Photo by: Ram Reyes

What Black History Month?

February 18, 2015

Low attendance and inattentiveness at Black History Month events lead to questions about student interest and month’s relevance.

Is Black History Month still necessary?

Not if one goes by the turnout at Black History Month related events at Fresno City College or students’ response to a Rampage survey on Black History month celebrations.

Even on Feb. 2, the first day of the month-long activities in honor of black history, only about two dozen students and staff assembled in the auditorium of the Old Administration Building, an arena that seats 650 comfortably, leading keynote speaker, Dorothy “Dottie” Smith, former member of the board of trustee for State Center Community College District, to condemn the lack of participation by the campus community.

“To not have history students here, to not have social science students here, English students in here,” Smith said. “That is a travesty.”

The Black History Month calendar is packed, with at least one event scheduled each day from Feb. 2 to Feb. 27. The events are diverse and include films, speeches, book discussions, self-help workshops and gospel singing.

State Center Community College District Chancellor Bill Stewart said he is very pleased with the amount of events that are taking place this month, and hopes that same attitude can spread across the other district campuses.

“Having something everyday is absolutely amazing,” Stewart said. “That doesn’t happen much anywhere.”

Smith said the college community must work together to encourage students to attend events as well as create awareness about events such as those ongoing for Black History Month to avoid the very low turnout.

FCC President, Tony Cantu also agrees that the lack of attendance should be addressed.
“‘Are we missing our audience?’” Cantu said. “That’s a discussion that organizers need to have as to what’s going on.”

FCC students Largely Apathetic 

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A survey of 583 FCC students conducted between Feb. 9-12, found that students are largely unaware of the events on campus. Of the 583 students who participated in the survey, 496 or 85 percent of respondents have not attended any activities related to Black History Month. Only 87 students or 14.9 percent said they had been present at an event.

Eighty five of the respondents identified themselves as African American. Of the 85, only 33 or 38.8 percent had attended an event. The rest, 52 or 61 percent have not participated in any way at all.

“Every year you get a different group of students, and unless you get some sort of major event, a lot will come in, and they won’t really care once they are here,” said Homer Greene, historian for the African American Faculty and Staff association. “But I think that all of the things around ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a movement that a lot of young people are getting behind.”

Greene said that he would continue to try and guide students into the world and helping them find their place in the world.

“This is the world that they will be graduating into,” Greene said. “They need to bring about some changes.”

Lack of Awareness

The survey by the Rampage asked respondents to choose one of three reasons for not participating in the Black History Month events. Of the 496 students who had not attended any event, 88 or 15.1 percent stated their schedules conflicted with the events; 347 or 59.5 percent of respondents said they did not know about the events, and 61 or 10.5 percent said they did not care about the events.

“To what extent are the public made aware of these events,” Cantu said. “That’s a broader question that people need to come together to figure out.”

Depending on who you ask, there are several explanations for the lack of awareness. Genean Bolen, instructor of English and president of the Black Faculty and Staff association, the group primarily responsible for the Black History Month calendar and events, said the blame for the lack of awareness rests squarely on Kathy Bonilla, public information officer of the college.

Bolen said she had wanted to reach out to local TV media but was told that all publicity would be handled through Bonilla’s office or the public information office on campus.

“That’s all through Kathy Bonilla’s office,” Bolen said. “We are not experts at this, and I really don’t know what to do.”

Bonilla said that responsibility does not fall entirely on her, and that the job of getting the word out for events is a shared responsibility.

“It’s tough to get the word out,” Bonilla said. “Usually people are really good about getting the word out in their own departments and to all of their students.”

Bonilla said that the situation is worsened by scheduling problems and she was often notified very late when an event is cancelled or rescheduled.

“I didn’t get too much notice as to what the events were going to be, or when,” Bonilla said. “I didn’t get as much information as I needed, except for right before the events happened.”

Additionally, representatives of the Associated Students Government and Student Activities Office said they were not consulted or invited to be participants in the Black History Month celebrations.

“We never heard anything about those events,” said ASG President Daniel Melchor. “We’ve just seen the flyers around, but no one came to one of our meetings or into our office to let us know of anything.”

Even Sean Henderson, director of Student Activities, stated that he had little contact with representatives of the African American Faculty and Staff before the events were planned and scheduled and calendars were sent out.

“All [student activities] got was the calendar,” Henderson said. “We’ve put them up on the Facebook page, but that’s all we got.”

Bolen maintains she reached out to both ASG and Student Activities and took all the steps she was told were necessary.

“Part of the problem is, we can’t get the information out because we don’t know the protocols,” Bolen said. She also blames the lack of support from all the necessary constituencies in the college, as a factor.

But others put the blame on Bolen and African American Faculty and Staff association for not getting the word out to other staff members in a timely and organized fashion

“I looked at a calendar today that I should have been looking at a month ago.” said Granville Redmond, IDILE counselor.

Complexities

Halfway into the month and 12 events later, many, including many leaders of the African-American community on campus, are scratching their heads about what went wrong and wondering how it could have worked out.

Bolen said that students enrolled in African-American Studies who were always key to the success of Black History Month activities, were not encouraged to participate this year and consequently, that base was not there.

“Black studies has not been supportive of the events,” Bolen said. “The students have not been coming to the events because the [African-American Studies] instructor does not know about the events.”

Granville Redmond, counselor for IDILE, agrees that African-American Studies students are an important group in boosting attendance at these events.

“The main focus is through the African-American studies,” Redmond said, “particularly for these events, the African-American history events.”

Redmond says tapping into classrooms and students is not as effective if those in charge of organizing events are not being supportive or collaborating. He said that all concerned should work together for a better result.

“When there are times that we need to celebrate certain things as a united front and [the support] is not there,” He said, adding that the lack of participation is due to the way things are handled.

The right person must be in charge in order to get things going in the right direction, Redmond said.

“I’m not the type of person that is going to sit back and cry over spilled milk,” Redmond said, “because we are going to move forward, regardless.”

Many, including Bill Stewart, chancellor of SCCCD, said that the poor attendance could be a result of students’ schedules.

“Being a community college student is hard, and you only have so much time,” Stewart said. “Trying to study, maybe go to the tutorial center, work, get someone to babysit; when you get through with all of that, maybe sitting down to watch a movie isn’t your first priority.”

Stewart’s thoughts were echoed by other Karla Kirk, instructor of African American Studies.

“I emphasize to all of my students,” Kirk said, “you’re students first before anything else on this campus, so focus on your studies.”

Although Stewart also believes that the progress being made is good, he said more is needed in the future.

“If you remember the great teachings of Martin Luther King, you have got to start with one,” Stewart said. “Many things have started with the lighting of one candle, and pretty soon, you have a lot more candles and a lot more light.”

Bolen also shares Stewart’s optimism and expects that the months’ events will be better in the future.

“Next year, this won’t happen,” said Genean Bolen. “I fully expect the numbers to double or triple next year.

A student sits alone in the Fresno City College Auditorium as a film plays as part of month long celebrations commemorating Black History Month. Photo/Kathya Castro

A student sits alone in the Fresno City College Auditorium as a film plays as part of month long celebrations commemorating Black History Month. Photo/Kathya Castro

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