“Black History is American History: and American History is made up of heroes big and small.”
That is the statement spread across this year’s Black History Month posters, dispersed throughout campus, promoting a variety of month-long events to honor Black History Month, sponsored by the Black Student Union and Student Union Productions.
The Indy sat down with the leaders of the Black Student Union to dive further into that statement and the importance of Black History Month, the happenings at the Black Student Union, and a broader discussion regarding inclusion on campus.
Iyahna Calton, Co-President
Major: Psychology, Criminology
From: Albuquerque, NM
Officially joining BSU this year, Iyahna Calton has established herself as BSU co-president, a position she shares with April Valino.
“BSU is a culturally competent, informed, and inclusive space for students of color and students not of color, to create and innovate,” Calton said, speaking to the purpose of BSU on campus.
Calton has a clear idea of the direction she would like to take BSU during her time as a leader, such as establishing a bigger meeting space than their current office in Jones Hall and officially change the BSU from an RSO-2 to a RSO-1, which would mean annual funding, instead of having to request grants.
Speaking about representation on campus, Calton wanted to make a distinction between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is more of a collection of cultures and an acknowledgement of groups with characteristics that make them unique and separate from one another, while inclusion is finding pride in those differences and celebrating them, Calton said.
“Inclusion is a road less traveled for Fort Lewis, just because of lack of education or experience involving others,” Calton said. “For most people at FLC, they’ve never experienced, or been immersed in a culture that was so rich in diversity. And so for us to then go deeper and celebrate that, we’re kind of lost, but not far from it.”
Speaking to the importance of Black History month, Calton wanted to use this month to challenge student’s traditional ideas around history.
Calton said that often, history is segregated and put into sections, when in reality those different sections make up one big history. Calton said that still we all have separate interactions with history and identify with separate groups in history that each impact the way we view the present.
“And so for black history, when it's taught, it's taught that we come from slavery, and that's all we are, and that's all it will ever be,” Calton said. “But really white history is slavery. Black History is how we survived it.”
Calton spoke about how learning about figures in black history has helped her in her own identity. She referenced Ophelia Devore, the first African American fashion model in US history to be recognized and awarded as one of the figures in history that helped her feel more secure in her skin.
“She was also a businesswoman and a fashion icon, and that to me says that European beauty is not the epitome of beauty and that your ethnicity does not define your capabilities,” Calton said.
April Valino, Co-President
Major: Marketing, minoring in Political Science
From: Shiprock, NM
April Valino joined BSU after transfering to FLC last spring in 2019. She brings her love for art and anything involving creativity to the Black Student Union, designing this year’s Black History Month posters. She values being a part of BSU because she thinks that the recognition and acknowledgment of the Black student Union is important on campus.
Valino said it has been exciting to watch the BSU grow and gain prominence on campus since she joined. As co-president, one of her goals is to continue that growth and try to recruit more first-year students so that the BSU will stay strong on campus when she and her co-leaders graduate.
One of the major obstacles BSU is working to overcome is teaching inclusion on a campus made up of students who come from all different backgrounds and beliefs, Valino said. The solution starts with making sure BSU is seen and heard on campus, through both online and on-campus interactions with the student body, Valino said. She talked about the importance of social media like Instagram as a way to make students at FLC aware of BSU’s presence on campus. She also said that forming alliances with other groups focused on campus cultural diversity, like the Native American Center or LatinX, was really important.
Valino went on to draw from her political identity class to discuss how best to facilitate challenging discussions in which people are divided in their opinions, or how to respectively challenge an idea or stereotype that somebody has. Understanding and learning how to accept confrontation and cope with it in productive ways is important when participating in difficult or sensitive conversations, Valino said.
Valino said that Black History Month is about recognizing the skewed ways that history has been taught by previously discriminating against black contributions to history.
Valino is also Native American, and drew similarities between the two as having experienced exclusion from history books.
“Just seeing history books, movies— it hurts.” Valino said, speaking to historical misrepresentation. “It takes a part of the soul.”
Valino said that history is in progress, and with that, it is important to recognize every black person’s contribution to America.
“From hard work to setting trends, everybody follows black pop culture, from music to hair styles, so it’s like, in some way we all make it up, and it’s like we all contribute to Black History Month,” Valino said.
Reisha Lewis-Adams, Coordinator of Membership
Major: Public Health
From: Shiprock, NM
Reisha Lewis-Adams has been part of BSU since her arrival at FLC in 2018. Lewis-Adamas said her favorite part about being part of BSU is meeting new people and creating community, and she sees BSU as a place to accept and find identity.
Drawing on her love for creativity and the arts, she said she is hoping to add a music studio on campus during her time at BSU.
“It could be a recreational space for anyone here on campus to create music and collaborate with others.” Lewis-Adams said.
Speaking to some of the barriers associated with BSU’s mission of teaching tolerance and inclusion on campus towards students of color, Lewis-Adams uses her public health major background to speak to some of the ways BSU works to spread their values effectively, particularly in what she’s learned about educating communities.
“You can educate and educate, but it won’t always change the behavior of a person,” Lewis-Adams said. “Instead, it’s time for discussion, where people are more in their comfortable, natural state, speaking and engaging with each other.”
Lewis-Adams cited the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. as inspiration for how to stand up for the values she believes in. She spoke to the MLK Day student march, led by BSU, as an example of BSU’s presence on campus.
“In a way, it was like we were reenacting that, to this day keeping his legacy strong, about how we can go around and shout what we believe in, which is the right to education, the right to be free, and all these amazing things that he helped accomplished in his lifetime that we now get to see every day.” Lewis-Adams said, referring to peaceful protesting.
According to Lewis-Adams and other BSU leaders, a future goal of BSU is to make the annual MLK march on campus bigger in both participation from students and recognition from administration.
Another historical inspiration for Lewis-Adams is Nat Turner, an enslaved African-American preacher born in 1800. She said his enduring leadership, faith and education under slavery were reasons for her looking up to him.
“There’s so much sensitivity around the term slave, but that’s the truth, and it still needs to be understood and taught,” she said. “Nat Turner was a slave, and he gave his life fighting to be free and freeing those around him. I think that’s very important.”
Lewis-Adams sees Black History Month as a time to formally recognize black contributions to American history, ideas that have been stolen and credibility that isn’t given to people of color because of America’s history.
“Black History Month should be every month”, Lewis-Adams said. “We are America.”
Today, Black Student Union’s hub, the Black Resource Center, is located in Jones 158 and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a place for students to use as they see fit, Calton said.