School’s historical disconnect with local Black community acknowledged
Shakeer Abdullah proudly credits community folk for helping him adjust to being at the University of Minnesota much quicker than otherwise might have been the case.
“I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people in a short period of time just because of the nature of this work,” admits Abdullah, who was hired almost two years ago as the school’s equity and diversity assistant vice president. He succeeded Rickey Hall, who accepted a vice-chancellor positon at the University of Kentucky in Knoxville in December 2013.
Abdullah’s office, along with the school’s admissions office, held a two-day “VIP weekend” on the first weekend of May for 72 high school juniors from around the state who stayed on campus. “They were all students of color or [prospective] first-generation college students,” he says. “We tend to lose our students of color to out-of-state institutions, to HBCUs and to Ivy League schools. It gives us a chance to keep them in state.”
This was the second of two events; the first was held in late April. Abdullah’s office worked with two off-campus organizations — the Minnesota Black Male Achievement Network and the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership — and co-sponsored a two-day “think tank” for approximately 120 men of color.
“We had real good conversation” including discussing the recent occurrences in Baltimore and the “many different layers of racism” that exist in society today, says Abdullah. “One of the things we talked about is we want to ensure that we hear as many voices as possible. We want to take those conversations to the community and not just host them at the university. This isn’t a University of Minnesota initiative.”
Abdullah says that he once met U of M Equity and Diversity Vice President Katrice Albert at a conference and was impressed with her work. So when the U of M opening later materialized, “It was an outstanding opportunity, a hard-to-pass-up opportunity to come in and take a leadership role,” says the Ohio native, who at the time was the multicultural center director at Auburn University.
He admits that he came to his Minnesota interview not knowing a lot about the state beforehand. “I’d never been to Minnesota before,” recalls Abdullah. “The only thing I knew about Minnesota was Prince and Kirby Puckett.”
He earned a doctorate in higher education administration from Auburn and a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State University, authored a book in 2012, and currently works with Albert to, according to the U’s website, “provide vision and guidance…[and] offer a commitment to our campus relations, community initiatives, external relations and alumni development,” which also includes retention, multicultural and GLBT programming. These duties convinced him of the importance of leaving campus to get a better feel of his new surroundings soon after his arrival.
“I learned about the community, and in turn it allowed me to learn about the institution from the community,” continues Abdullah. He also learned that “historically there has been an absence of [a] connectional presence between the University of Minnesota” and local communities of color.
“I’ve been grateful that my role includes community engagement that forced me to get out and learn the community. I needed to know as much as I can.”
Being a Black male administrator at a predominately White institution such as the U of M is important because it offers the opportunity to be “invited to the table and share our perspectives,” states Abdullah. “I think we are an emerging group. I don’t know if people really understand the importance, and what we also need to do is continue to tell our stories on how we were able to be successful in terms of navigating through higher education.”
Abdullah says he hopes the two aforementioned initiatives will serve as a starting point in building better community relations. “We don’t have any illusions that things will be great tomorrow because we started work today,” he says. “I’m certainly open to hear more feedback from the community. I know there is a lot I still need to learn in the community.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.