By Emily Diamond ’20
The 2019-2020 academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA), the cultural center of The Claremont Colleges that supports students of African descent by providing opportunities for self-exploration, learning, and growth as well as affirming multiple identities that intersect with experiences of Blackness, including race, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and spirituality.
In response to demands and protests by what was then the Black Student Union of The Claremont Colleges in 1968, the Colleges created a plan to cultivate a more economically and racially diverse student body. Just one year later, the Human Resources Institute was developed, which included the founding of ethnic and cultural centers at the The Claremont Colleges, one of which was the Black Studies Center.
“OBSA is pivotal to campus life because it prioritizes the voices, needs, values and ideas of students of African descent while offering unique partnership opportunities and resources to support their academic and personal success,” says Lydia Middleton, dean and director of OBSA.
Jenn Wells, assistant dean and director of Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE), adds that offices like OBSA “create a space, both physically and psychologically, that allows students the opportunities to create a community at the Colleges, where their culture and identity may not always be well represented or embraced.”
Through OBSA, students engage in identity-based work and reflection, professional and career development, and peer support. In addition to a full slate of programs, such as the Black Intersections Conference and an arts engagement program, OBSA offers the Black Alternabreak Program, which annually sends groups of 5C students to an immersive service experience in predominantly Black neighborhoods during spring break. Students work with local nonprofits and engage in professional networking, such as visiting the LinkedIn headquarters for diversity and inclusion.
“[The Alternabreak] program supports students by offering the opportunity to critique concepts of race, identity, gentrification, neighborhood redlining, and other ideas linked to service in the context of Black identities,” says Middleton.
For the 50th anniversary, OBSA has hosted a variety of events, including a conversation with author Colson Whitehead and a lunch reception with poet Jericho Brown. To further celebrate the anniversary, as well as the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., OBSA will host a Beyoncé Mass on January 26 at Big Bridges Auditorium on the Pomona College campus. The mass is a womanist worship service that uses the music and personal life of Beyoncé as a tool to foster conversation about Black women.
“The Beyoncé Mass is just one representation of OBSA’s continued efforts to create a space that centers on the lived experiences, past and present, of its Black students, staff, and faculty, says Tselot Akilu ’21, a student leader within OBSA. “It is also a rallying statement of support for the Black women whose voices and presence are routinely overlooked.”
In addition to formal celebrations, students, faculty, and staff are spending the year reflecting on the longevity and success of OBSA.
“Fifty years and the historic landmarks of the Office’s creation represent the importance of student voices in shaping institutional culture. It demonstrates the essential role Black cultural centers have in countering widespread historical marginalization and erasure for Black students,” says Middleton.
“When I think of anniversary of OBSA, as someone who was born in the 1980s, I think of the trials, challenges, labor, and achievements of black students, staff, and faculty before me who have made it so that I can feel safe and welcomed at Scripps College and The Claremont Colleges,” Wells says. “OBSA represents the legacy of not only creating a space at the table, but also of building up the next generation of Black students, staff, and faculty as vital and thriving members of The Claremont Colleges community.”