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The Resurgence of the BSU

Sophie Sonnenfeld '21
The newly reconstituted Black Student Union at Hopkins is back in business with a fortified mission and membership.
Last spring, Liz Bamgboye ’20 and Michael Christie ’19 sent a survey to a sample of black students at Hopkins to gauge interest in reinstating the Black Student Union. The BSU was discontinued in the 1990s after concerns that exclusivity could lead to divisiveness. This year, BSU has a committed core of about ten regular members and a steady flow of additional, more casual participants. Weekly BSU meetings are also open for community members who are not a part of the affinity group to listen to voices and serve as allies and advocates.

The BSU formed at Hopkins in the 1980s, but was dissolved in the nineties and replaced by Students United for Racial Equality (now ‘Equity’) or SURE, as an advocacy group. According to Director of Equity and Community Becky Harper, “As you went into the 90's there was a trend to be more inclusionary, and that’s why SURE came to be. It wasn’t saying the black experience didn’t matter, it was saying the black experience and these other groups also were important and they needed a space. We’ve come to a place where we can hold both SURE and the BSU and I think that’s really cool and exciting.”

Although SURE serves as a forum to discuss issues pertaining to race, the BSU affinity group is a space for students to share personal experiences and connect to larger initiatives. Bamgboye was inspired to form the BSU to encourage personal conversations: “Even though I love SURE and the conversations we have are great, I still felt we needed a place for black students to come together,” Bamgboye stated. Because of this feeling from Bamgboye and Christie, the BSU took shape.

Their vision of a space for students to freely share race related experiences, thoughts, and questions was a success from the start. Christie commented, “During our first meeting, Liz and I had a set of topics to choose from, but first we opened the discussion up to the group to see if anyone had anything they wanted to bring to the table. Before we knew it the time was up, and we had just discussed over five different topics ranging from Kanye, to slavery, to hate speech, and so many other pertinent topics. It was truly amazing.”

The BSU also functions with a strong advocacy mission. As Harper described it, “Affinity groups swing back and forth with flexibility to be affinity when the group needs to come together for support, but also using each other and allies to come advocate for any issue, awareness, and education.” Harper commented, “It’s exclusionary in some ways, but I think we as a community fluctuate in and out of being a larger entity and then needing these spaces to dig a little deeper. These affinity groups provide safe spaces, as it’s important for affinity groups to make it clear it’s not about exclusion, it’s about support.”

This year the BSU has been instrumental in organizing school-wide events including Assembly speakers such as hiphop artist and activist Jasiri X, a Black History Month student showcase in mid February, and school movie nights with discussions to spark conversation and change. Bamgboye emphasized the purpose of these initiatives:“[We want] to encourage discomfort to explore things. That’s what we wanted to push this month with leaning into discomfort and getting the student body to a place where it’s okay not to know things, and to take it upon yourself to learn and be accountable for your own ignorance.”

Diversity Board member, Hannah Szabo ’21, agreed affinity groups are powerful in providing people with a platform to share experiences and thus establish relationships based on trust and understanding. Szabo also acknowledged, “On the other hand, I think real progress only comes out of conversations with those with opposing views, perspectives, and experiences. That’s why I think the most impactful events run by the affinity groups at Hopkins, with the help of Diversity Board, 
faculty, and interested students, happens during intersectionality meetings like the one that Hopkins clubs SHOUTTE (Screen, Host, and Outreach to Understand and Talk about Trafficking and Education), SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Advocates), and ERRO (Equal Rights, Respect, and Opportunities) hosted in December, and school-wide open mic style events.”

With initiatives to support minorities in the community, BSU member Rehab Senanu ’20 feels Hopkins has made progress: “Hopkins has been more respectful in how they treat other races here. It’s a big step forward for Hopkins too, coming from a history of originally being an all white male school to now including people of all races and color.”

Following the creation of the BSU, other Hopkins affinity groups are in the works. After attending the Student Diversity Leadership Conference in November, Jasmine Shah ’21 was determined to form an Asian-American affinity group. Shah explained, “I realized the lack of affinity spaces at Hopkins, and wish to bring the experience I had at the conference into our own community.” Shah too feels this space is necessary “for people who share an aspect of their identity to relate to one another, or even not relate, in order to have a more well rounded understanding of shared experiences.”

If she had the opportunity to join an affinity group in her time as a Hopkins student, Harper says she would have been more affirmed in her identity as a Latina and growing up as a Mexican American: “I think it was something I knew about, but didn’t necessarily know how to articulate. I also knew there weren’t very many of us on campus, but would’ve made me feel that was a piece that was more acknowledged. I don’t think I had a wonderful experience here as a student, but I do think that would’ve been a piece that could’ve enhanced it even more.”

Now with the resurgence of the BSU, Bamgboye already feels the presence of progress on campus, “I’ve been able to get to know more black students from different grades, which has been really nice. We’ve been able to have more initiatives because of this strong, harmonious body behind us.”

BSU member Ranease Brown ’21 reflected on the challenge of anchoring her identity in her educational experience, “I have gone to only private schools that are predominantly white my whole life and I lost the sense of who I was. I am often told I ‘act white’ or I am ‘not a real black girl’ and that has put me in such an odd position.” Brown attested to the positive effect the BSU has had on her life, “The self-hatred that I had was very real until I went to these diversity conferences and discovered my true identity. I can say proudly that I am an African-American and Native American Indian female with my own personality. I now have no fear of what others think about how I act because I speak a certain way, don’t listen to the music that I am ‘supposed’ to listen to, or eat the foods that ‘my people’ eat. BSU has made me love myself, ethnicity, and those around me so much more.”
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