Umoja

Umoja is a program at Bakersfield College that helps African-American students succeed in the classroom and in life. 

Following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in police custody and nationwide protests that have ensued, Bakersfield College is planning several discussions and events in acknowledgement and celebration of black liberation around June 19.

On May 31, President Sonya Christian wrote a message to the campus and Bakersfield community following Floyd's death and announced there is a "plan to create a BC space ... to find a way forward."

"It is a dark and confusing time, which makes it harder to see how to move forward," Christian wrote. "But as Bakersfield College Renegades, we owe it to our community, to our veterans, and we each owe it to George Floyd, to join together, listen with humility, and to bring light that can illuminate the way ahead."

Under the leadership of outreach and Early College programs director Steven Watkin, Umoja community coordinator Paula Parks, financial aid director Jennifer Achan and public safety training director Tommy Tunson, BC is planning a series of events to discuss racism and violence and ways to overcome these issues.

On Wednesday, BC officials participated in a prayer walk in downtown Bakersfield. On Thursday, Health and Physical Education Department Chair Reggie Bolton was a guest on the local The Danny Morrison Media Show to discuss Floyd's death and law enforcement.

From June 8 through 12, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users can track hashtags #LightACandle and #ShineALight to participate in a virtual discussion.

Finally, the college is planning a full week of conversations and celebrations with daily virtual activities from June 15 through 19. June 19, also known as Juneteenth, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

BC will host the virtual series on Zoom and will livestream to Facebook and YouTube so viewers can tune in from a variety of platforms. 

In addition to hearing from Christian, members of BC’s African American Initiatives team and other BC faculty, staff and students, BC’s core planning team has reached out to a number of community leaders locally, statewide and nationally to participate in the conversation.

"We’re going to invite the community to listen and learn and grow and discuss ways on how we can overcome the racism in our community," explained Watkin. "When we’re out shopping, as a black man, we want to feel safe. We don’t want to look behind our backs and wonder if someone is out to hurt us."

Details are still being worked out, but the event's website www.bakersfieldcollege.edu/aai/lightacandle-a-juneteenth-conversation will provide updates as they become available. BC’s Student Health and Wellness Center will also be hosting group support sessions June 15 to 18, June 30 and July 2.

There's no clear cut way to solve racial injustice, but Watkin believes it's important to have conversations addressing racism with family members first and then look to one's community and speaking with various organizations on issues impacting people of color.

"It’s a slow change, but it does happen," he said. "As a black man, we have been taught to run faster and jump higher to be equal to other individuals. Maybe in the near future that won’t have to be the case." 

Over the past five years, Watkin explained, BC has supported black students in several way through the African American Initiatives team and seen growth. He shared the college has increased overall enrollment of black students by 45 percent to more than 1,000 students; increased first-time black student enrollment by 72 percent; increased black student enrollment in Early College opportunities by 1,017 percent; and increased black student completion of associate degrees by 223 percent. 

There's always more work to be done, Watkin added, but this series is one small part of the college's work to shine light on the ways education can advance justice for community members.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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