Black History Month is a time for African-Americans to celebrate and reflect on black history, racial progress and start conversations on what they’d like for the future.
When Karla Foster arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012 for her position as the Pathways African-American Campus and Community liaison, she noticed a lack of recognition for blacks during the month of February. It led her to create the Black History Month student planning committee in 2014, a student-led committee that plans events and programs for Black History Month. Since its implementation, black students on campus have had the opportunity to celebrate themselves, discuss issues surrounding their lives and college experience and make memorable friendships in the process.
This year's theme is called "In Living Color: An Exploration of Blackness and Intersectionality." Since being black isn't something that lasts only 28 days, Foster and her committee expanded the celebration beyond the month of February. For the full list of events this month, click to view the university's Black History Month calendar.
At 30, Foster has won two NAACP image awards, helped create safe spaces for students of color on campus, and was awarded a Multicultural Student Center Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award in 2013. The Cap Times sat down with Foster recently to talk with her about her work.
What prompted you to start the Black History Month student planning committee?
It started from my own undergrad and graduate experience. I attended Indiana University-Bloomington for my undergrad and Indiana State University for my master’s degree. At both of those institutions we celebrated Black History Month. There were a number of different programs, offices and organizations that did events surrounding Black History Month. When I got to UW-Madison there was a definite lack in that area. I met with students, faculty and staff and tried to figure out how to bridge that gap and create space for African-American students, faculty and staff on campus to recognize the month and shed light on it for the community as well.
Can you tell me a little bit about the events lined up this month?
There’s an event almost every day! The student planning committee was intentional in saying, "We just don’t celebrate Black History Month in February; we’re black 365 days." So they definitely wanted to break out of just the month of February so this year we actually started in January and we’re ending in March with events. We kicked off Black History Month by working with T. Banks and Sara McKinnon in bringing in "We the 350." We partnered with the multicultural student center to bring in Sonya Renee Taylor who is a social activist and performance poet for an event that was titled “The Body is not an Apology.” She did some really dope pieces and talked about being unapologetically black and loving your body.
The theme of Black History Month this year is blackness and intersectionality. We wanted to focus on four different areas of intersections: blackness and class, blackness in the Diaspora, performing blackness, and blackness and sex which includes gender, sexual identity and sexual orientation. We held a movie screening where we viewed “Paris is Burning” and that was in collaboration with the LGBT campus center and the Crossroads Initiative. This Thursday we have our keynote speaker Rahiel Tesfamariam coming in to speak on the role of the black millennial and the black church in the new Civil Rights movement. There’s a fashion show on Feb. 27 called Black fashion through the times. There are a number of events and I’m super excited for all of them.
Aside from the Black History Month events, does the department offer a safe space for students of color year round to express their feelings or concerns?
Definitely. I have three colleagues who do similar work that I do focusing on the other three historically marginalized populations on campus: Latinos, American Indians and Southeast Asians. Specifically for African-American students, one initiative I just started in the fall in collaboration with the multicultural student center and the University health services is called UBUNTU. It’s a safe space for self-identified African-American students and it’s facilitated by African-American staff and graduate students on campus. It serves for them to just relax, relate and release on all things black and their "black Badger" experience on campus.
What has been the largest event turnout since these events started? What have been some of your favorites?
(Journalist and author) Marc Lamont Hill was our keynote last year. He definitely packed the room out; there were about 400 people in attendance. Last year, our kickoff event was a play called “MANIKIN” written and directed by UW alum and First Wave scholar Natalie Cook. It was a packed event and I remember there was a big snowstorm that night but despite the weather there was still a very good turnout. One of my favorites was from the first year where we had an event called “Sitting at the Feet of our Elders.” We had Teju the Storyteller come in and he told African folktales, African proverbs and things like that. He was awesome and he really captivated the crowd.
What are some common concerns you hear among black students on campus?
For some, they share the feeling of not being wanted or valued. They face a lot of microaggressions and aggressions on a larger scale. It can run the gamut from being the only black person in their class or being asked questions if they’re in school on a scholarship. My office works with them and helps them own their black Badger experience because it’s definitely different from the majority. I work to help them create safe spaces for themselves and their peers on campus.
What do you think universities can do to create safe, inclusive spaces for students of color?
There are a number of things but I would definitely say to listen to the students. They know what their experience is and they know what they would like their experience to be. They have so many bright ideas, schools need to take the time and just listen to them. They’re so bright, they’re so smart and so knowledgeable. They’re socially conscious of what’s going on in the media, what’s going on in their campus and other campuses similar to theirs. That’s my prime thing — to listen to them and hear them out and be willing to have these conversations and work on strategic plans to solve them.
Why is social justice and activism important to you?
It’s important to me because it’s a fight that's been fought for so long. One would think that in 2016 we shouldn’t still be fighting the same things … or similar things because it’s not necessarily that they’re the same things. There has been some progress. But ultimately we’re still fighting for justice and equality. What moved me was during my master's program when Trayvon Martin was murdered. I was working with students in my institution and I organized my first rally. It made the front page of the school's newspaper the next day. That was the time when I "woke up" and working with students since that point, I haven’t been able to go back to sleep.