By Lam Ho
Originally called the Black Student Union by the founders in 1985, today’s African American Alliance has provided the between student organizations; to get involved Photo courtesy of Jonathan Brown framework for conversations across campus about racial diversity and integration. This year, new president Brandon Iracks-Edelin (C’18) has plans to cultivate more cohesion with community engagement and service; and to garner more student interest in multicultural affairs amongst all groups across campus.
Mr. Eric Benjamin, Dean of Multicultural Affairs and faculty advisor of AAA, said, “The organization was chartered… by a small group of students. In 1981 there were probably two black students on campus… Culturally it was a different time, and those students who were here on campus [had one primary objective] to create an organization that would help meet their needs, both culturally and socially. We were not a very diverse community at that time, so if you were going to do something differently, you had to do it yourself.”
Over the years, AAA has grown in both numbers and influence. Last year, AAA hosted their annual step show and a well-received poetry night that explored the effects of police brutality. The annual step show, which exposes Sewanee to both black fraternities and connects students through a form of dance, has become one of AAA’s most popular events among Sewanee students. Iracks-Edelin also emphasized the influence the “Last Words” event had on him and the group who attended the poetry reading: “People shared some very insightful points. I gained a brand new perspective on police brutality, and I was just really humbled by the fact that people were able to come together and talk about a sensitive topic like that in a very respectful manner. The atmosphere was memorable. You could tell people cared about the topic, and I had this feeling that the conversations we had in there wouldn’t stop… It’s something that is still being talked about today, and it still has an impact on me personally.”
AAA has created an essential niche for multicultural students, and the same students who helped charter and continue its legacy were involved with the creation of the Organization for Cross-cultural Understanding (OCCU). OCCU, which brings together cultural organizations across campus to cultivate positive change and a welcoming environment for international and multicultural students alike.
“The retention rate now of multicultural students is around 90%… Culturally the Sewanee community was [historically] neutral about having multicultural students. In other places there was hostility, but here it was neutrality. There was little appreciation for cultural diversity, whereas today we understand that an education without diversity is not really valid as far as preparing you [for life beyond college],” Benjamin said. “The Black Student Union may not have had white members until about 1987. At that point the mission became broader and more effective.”
As a student organization, AAA has both helped contribute to Sewanee’s multicultural scene and the members themselves. Some of the skills Iracks-Edelinhas either gained or cultivated as a member of AAA include “pointing out issues rampant on this campus, self-reflecting and improving [himself], and supporting others in the process.” Now, as leader, Iracks-Edelin strives to commit to this year’s mission statement: “Despite what our name suggests, our organization is open to all individuals, regardless of their race. We welcome Sewanee students who are concerned with current social issues and want to work for change. With the representation of diverse backgrounds, we are able to use varying perspectives to tackle social issues plaguing regional and global communities.”
While AAA has faced challenges that include what Iracks-Edelin describes as a “lack of presence” at events, the leaders of this organization plans to connect with other organizations, building on the community of student leaders in Sewanee. While most events are not set in stone, Sewanee can look forward to their collaboration with Greek organizations to host an intramural kickball tournament and their annual step show. Profectus (Latin for “progress”) is a column devoted to delving into the history of student organizations and accrediting student leaders on Sewanee’s campus. Young or old, big or small, all organizations are welcome to reach out to Lam Ho via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to become a student organization featured by the Sewanee Purple.