into the third week I was here I realized that their stares was not friendliness, but microaggression instead. I realized that the White people here looked at me as if I was some new exotic artifact in a museum. They looked at me with awe, like they wanted to touch me because they never seen a Black person before. And all they wanted to talk about with me was things regarding to “Black culture,” as if I was their gateway into my community.
No I didn’t hear about the new Yeezys coming out, yes this is my real hair (I lied… they’re extensions), no you may not touch it, and please convince your son not to wear cornrows because he thinks they’re “cool.”
I’m not saying I haven’t experienced this in Minnesota, but there’s just this certain mentality in this town where White people assume they’re not racist because they “talk to Black people,” or “support us,” when in actuality, they only “associate” with us to go back to their White friends to tell them they associate with Black people!
So in conclusions, there is a need for this club because this town needs to be highly educated on their microaggression and extreme racism. Moving to the next question, I definitely hope in the near future there will be more black members that join BSU, but for now the 8 that we have will make a difference to this community.
2) What have you learned about group dynamics and communication styles since becoming a leader?
I’ve learned to just lead with an open mind; acknowledge that everyone is not going to agree with me and may even have better ideas than mine. I don’t necessarily lead like I’m the boss, I leave the floor open to anyone who thinks they can lead better than me because power isn’t the goal I am trying to achieve here. I’m trying to make a highly melanated space where black people go out and educate white people and other POC (people of color) on issues regarding around the Black community.
3) How does the collegiate environment contribute to organizing and take away from your efforts?
It gives everyone the opportunity to share their thoughts. When I attended my first Black Student Union meeting (gathered with all the rumors I heard about BSU) I was a bit disappointed. We didn’t really talk about anything. There was no game plan or fundamentals, I felt as if I wasted an hour and a half every time I went to a meeting. We didn’t discuss the future for BSU or what our game plan was for the year, but since I’ve taken this position I’ve pushed BSU members to get more focused and do something. Reflecting back, now every BSU meeting we attend, we have open conversations about what we should do and how we should do it. I would say people get more comfortable with me with each meeting at the same time as I get more comfortable talking with them.
4) What has the experience learning the university system been? Is it anything like you imagined?
Like I said in the beginning, I’m new to the West side and to top that off I’m only a freshman at SOU. I’ve never been a leader before and I think it was my second week in school when I decided to take the leadership position in BSU. I had no idea how the school system worked here or what BSU really did in the past, I was just simply looking at the future. Luckily, with the help of BSU members, they were able to lead me correctly. I still make mistakes here and there and it can get confusing at times, but I’m learning as I go.
5) Are you finding much pushback from the other clubs or students to the presence of the BSU?
Not yet since we’ve just begun. My only fear is that because this college is such a pro-lgbt, pro-woman, “pro-black” school they won’t acknowledge their homophobia, sexism and racism when it comes down to it. I fear they will try to ignore their ignorance and get mad because they assume they’re above other schools, when honestly they may be as ignorant as anyone else. When I was handing out fliers for the Soul Food event coming up, I had a former BSU member come up and speak with me. She explained how the BSU leader they had when she was a freshman was forced to resign because they were talking about Black issues “too extreme” for the White mind. White people got too upset as if their uncomfortableness trumped our existence as black people in America.
6) What are you planning for next semester?
There is so much BSU wants to do this year. For beginners, after our Soul Food Dinner BSU wants to do multiple panels spread out for the rest of the year. Each panel we do will tackle the different intersectionalities of Black people, colorism inside our community, the Black woman’s experience, police brutality, racism, micro and macro aggression, Black rage, Black identity and so much more. With these panels it will give Black students the opportunity to speak out in a predominantly white audience about black issues. I do believe this will not only benefit white students, but also the Black student’s that are speaking. It will teach them the many ways of expressing their internal feeling and learn how to release the rage in a successful and non-toxic way.
We also hope to get connected with the local high school here and do some type of safe space for kids of color, especially for Black kids. Every BSU member knows that feeling of being the only Black student in a predominantly White school, so BSU wants to be the next positive Black role models for Black kids at the high school. We want them to know that there are people out there that looks like them who are rooting for their success. We also want to give the kids the encouragement they need to get their work done, graduate, and express their frustrations and feelings regarding identity positively.
One of the biggest things Black Student Union wants to do this year is a event surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr holiday. Right now, we are still working out the details, but we were thinking of some sort of poetry night. It might be changed as time goes on, but we were going to do everything black. We were going to have Black artist have their work surrounding the room, as Black students had their own personal poem performances. We’ll see what we come up with.