A reactivated Black Faculty and Staff Association hopes to serve that purpose
By Charles Hallman
When Alysia Lajune was hired last year by the University of Minnesota after working a dozen-plus years in such places as Columbus, Ohio and Washington, D.C., the notion that an organized Black faculty and staff group didn’t exist “shocked” her.
“This is exactly the type of institution — a larger, predominately White institution” — that very much needs such a group, believes Lajune, who later learned from longtime university Black employees that one had existed over two decades ago.
“The biggest issue then was [that Black] faculty felt like the organization was not meeting their unique needs, specific needs and concerns, and challenges,” she discovered.
“And [Black] employees felt like faculty were being elitist and didn’t want to be involved with them,” she continued. “It became an issue of ‘We do our own thing and you guys do your own thing,’ but no real togetherness.”
Not discouraged, Lajune, who is the assistant to Vice-President of Equity and Diversity Dr. Katrice Albert, instead sought to reactivate the Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA). “It was helpful for me to have the information to know what kind of things we can discuss to bring us all together on one accord,” Lajune said.
Now in place since last spring, Lajune pointed out how crucial it is that the U of M BFSA be inclusive across all departments and include Black faculty, professional staff, and service employees.
“Our numbers are too small to alienate people. We need African people, Haitians, bi-racial people — we need all of us,” she stated, adding that holding small monthly gatherings, even during the day, offers Black faculty and staff a chance “[to] let our hair down. We don’t have to worry about being watched or scrutinized, or being studied, having to educate and inform [when asked,] ‘Why do Black people do…?’ We all get that, and we get tired of that.”
The BFSA’s goals include increasing recruitment and retention of Black employees, holding annual events, and having a table at new-employee orientation sessions. “I remember coming to my orientation in April of last year and not seeing anybody Black in my entire orientation. Now, when a Black person comes to new-employee orientation, they will have met at least one [Black person] and be welcomed into our community,” said Lajune, the group’s president and U of M assistant orientation and first-year programs director.
A survey was sent out to the university’s Black employees through the school’s human resources department, explained Lajune: “Our last email in late August or early September was [sent to] 878 [employees], but we only got 150 responses.” Still in the process of compiling the data, Lajune reports, “Most of the responses that we got…we saw very heavy on “neither agree or disagree” and “I like it.” But when we went to the comments, which are open-ended questions, we read a lot about negative feelings.”
She suspects that despite instructions to Black employees that they didn’t have to indicate what department they currently are employed in on the survey, many respondents were guarded in their responses.
“Even though it was the Black Faculty and Staff Association doing [the survey] and only me and the [group] vice-president have access to the results, it really raised the question of why are people not apt to say ‘I disagree’ [on questions],” she pointed out. Nonetheless, the open-ended comments section gave a totally different picture as respondents expressed “they don’t belong” sentiments.
“One of the issues we keep hearing…even in causal get-togethers is the pressure of being the only one in their unit,” Lajune explained. “Sometimes they’re the only Black person or African American person, or sometimes they’re the only person of color. But even when there’s another person of color who’s not Black, the Black person in the unit feels sometimes like they are not included.”
Some Black faculty and staff at the university often find themselves treated in an “overly inclusive [manner] that doesn’t seem genuine” added Lajune. “People being nice [because] ‘I’m Black and they are trying to make me feel comfortable, but [they] overdo it.’ I think a lot of times it’s that feeling of not having a voice or their voice not carrying the [same] kind of weight.
“We’ve heard incidents where people would be in a staff meeting and they come up with an idea, and it’s not well received,” continued Lajune. “As the conversation continues to unfold, someone else will re-present the same idea but in a different way, [and] then suddenly it’s the best idea.
“I worked in [another university department] where I was the only Black person, but I really didn’t have these feelings,” she recalled. “But I do recall having that feeling of all day you kind of [being] on [guard] — you want to watch how you carry yourself because you don’t want to feed into any stereotypes.
“You don’t want people to get the wrong impression of Black people, because you come across people that if it weren’t [for] working with you, they wouldn’t have any exposure to the [Black] community,” Lajune continued. “So you want to be careful…and that could be pressure sometimes.”
When asked why a BFSA is needed at the University of Minnesota, Lajune responded that just like the school’s Black students, who also are comparably small in numbers at a largely White university, so is the number of Black faculty and staff, which in Lajune’s best estimates may total around 1,000.
“We’re in Minnesota. We’re not at Emory University in Atlanta where you might be the only one in your department but Atlanta is a predominately Black city where you have your outlets, your community and your neighborhood. But not so much here,” said Lajune. “We want to make sure people feel like they are connected to each other at work.”