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The Evolution of Black Culture Centers

The Evolution of Black Culture Centers
Between offering student retention programs and seeking accreditation, these campus centers strive to prove their relevancy.
By Marlon A. Walker

One of the latest projects by the African American Cultural Center at North Carolina State University is to track and monitor the retention rate of students in “Pack Promise.”

Officials at the center are helping guarantee retention of Black students by providing them extra help with classes and adjusting to campus living. But the initiative is also giving the cultural center more relevance on the 30,000-student campus.

“What we’re trying to do is move beyond the anecdotal evidence that Black culture centers are positive,” says Dr. Fred L. Hord, the center’s director and executive director of the larger umbrella organization, the Association for Black Culture Centers. “We’re trying to get past the personal stories and build some hard evidence.”

The Association for Black Culture Centers’ plan to add retention programs and developing accreditation standards for its culture centers across the country is helping Black culture centers gain acceptance. But some still believe other obstacles — such as funding shortfalls — are standing in the way of the centers fully realizing their potential.

For years, some Black culture centers have been under pressure by administrators at majority White institutions to broaden their focus to include more than just Black students. They argue that some students may stay away from the centers because they believe they would only learn about the Black experience. Some centers have even been challenged to change their name. Hord says such requests show how people fail to recognize the mission of the centers.

“When it’s been brought to our attention, it gives the impression that the centers are only for Black folks,” he says. “What is wrong with integrating through the Black experience? We have multicultural centers in the organization, but our name is the Association for Black Culture Centers.”

The group hopes to continue to expand throughout the country and abroad. Of the approximately 275 culture centers currently under the umbrella of the ABCC, about 121 are active, have been active recently, or attended the national conference held in Raleigh in early November. Hord says ABCC plans to increase the number of active centers to about 200 by the end of the year.

Also in the pipeline are centers based at the University of the West Indies and the University of Ghana. Hord says there are plans for a trip to the African nation in the near future to help establish a culture center there.

Using the North Central Accrediting Agency as a guide, ABCC’s national board has developed its own accreditation procedure. The culture centers would endure a years-long process while adhering to several policies and standards set by the ABCC and put in place for all centers. Currently, Black culture centers at North Carolina State University, The Ohio State University and Purdue University are going through the process.

“If they pass, they’re bona fide culture centers,” Hord says.

But with all the work being done to solidify culture centers’ place on campus, some still wonder: Are they still relevant?

“Most [minorities] are living in housing where they may be the only person on a floor, or in their hall. It’s not a very comfortable feeling,” says Dr. Willena Kimpson Price, director of the University of Connecticut African American Culture Center. “You need a community that makes some effort to embrace what you’re doing. They need a community and an institutional commitment to diversity.”

Price, also the vice president for ABCC, says many of UConn’s urban students weren’t afforded the same high school resources as other students. She’s heard stories of classes having more students than books, and even cases where students had to share desk space with others.

“They’re smart enough, but they have not had the benefit of a first-class high school educational background,” she says.

She says the culture center on campus provides services that can level the playing field, including peer mentoring, counseling, academic services and other programs.

“We’re a full-service department,” she says. “It’s not some frivolous club or anything.”

Dr. Fran Dorsey, acting chair of the Department of Pan African studies at Kent State University and ABCC’s immediate past president, says culture centers face many of the same obstacles they’ve struggled against for decades.

“We’re still a young, growing, struggling organization, and there are a lot of things that we’re doing,” he says. “We haven’t had a major benefactor to donate large sums of money for us, so we could be self-sufficient. We go to our conferences every year so we can sit down and learn from one another. We’re finding out the struggles we were engaged in 30, 40 years ago are the same struggles we’re dealing with today.”

Dorsey says finding funding for the centers has always been a major roadblock. And as more multicultural centers arise on campuses, he says the funding crunch will continue for Black centers.

“We’re still being underrepresented,” he says. “Those who speak for us have little knowledge of us. If I have to struggle to find money, it’s
kind of difficult for me to concentrate on what I need to do to be teaching. And if I’m struggling individually, I’ll never be in the position to help my community if I’m saving the next dollar to pay my own bills.”

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