By Christine Burke
Niagara University has seen a lot of change in the past few years, from the Black Lives Matter protest to the recent Muslim Student Alliance rally. There are many people behind such movements, but they often go unrecognized. Gabi Jackson and Ferrah Staley, two of the leaders of NU’s Black Student Union, are some of these students, dedicated to making the campus a better place for all.
The Black Student Union (BSU), while around for several years beforehand, underwent a much appreciated revamping in 2015 with three dedicated students: Nataisia Johnson, Mariah Worthington, and Christina Bouvoir. Staley became president of the organization in 2016, while Jackson took on the role of secretary.
“The BSU is a place where people of color and white people can come together and learn about black culture, what it means to be black in America and black on campus,” said Staley. “It’s a family because we learn a lot from each other, and a lot of things happen on campus or within our own lives that we are able to talk about.”
Although the organization is entitled the Black Student Union, Staley and Jackson were clear that it is not only for black people. “It’s about black culture and black minority issues,” Jackson stressed. “If you want to come and learn about black culture, anything that is black, necessarily, you can come.”
“Not even just black people,” Staley added. “Minorities. Muslims, women, people from the LGBTQ community – that’s what I mean by minority. We are here to tackle those issues and make sure they are addressed, especially on a college campus.”
The BSU has certainly taken strides in promoting equality for all on campus, most noticeably by heading a campus protest in 2015. “It was a student protest, not so much a Black Student Union protest,” Jackson said.
“It was more about students feeling marginalized, as well as not being given the opportunity to learn about their culture,” added Staley.
The protesters created a list of demands for the administration, including being more involved with the more racially diverse Niagara Falls community rather than just Lewiston, revamping the neglected Black Studies program, and taking steps to increase diversity among the faculty at NU.
Administration was receptive to their requests, resulting in meetings with Father Maher and Dr. Deborah Colley, the president and executive vice president of the university. These meetings led to the formation of the Big Eagle Little Eagle program, in which NU students are able to mentor students in Niagara Falls.
The Black Studies program, which had previously existed as nothing more than text on a website, is now a flourishing minor available to all NU students. Currently, there are two routes to take: Diaspora, focusing on African diaspora and black history post-slavery, and Domestic, which looks at issues within our own society like the Black Lives Matter movement and mass incarceration.
Diversity among faculty members remains a large talking point for the BSU. “There are times when you walk into a classroom and you don’t see yourself,” said Jackson. “As a black student, you want to be able to look up to somebody and be like ‘hey, I see you, you see me, and I can be that one day.’ A lot of times I walk into classrooms and I don’t see myself.” Although this is still a work in progress, it did prompt the creation of an Associate Director of Equity and Inclusion position on campus, currently staffed by Ryan Thompson.
Outside of the results of the protest, the BSU was also instrumental in the creation of the Ostapenko Center for Race, Equality and Mission. While not a physical space, the center acts as a network, helping students find internships, studying the effects of the Big-Little program, and conducting research within the community.
The BSU is responsible for some major changes on campus, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to tackle the smaller issues as well, like answering questions and educating people on minority issues.
“I want people to be able to come to us and ask questions,” Jackson said. “I think there’s a lack of communication in general with the campus, but we’re an open group. We don’t want people to be afraid to come to us and ask questions.”
“We just want to be given the same chance as everybody else,” Staley added. “It’s not about us wanting to marginalize ourselves, it’s more about having pride in who we are and where we come from.”
“At the end of the day, we want people to educate themselves just as much as we want to educate ourselves as well.” Jackson continued. “We educate each other, we learn from each other, and we can’t do that without communication.”
“We want people to ask questions and come to us and be involved with all the stuff that we do,” said Staley, “because what we do is important work and when we leave it’s still going to be here.”
Going forward, Staley and Jackson hope the BSU will remain as prominent as it is now. “We trust the administration enough to tackle these issues,” said Staley. “But if we don’t see action…we have to address that and hold them accountable because as students we have a voice and that voice needs to be heard.”
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