By Lissa Jones
A two-hour drive on I94-W, then onto the two-lane Highway 28; an hour or so more and you arrive at the University of Minnesota—Morris campus. The first thing that struck me was the sense of community created by the architecture of the campus — warm brick buildings beckoning students, faculty and visitors alike. A cluster of buildings, perched on a hill, built around a circle like a village.
The day I arrived we had one of the only snow “events” of this snow season, and everything on the hill was draped in the beautiful white of falling snow. The Black Student Union of Morris was hosting its annual Black History Month dinner the night I arrived — my first formal introduction to the organization and its members.
The Black Student Union at U of M—Morris seeks to create a sense of community for the school’s African and African American students, and to forge new relationships and understanding through cross-cultural inclusion. The students who comprise the BSU include an executive board that governs the administration of the organization.
Executive board members are: President/Web Director Todd Gramenz, Vice President Mohammed Farah, Treasurer Pahoua Vang, Secretary Abdala Bashir, MCSA Representative Stacey Rosana, and Photographer/Web Tech Assistant Kyanne Benoist. The board prepares and presents the formal request to university staff for the organization’s budget, building invaluable life skills.
Mohammed Farah says, “My work with the Black Student Union and Someplace Safe is preparing me for my life’s work — helping people.”
I believe that you can tell a lot about an organization and its people through the events it hosts, through the level of care given to the events, through the attention to detail, and through the pride that is demonstrated when a group of people commits to excellence. Guests were warmly welcomed to the dinner
by a multicultural team of students who helped attendees with nametags and tickets for the raffle to come.
Following the warm greetings, people were ushered into a warm space anchored on one end by a series of large, padded chairs, one wall of nothing but windows overlooking the heart of the campus circle, warm-colored tablecloths, linen napkins and wrapped silverware. A student jazz band played soft tunes in thebackground, entertaining the ears of guests through the social hour. Another reflection of the beauty of Black culture: We thrive on relationship.
Social hour concludes and the tables are filled with the rainbow of humanity, demonstrating the real sense of community the students of Morris have cultivated and the support they give to one another. BSU President Todd Gramenz stepped to the podium to kick off the program and share a story so moving that it
brought silence to the room.
Gramenz shared his story of resilience, his choice to continue on with college, and his desire for improved circumstances rather than resorting to violence when his brother was killed in his sophomore year at college, talking about how the BSU helped him to persevere.
Members of the BSU told of the origins of Black History Month, taught the history of the BSU organization, and even provided Black history trivia, using it to get tables of people to respond to the questions and earn the chance to take their table to the buffet.
A fact some might find interesting: The U of M—Morris Black Student Union includes members who are
not of African/African American descent. I believe that this speaks volumes to the desire of African Americans to include everybody in opportunities for doing better, as Dr. King modeled in his Poor People’s Campaign.
Gramenz spoke to this in his opening — the members of the BSU want to create a sense of an inclusive community, to display for the world the beauty of Black intellect, and to convey the contributions of Blackpeople to the university specifically and to the world more generally. His advice to fellow students: “Life is a journey. Create a plan. Pursue it, and along the way don’t be afraid of success.”
The BSU is part of a large group of student-led organizations that provide leadership and support in the multicultural lounge. Each of the students interviewed for this article spoke about the power of the lounge
and its role in helping them to develop a sense of belonging, a sense of community, in the heart of a city three hours from the Twin Cities.
When they wrote to me about their soul food dinner, I was struck by this opportunity for the people of the Twin Cities to get involved and provide support. “We don’t have too many Black role models here in Morris,” they said, “and rarely do we get people to come to support us who look like us.”
The U of M—Morris Black Student Union needs community support, mentors and advisers. The students are calling our community to come forward, to visibly support the work of the BSU, to encourage the students and to offer the wisdom that comes from living together in Black skin, helping the students of the BSU extend their sense of community.
I believe that a favorite quote of the U of M—Morris BSU best conveys the essence of the students who comprise the organization, and their endeavor for collective success: “Rosa Parks sat in 1955; Martin Luther King walked in 1963; Barack Obama ran in 2008 so that our children might fly!”
To support the work and students of the U of M—Morris BSU, you can reach them on Facebook or by email at email@example.com.
Lissa Jones’ welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.