Cultural Centers

On Tuesday, representatives of the Asian American Student Alliance and the Middle Eastern and North African Cultural House Club invited students of all identities and affiliations to the Silliman Acorn to discuss the club’s goal of establishing an independent cultural center for Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, students.

At the meeting, approximately 20 students discussed the role of cultural centers on campus and outlined how students can prove to the administration that a MENA cultural house is a necessary addition to the University’s existing spaces for cultural activity, a process that parallels the establishment of the Asian American Cultural Center, or AACC, in 1981.

“There’s diversity, and [separately] there’s inclusion,” said Kayley Estoesta ’21, a head coordinator for the Asian American Cultural Center. She explained that when it comes to including students of all backgrounds in cultural life on campus, many “fall through the cracks.”

Prior to the AACC’s establishment, this statement rang true for Asian and Asian American students on campus. The AASA existed to serve that population of students but lacked a physical building to house a formal cultural center. According to an interview with Yale’s DOWN Magazine, former AASA student leader Grant Din ’79 said that the association used to meet in two small offices in the Bingham Hall basement.

It was not until AASA students invited then-University President Bartlett Giamatti to join them in Bingham that things changed. When Giamatti and his assistant arrived on Old Campus, they were greeted by more than 100 shoes lined up outside the door. Students removed their shoes — as is common practice in many Asian homes — to demonstrate to the administration that they needed a larger dedicated space. The AACC was established three years later in 1981.

Now, nearly four decades later, MENA leaders look to AASA’s example.

“The firepower for starting a cultural center comes from students,” said President of MENA club Yasmin Alamdeen ’21.

The event’s co-coordinator Qusay Omran ’21 said that another challenge is identifying the students who would potentially be served by a MENA cultural house. Omran explained that when he requested data from Yale related to the number of students who identify as Middle Eastern, he was given the number of international students from the region but not for all students with ethnic ties to it. This is because Yale uses U.S. Census Bureau guidelines on University applications, which include Middle Eastern identity as “white.”

Many attendees said that they had difficulty finding their respective cultural communities at Yale when they arrived to campus as first years. Two students, Stella Xu ’21 and Lauren Chan ’21 said that incoming first years who participate in the Cultural Connections preorientation program have to sort themselves into cultural centers, which leaves many students unsure of where to go.

Omran said that this is partially a result of cultural centers being “divided along conceptions of race in America.” Chan noted that some international students who do not identify according to American racial conceptions tend to feel stronger connections with other international students than with the cultural centers to which they were assigned. Other students have observed that many people who participate in cultural organizations do not identify solely under one organization’s umbrella.

While meeting attendees said that it was impossible to find a “perfect” system, they also emphasized that the current one does not serve many students who may find a home at a MENA cultural house. Omran said that he was excited about Yale’s cultural centers before he arrived on campus but then felt “left out” of cultural life at Yale because there is not a house where he can find a community that shares his identity.

To address the issue, these students are currently working to unify other students and existing organizations that may fall under the MENA cultural house umbrella. Their activities will include holding more meetings like Tuesday’s, printing MENA stickers, advocating for funding for peer liaisons and creating a panlist for students and organizations. Omran said they also plan to reach out to alumni who may identify with the MENA community, especially to wealthy alumni who can put public pressure on the University. Omran added that students “have to figure out ways to make Yale feel insecure about itself.”

The Afro-American Cultural Center was established in 1969, La Casa Cultural in 1977, the Asian American Cultural Center in 1981 and the Native American Cultural Center in 1993.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu .