Founded in 1974 at Appalachian State, the Black Student Association seeks to create a safe community for marginalized students.
“It’s about talking about equity, it’s about talking about social justice, and it’s about talking about community,” J. Spenser Darden, assistant director of Multicultural Student Development and adviser for BSA, said.
Senior public relations major Drew Wilson serves as president of BSA. She works in part as a liaison, connecting the broader campus with the perspectives of black students. Sometimes this communication takes place after black students have negative experiences on campus.
“I’ll communicate with various black students on campus from different groups, whether its Greek life or any specific department or major that they may be in, and communicate that with different faculty and staff members and administrators,” Wilson said.
Maintaining a connection to the students who came before them remains a goal. One of the founders of BSA, Willie C. Fleming, currently serves as Chief Diversity Officer for Appalachian State.
“We’ve kept that communication going with the founders of BSA through different alumni events that we have, especially during homecoming when they all come back,” Wilson said.
Sophomore biology major Jalyn Degraffenreid serves as chair of programming. She gauges the interests of members to help organize relevant events.
“I listen to how they’re feeling, what they thought about different events, what events had good turnouts, what events didn’t have good turnouts, what kind of social issues they want to focus on, and orchestrate events around those,” Degraffenreid said.
Wilson said supportive of the increasingly progressive Student Government Association. Marginalized students have become better represented in recent years, and SGA has done more to engage with multicultural groups.
“This cabinet and last year’s cabinet were literally the most diverse SGA cabinets that this university has ever seen, so really getting that representation in SGA, especially in higher roles in SGA, is really empowering and amazing,” Wilson said.
Last semester, Appalachian State administration introduced a new mantra, #NoHateAppState. Displayed on signs, stickers and social media, the push drew the ire of some students. Darden saw how this misstep catalyzed some students he works with.
“Much of the activism and much of the energy around changing the space had a lot to do with both that campaign and then the banner that happened shortly thereafter, as well as the response,” Darden said.
Wilson is critical of the campaign and didn’t ee it as the proper way to bring these issues to the forefront of discussion.
“It just kind of removed that sense of acknowledgement that hate does indeed happen on this campus. It’s very real, it’s very prevalent on Appalachian’s campus,” Wilson said.
Carving out a space where black students feel included and encouraged to express themselves fully has made BSA valuable for many.
“It’s definitely a safe space, somewhere where I know I feel comfortable, and I feel like other students do as well, a place that kind of allows you to let loose after you’ve had maybe a week or day of school work. It’s just a time to focus on yourself, and fellowship with friends,” Degraffenreid said.
The university has stepped up its efforts to attract students with marginalized identities in recent years. They task diverse Appalachian students, including BSA members, with sending postcards to diverse admitted students to congratulate them on their acceptance.
“We’re able to really get that personal touch when it comes to incoming students to let them know that there’s other diverse students who do attend this school,” Wilson said.
But just as the diversity of incoming freshman classes is important to multicultural leaders, so too is retention.
“There should be a lot of center on retention, not just getting students here, so making sure the students who are already here are satisfied and happy with our Appalachian experience, not just trying to funnel in a bunch of diverse students who may not be happy here,” Wilson said.
Improving access to resources also plays an important part in the programming of Multicultural Student Development and BSA. Darden oversees the ASCEND program, which offers an orientation for freshman and transfer students. Students like Wilson discuss their experiences at Appalachian State with incoming students who hold marginalized identities.
“They’re able to get that one-on-one communication and start building those relationships with people who share the same identities as them, which I really think is something that’s incredible when it comes to retention because you’re able to get that insight of what other people who have already been here for a while have already dealt with,” Wilson said.
One new resource has come from Wellness and Prevention Services, which now employs a black post-graduate counselor, according to Wilson. With diversity resources coming from many different campus departments, Darden feels that communication between them should be improved.
“I think finding a way for the services that do exist to communicate a little bit better would be an important thing,” Darden said.
The relatively recent formation of the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Board for Diversity Recruitment has helped leaders like Wilson to share the voices of black students with faculty and staff. Still, Wilson said she wishes that student complaints more often resulted in concrete action.
“In the classroom when professors have micro-aggressions and say super offensive things, and where people have tried to share that information with higher ups, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere,” Wilson said.
Darden actively engages with faculty and staff through workshops designed to increase knowledge and understanding of stereotypes, bias and social justice issues. He recently partnered with the Office of Human Resources as well as the Center for Academic Excellence.
“Our three offices came together to talk about this idea of inclusive excellence of what is it, why does it matter in the classroom,” Darden said.
One upcoming BSA event is a cookout at the end of the school year. For Wilson, this will be her last semester with BSA.
“We’re celebrating just having a great year and a successful year, not only for our organization but for students, and wishing everyone a happy summer,” Wilson said.
Story by: Patrick McCabe, A&E Reporter
Photos by: Mickey Hutchings, Staff Photographer
Featured Photo Caption: Posters displayed outside of the Black Student Association. BSA is located in room 215 of Plemmons Student Union.