This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. To commemorate the anniversary, the organization is hosting events to reflect on half a century’s worth of tireless, and at times tumultuous, advocacy for the black communities of Yale and New Haven.
The Black Student Alliance emerged from the Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs, which was founded in 1965. Just one year prior, 14 black male freshmen — a record number at the time — collaborated with older students to launch the first “Spook Weekend,” a social event that brought together hundreds of black students from the Northeast. In the years since, BSAY has advocated for increased black enrollment, the development of African American Studies and the establishment in 1969 of a cultural center for the University’s black students, now known as the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Today, current BSAY President Nia Berrian ’19 said, the organization focuses on uniting Yale’s black students and serves as a space for political education and activism.
“This is a significant anniversary because it’s not only 50 years of a student organization, but it really put things in motion for the university we enjoy now,” Associate Vice President of Student Life Burgwell Howard said. “Before there were any deans or houses, there was a student group, and that’s why I think we’re very excited to recognize this milestone.”
Howard noted that the founding of BSAY 50 years ago filled a void on campus, not only in terms of the recruitment and retention of black students but also in terms of establishing a home and community for people of color.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the organization is holding a three-day conference from Oct. 6 to 8. The conference — organized around the theme “Intersecting Voices: Looking forward to our future while honoring our past” — will include an opening ceremony, panel discussions with alumni from different years and a gala, among other events, according to BSAY Vice President Mykaela Johnson ’19.
“One word I would use to describe BSAY is ‘groundbreaking,’” Johnson said. “We are an organization that really aims to be inclusive of all forms of blackness and all people.”
In recent years, BSAY has been a key voice in debates surrounding issues of race on campus. Berrian noted that in February 2015, the organization petitioned for the ouster of Rodney Cohen, who served as the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center from 2010 to 2015 and was criticized by students for his lack of accessibility and poor financial management of the cultural center. Under pressure, Cohen resigned from his position in March 2015.
A year later, when a controversial email from former Silliman Associate Head Erika Christakis spurred sustained student protests, BSAY presented a set of demands to administrators and later worked with the newly formed Next Yale, a movement that called for the removal of Christakis and her husband, then-Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis ’84, from their respective positions in the college. The demands also included broader reforms such as the development of ethnic studies, increased support for the cultural centers and a renewed focus on mental health issues for minority students.
During the upheaval on campus over the last two years that led to the renaming of Calhoun College in honor of Grace Murray Hopper GRD ’34, Berrian noted that although many of the protests were community-led, BSAY provided a crucial space for conversation and debate.
“BSAY opened a space where people could think about the issues and brainstorm what should be done,” Berrian said.
In addition to working toward reform on campus, former BSAY President Erika Hairston ’18 emphasized that the organization has a history of advocating alongside and working with the black communities of New Haven as well.
The organization has a designated community action chair who coordinates outreach projects. Alex Williams ’16, who held the position two years ago, led weekly trips to the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, Hairston noted, adding that the group’s community action committee has a New Haven partner every year.
And in February of last year, BSAY partnered with the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs to organize a free screening of “Hidden Figures” — a true story about a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program — for local public school students and teachers.
Regarding the upcoming anniversary celebrations, Hairston said she is excited to bring back generations of changemakers who led the conversation about race at Yale and in the country.
“A lot of people who’ve gone through BSAY have gone on to do really big things for social justice and racial justice in their local communities and beyond,” Hairston said.
BSAY’s predecessor, the Yale Discussion Group on Negro Affairs, met every Tuesday at 7 p.m., according to Hairston. BSAY has maintained this tradition for 50 years and continues to meet every week at this time.
Zainab Hamid | firstname.lastname@example.org