Black alumni should work to harness the resources of their alma maters as well as their own talents for the betterment of the Black community.
Alumni around the country encourage their universities to pump dollars into various programs and university departments. Black alumni should do the same by encouraging higher education institutions to funnel resources specifically into the Black community. The support of Black alumni of universities cuts to the core of what “Black power” can mean in the 21st century, for that sentiment means Black people collectively can use the resources at their disposal to help other Black people succeed.
When Brown University appointed Dr. Ruth Simmons its president in 2000, making her the first African-American to run an Ivy League institution, the university galvanized its Black alumni with the formation of the Inman Page Black Alumni Council (IPC). Four years later, president Simmons spoke at the Schomburg Research Library of Black Culture in Harlem before a gathering of 300 Black alumni. From that meeting, a New York metro area chapter of IPC was formed, holding its first meeting at the offices of Black Enterprise magazine.
During that first meeting, objectives like student mentoring, student summer internships and alumni networking were discussed. Feeling the camaraderie in the room, I added, “I think we have a chance to be SNCC 2.0.” Some of the younger alums asked, “what’s SNCC,” and some of the older alums asked, “what does Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown have to do with us?” I was surprised but let it go.
A detailed history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is beyond this article’s scope, but suffice it to say that what started as a series of small sit-ins by Black college students was shepherded by people like Ella Baker, Robert Moses and others into one of the major organizations of the civil rights movement.
Clearly the history of any Black alumni group at any university is not as dramatic as the history of SNCC; yet I believe there is potential in the foundation set by SNCC. When those students took a stand, a framework existed to incorporate them into the struggle. No such framework exists for the activities of Black alumni groups throughout the country. This is due largely to the way that Black alumni view the role of the university in society.
Universities are society’s major problemsolvers. Universities like Brown, with their large endowments, represent hard resources that can be funneled into our communities. Creating structures and mechanisms that aid in this funneling should be the primary goal of all Black alumni associations.
Just as Ella Baker’s vision formed SNCC by bringing together the students who participated in the sit-ins, Black alumni associations need a similar catalyzing agent to bring them together and form a larger organization. For this reason, I propose the formation of a Congress Of Black Alumni Associations (COBAA).
The association I propose can deliver university resources to our communities by focusing on the three major needs of our community: health, education and economic development. Each of these areas can be mapped to the core competencies of many colleges and universities throughout America. Developing the delivery structures and mechanisms will only take creativity and a serious work ethic — something Black college graduates have in abundance.
In areas of health, the association can address some of the major issues afflicting our communities. Members can identify which of its alma maters are doing the best research around diseases like AIDS, heart disease and prostate cancer, and direct dollars to those institutions. In addition, Black physicians in the association should be encouraged to share ideas around health and perhaps even create COBAA health fairs in our communities.
In the realm of education, there’s the obvious desire to get more Black students to attend and graduate from whichever university an alumnus has graduated, an easy rallying point. It requires a donation of creativity and energy to develop a strategy and an outreach plan. Black alumni could work with professors and programs working to recruit African-Americans into fields, such as science, where they are woefully underrepresented.
These examples have not explicitly mentioned historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I believe HBCU alumni associations must take the lead in the area of economic development. In a nod to history, the inaugural COBAA conference should take place on the campus of an HBCU, just as SNCC’s did almost 50 years ago.
The alumni association I envision could create a general Economic Development Fund that would be available to help finance the creation and expansion of businesses in our communities. COBAA members can also pressure their alma maters to do business with Black-owned banks.
Certainly there will be numerous obstacles to the formation of an organization such as COBAA; but if Black students with limited resources could overcome relentless Southern racism to form a historic organization such as SNCC, then surely Black college graduates who benefited from those herculean efforts can pick up the baton and put an updated twist on SNCC’s groundbreaking legacy.
— Roland Laird is the author of Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans and the CEO of Posro Media, an entertainment production company that explores Black history and culture in a variety of platforms.
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