'Capital B' Black: The UBC Black Student Union is making space for expansive identities

“In Vancouver as a whole, there is no Black community,” said Alexandria Rodriques, a third-year theatre major and Spanish minor who is also the VP Media and Marketing of the UBC Black Student’s Union.

She clarifies that there used to be one: Hogan’s Alley, which is famous for its connection to Jimi Hendrix, the fact it even existed in the first place and — significantly — it’s destruction in 1970 for the construction of the Georgia Viaduct.

To say there’s no Black community as such can be misleading — it’s not that there aren’t Black people in Vancouver or at UBC, it’s that they don’t have a physical location to call their own.

Savannah Sutherland, who is co-president of the newly-formed Black Student Union (BSU) and a third-year anthropology major and African studies minor, agrees that while there are strong communities of various African nations throughout the city, the Black community is not as “centralised.”

The BSU’s previous iteration reflects this, as the organization was formerly called the Caribbean African Association (CAA). This was a name that likely reflected the demographics on campus at the time.

Demographics are what also kickstarted the founding member’s plans to found the BSU. They had noticed that there was a growing population of Black students at UBC, a significant portion who weren’t Caribbean or African.

Of course, as UBC does not record race data, their observations could not be verified, no matter their veracity.

However, the BSU founders trusted the evidence of their eyes and went ahead with plans that involved talking to previous execs of the CAA, as well as those of the UBC African Awareness Initiative and the Afro-Centrism Conference to ensure that this new organization wasn’t stepping on any toes. They researched, discussed, debated and finally started the process of becoming as AMS club — one they quickly found fulfilled a need at UBC.

Capital B

Rodriques grew up in South-Asia and didn’t really have to think about being ‘Black’ until she came to university. It was here that she had what co-president Gavin Gordon describes as a “waking up moment.”

This trajectory of self-awareness is something that the three friends shared, and providing others with a safe space to grapple “Black-ness” became one of the BSU’s main goals. They are quick to emphasize that anyone, whether Caribbean, African, from a diaspora or otherwise mixed-race, is welcome to BSU meetings and events — but they are always centred on Black students.

Gordon mentions that he completely understands why people might not want to identify as Black or if they feel they don’t want to be defined only by their skin colour, but for him as well as the other BSU members, seeing people that look like them is comforting after a day being the only Black person in a room.

The co-presidents see being Black as an inclusive and expansive identity. It speaks to a certain shared experience and one that is something to be proud of. Even the crest of the BSU which was designed by member Feyisola Gbadamosi features a globe that is meant to represent the universalism of the Black experience.

“When we say Black, it's with a capital ‘B.’ It’s not just a colour, it’s an identifying factor of who we are,” said Rodriques.

Hours spent searching

"Fragmented" and "isolating" are words that repeatedly come up in conversations involving Black communities in Vancouver and UBC.

Gordon, who is a third-year Sauder student, said that the lack of representation in students and faculty members, especially in Sauder itself, is “disheartening.”

He described the need for Black students to have access to a community of people that look like them and who’ve shared their experiences as incredibly important — particularly in university when there are already so many stressors.

While sometimes Black students might know each other from high-school, as in the case of BSU treasurer Haydn Reid and VP Administration Brandon Barnes, or just pure chance as when Sutherland and Rodriques were assigned the same first-year residence, it is difficult to build a network when you don’t even know how many people are out there.

Rodriques did not let this stop her. To her own estimation, she spent at least ten hours trawling through social media to find Black UBC students and message them directly about the formation of the BSU and its inaugural meeting in November 2018. She and other executive members then sought out Black faculty members, personally emailing each one too.

Making spaces for new faces

The BSU, while barely two semesters old, has both scope and ambition. While most AMS clubs tend to focus on organizing parties, educating members or spreading awareness about issues, the BSU does it all while also having some of the most regular and popular AGMs on campus which are all broadcast live.

The BSU has a solid social media game, is sponsored by Yerba Mate and have already has ties to SFU Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry (SOCA), Black Lives Matter Vancouver and a number of Black professionals and artists in the lower mainland.

They don’t plan on stopping there.

The BSU has its sight set on becoming a resource group with its own physical office.

“There is no foundation,” said Sutherland, “we’re just building that foundation.”

Of course, even without all their grand plans, the BSU still is providing an unprecedented opportunity for Black students to meet one another. When they book rooms in the Nest for meetings, they make sure to slot in extra time just to fulfill the demand for members to be able to linger, talk and make friends.

“It’s crazy ‘cause you just walk onto campus and you see these faces and you're like, oh I know you, I met you … and that's a great thing to have, especially when there are people that look like you and you feel like there’s this community that's supporting you,” said Gordon.

“I've gained a larger understanding of what it means to be Black. I’ve gained a community,” said Sutherland.

The beginning of history

Currently, the BSU is accepting applications for new candidates for the executive team of 2019-20.

While the current team is made up of its founding members, they have full confidence in the ability of new members to run things and are, as Sutherland said, “not at all concerned about continuity.”

First-Year Rep Maia Wallace is the perfect example of this. She knew that the “twinkling feeling” she had during her first BSU meeting where she saw a wide diversity of Black people for the first time had to be shared and that she had to get involved.

Wallace single-handedly convinced 20 other Black first-years to attend the next meeting, started a Facebook group chat that she moderates which now has more than 50 members and successfully ran in the club elections to be the first-year rep.

The sheer diversity of the variations of the Black experience that she saw at her first meeting was unlike anything she had ever been a part of.

“I get goosebumps … like all over my body … [just thinking about it],” said Wallace.

Wallace thinks of her role as a bridge between the people and what they need, and she sees her involvement with the BSU as a long-term part of her degree.

She wants the BSU to continue to be a place where people can come in, be centred in their identity and advocate for greater representation in the wider UBC community.

“This is the first Black Student’s Union at UBC. … In ten years, this will be history.”