The Black Student Union provides space for Black students, even during pandemic

Story by MASON HARDY

The Black Student Union at the University of Utah provides a safe space for both Black and Indigenous students to be themselves and work together to achieve racial equality in the community. The organization continues to press on, despite being unable to meet in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maryan Shale, BSU president, described the organization as a cultural space to cultivate conversations and discussions for Black students on the U campus.

“We’re trying to promote ethnic pride for Black students, and making sure they have a sense of belonging on campus,” she said during a phone interview.

The mission of BSU is “to foster a sense of community among all students of the African Diaspora at the University of Utah. Our goal is to simulate the intellectual, political, cultural, and social growth of all Utah students.”

The mission statement also includes goals to educate the U community, with the goal of raising awareness to ignite change in communities.

During a normal semester, the BSU would set out a table during student orientations in attempt to recruit new students to the organization. But the pandemic has forced campus organizations and the U to devise other ways to recruit members.

BSU members at the 10th Annual Legacy Banquet, honoring Dr. Laurence Parker, 2020. Photo courtesy of Maryan Shale.

“We’re just here as a reminder, a space for Black students. Like, hey, we got your back,” Shale said.

The University of Utah held a virtual festival where new students could go to see what clubs and organizations exist on campus. Students had the opportunity to see each club and organization via the internet, learn more and join the groups. Shale said this festival presented accessibility issues with students being unaware of the website, and others not having internet access at home.

“A lot of students don’t even know how to navigate Campus Connect when they’re first coming to campus,” she said, explaining the small turnout the BSU faced this year.

The organization continues to use social media, email and word of mouth to promote the BSU to students, with little response. Shale said the BSU utilizes hashtags via Instagram to direct-message potential members. The organization also uses a group message to spread the word of meetings and events.

The BSU utilizes its Facebook page and Twitter account to engage the community. It is here that announcements for events are posted, students share their experiences with the organization, as well as share fundraising opportunities. The social media accounts serve as a way to connect to current BSU members and connect with people and students who may not have otherwise discovered the organization.

Tierra Yancey, a four-year member of BSU, said she’s been able to foster positive relationships through the organization. Not just with fellow students, but also with faculty and with community members outside the university.

Among student population at the University of Utah, only about 1% of students identify as Black or African American.

Arnold Gatoro, former president of the Black Student Union, said in a May 2020 interview he hoped to help “create a more diverse school at the U so we can all open our eyes just a little wider.” Another goal was to “increase the retention of black students and create a better sense of community here at the U.”

In addition to increasing awareness and educating the community, the BSU puts on events to promote pride within the Black community. In 2020, activities included a Welcome Back Family Reunion where the BSU provided food, music and activities, a movie screening with food and discussion, and a Black History Trivia night.

Along with events, the BSU promotes social justice on campus. With injustices such as the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the BSU wanted to play a political role at the University of Utah.

“We actually wrote a resolution in support of Black students at the university,” BSU President Shale said. “We had the help and support of the Associated Students at the University of Utah (ASUU).” It included 22 recommendations toward improving the lack of diversity in faculty and staff, lack of retention of Black students and lack of scholarships and resources for Black students. The Academic Senate approved the resolution on July 16, 2020.

While the organization does work to combat racial injustices, Shale said the BSU does not discriminate against political views. “We don’t discriminate against anybody. You don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican to be in our organization.”

The Black Student Union continues to push for a place, whether online or in person, for all Black students at the University of Utah, regardless of background, political views or academic major.

While the pandemic makes it difficult to meet, the Black Student Union continues its work to ensure a safe and uplifting space for its members and fellow students.

“We are more than just a number. We are more than just a student. We are trailblazers, we are resilient, and we belong at the U,” BSU member Tierra Yancey said.