After eight years, Cal Poly’s Black Student Union (BSU) was officially rechartered on March 18.
“I really wanted to start (a BSU) because I was kind of disappointed coming here and seeing that there wasn’t a black presence on campus,” architecture sophomore and BSU Vice President Tunmi Da Silva said. “And I knew there were a lot of people who … felt like they had no community, no real place to go and be themselves.”
Out of more than 19,000 Cal Poly undergraduates, only 136 students identified as black or African-American in data from the 2014 Cal Poly Factbook. That’s 0.7 percent of the Cal Poly student body, compared to 13 percent of U.S. citizens.
Cal Poly’s 2014 Campus Climate survey results reported that a “higher percentage of People of Color respondents (51%) and Multiple Race respondents (29%) reported experiencing exclusionary conduct based on their racial identity than did White respondents.”
A lack of diversity in universities has been in the headlines over the past several years. In November 2013, a Black Bruins spoken word video went viral and garnered more than 2 million views on YouTube. Then, in February 2014, students from University of California Los Angeles’ law school shared their experiences of being a black student at a mostly white college.
Da Silva’s father, Fola Da Silva, graduated from Cal Poly in 1987 with a degree in construction management. He was a member of the Association of Black Engineers and Scientists while attending, and said in an email that there was no BSU chapter at the time.
“Diversity has always been a problem at Cal Poly,” he said. “This is not because the school is not doing its best to attract black and other students from various cultures, but because of the absence of other communities in the San Luis Obispo area. The proximity of SLO to both the Northern and Southern part of the state, coupled with the fact that there are no professional job opportunities is also a big factor.”
The journey to reinstating a club charter that has been inactive for eight years wasn’t an easy task, but the women had help. Da Silva expressed interest in starting a BSU chapter to Renoda Campbell, the coordinator of Connection for Academic Success. Campbell introduced her to ethnic studies junior and current BSU president Saisa Willis and Jeffery Alexander, the coordinator of student development for University Housing and, now, the BSU faculty advisor.
“I already knew the demographics before I started working here, but it wasn’t until WOW week (that I really saw it).” Alexander said. “I only had one black student out of 250 in Tenaya Hall.”
Alexander researched the demographics of students housed on campus and realized the situation was reflective of other residence halls as well. He then looked for a BSU or black greek life, and realized there was none.
“So I’m like, where do these students congregate? And I quickly found out — it was nowhere,” he said.
Shortly after, Alexander planned a focus group to see how minority students felt living on campus. He sent out an email to all students of color and only four showed up. One of those students was Willis, the current BSU president.
“I wanted my voice to be heard and it was something that I felt I needed personally in my life and to really succeed in college,” Willis said. “I felt like it was a part of me that I was missing. And no one really took the initiative, so I just decided if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.”
The BSU’s first interest meeting had approximately 15 students and was planned for 30 minutes, but ended up lasting two hours.
“Just from that meeting alone you could see the energy and the newfound excitement in the student group,” Alexander said.
Together, Alexander, Da Silva and Willis filed the paperwork and on March 18, Cal Poly’s BSU was rechartered under the title “Brothers and Sisters United” while they waited to be officially chartered with the national BSU organization.
“Some people shied away from the name (BSU),” said Willis. “So we wanted the culture of the club to be more united, and first we needed to get united before we can call ourselves a Black Student Union. So starting the club as ‘Brothers and Sisters United’ kind of got the culture going.”
Now, the club is titled as BSU and has up to 30 members, representing more than 20 percent of the black undergraduate population on campus.
“This year was very much getting that unity first,” said Alexander. “We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. We just want to let the campus know, like, ’Hey! There’s more of you here.’”
The 30-member strong club now aims to expand its community and improve retention rates for students of color. They already have plans for this summer to reach out to their high schools and local communities through Cal Poly’s Hometown Heroes.
“BSU brought me my family,” Willis said. “I feel like last year, I was kind of just going through the motions. But I’ve never met a group of people that I’ve become so close with in such a quick amount of time … Now I have that community that I can look forward to once a week (and) if I have a hard week, I know I’m not going to get judged or turned away.”