Home Campus The present and future of Black History Month at BYU-Idaho

The present and future of Black History Month at BYU-Idaho

BYU-Idaho flourishes with diverse students from all over the world.

According to official enrollment statistics for Winter Semester 2022, only 1.5% of BYU-I students identify as Black or African-American, not including those who identify with two or more races. With a campus full of students of many ethnicities and nationalities, honoring differences through celebrations such as Black History Month is critical to showing support for students of color.

President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

BYU-I students and faculty see and honor the importance of Black History Month.

William Riggins, the inclusion officer at BYU-I, said the Black community has positively impacted the United States since the beginning.

“They’ve played a major part in who we are as Americans and who we are as a people,” Riggins said. “Because they’re a minority, it’s easy to not include them in part of this beautiful mess we have. How do we come to understand people if we don’t study about them and don’t celebrate them?”

The idea of celebrating Black people was a common theme among students as well.

“Black History Month is super important because it was created to commemorate Black people for the contributions they’ve made throughout the years they just never got credit for,” said Michaela Mack-White, a junior studying communication and member of the Black Student Union. “We all like to be celebrated and acknowledged for the things that we do. Black people have contributed so much to the United States and the world.”

Honoring the contributions of our Black brothers and sisters is something we can all do. Here are four ways we can get the most out of celebrating Black History Month.

Support and empathize with Black people

Mack-White said the biggest way to support Black people is to be aware of issues they face.

“Racism has changed,” said Trevor Brooks, a sociology professor who teaches Race and Ethnic Relations. “It is much less blatant and much more subtle, unconscious and institutional. We may even behave in racially-biased ways without even recognizing it. We all have biases.”

Overcoming these biases is possible. According to Verna Meyers, an inclusion strategist, in her TED talk, there are three ways to overcome bias. We can acknowledge our biases, surround ourselves with diversity and speak out against racist comments, especially those we hear in informal settings.

Mack-White said the gospel provides an outline on how to support Black people and other marginalized groups.

“A part of Christ-like discipleship is mourning with those that mourn,” Mack-White said. “You need to have empathy, but also take it a step further and have compassion. Empathy is, ‘I want to know how you feel’ or ‘I can relate.’ Compassion is more ‘How can I help?’ At the end of the day, it’s great that you’re listening to me. We don’t need people to just listen. We need people who are actively going to help and be a part of the work.”

Learn about Black people in history

Each year, Black History Month is given a theme. The theme for 2022 is Black Health and Wellness.

“I recently learned about Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who is known as the father of blood banking,” Brooks said. “Dr. Drew directed a mobile blood donation station known as bloodmobiles, where people in remote areas could receive blood donations. Dr. Drew was also active in protesting the Red Cross’s policy that severely limited Black access to blood banks.”

Learning about civil rights leaders and the contributions of Black people inspires Brooks.

“Their stories of courage, unity and determination motivate me to press forward when life gets difficult,” Brooks said.

Advocate for and amplify Black voices

Occasionally, you hear critiques of Black History Month like “Why isn’t there a white history month?” Brooks said some innocently ask this question while others are more hostile.

“When I think of my high school U.S. history lessons, most of the individuals we studied were people who were white,” Brooks said. “While these individuals did great things, it is important to realize that people from African heritage have remarkable accomplishments. Black History Month gives us a chance to hear some of these forgotten stories.”

Mack-White believes one way to amplify the experiences of people is to represent them in religious and secular art.

“I think being culturally conscious of the art that you’re making is a huge way to support Blacks and spreading truth while amplifying the voices and experiences of those who are struggling,” Mack-White said.

Black History Month at BYU-I

While there are few university-sponsored activities currently to celebrate Black History Month, Riggins wants to increase the amount available to students.

“My hope is that before I leave this office, whether it’s next February or the following February, we will have some wonderful things taking place from day one,” Riggins said. “We have televisions all over campus. What if we were to highlight one person per day for 28 days? In the future I’m hoping the stage in MC here could be filled every day with someone either portraying art or music that was written or performed by Black people, whether it be jazz or rock.”

Riggins says the high population of returned missionaries at BYU-I gives us a special opportunity to model inclusion.

“I truly believe that we at BYU-I could be the example to the whole world as to what inclusion looks like,” Riggins said. “The reality is we as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be the very best at this. When you think about missionary work, you think about inclusion or bringing people from all over the place. Think about the number of returned missionaries that we have here who have served in almost every country of the world, who have learned to love people of different cultures. They learn to love their food, they learn to write their music. Then we come to BYU-Idaho and we forget.”

According to the book Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, the best way to increase inclusion is through building diverse relationships.

“Learning through relationships with others is a core pillar of advancing inclusion in colleges and universities yet attaining inclusion will require that we transcend our human instinct to relate to those similar to us,” wrote Leo Lambert and Peter Felten, the authors of Relationship-Rich Education. “The tendency to associate with people most like us is the opposite of inclusion and is the force to be contended with in building inclusive societies or communities. As such, we will need to be intentional about promoting connections among the diverse members of our communities. We will each need to enhance our ability to relate to others, particularly our ethnic and racial differences.”

Compared to the Office of Student Success and Inclusion at BYU with seven staff members, BYU-I is very different. Currently, Riggins is the only person running the Inclusion Office although there are plans to increase his staff to increase the reach of the Inclusion Office across campus.

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