By Melanie Moyer and Kamryn Sobel
Editor-in-Chief and Associate Editor
On Saturday, February 12th, the Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Lives Matter Committee kicked off SMC’s 44 Days: Honoring Black History with the fifth annual Black Student Convocation. This year, the Convocation centered around “Power, Pride, and Purpose” as an ongoing theme for the following 44 Days events. Open to Black members of the Saint Mary’s community and allies, this event consisted of keynote speakers, panel discussions, career advice break-out sessions, and other community-building events. This event was a space for Black students, staff, faculty, and alumni to learn, reflect, pray, share, and hope as an incredible celebration of the Black community at Saint Mary’s College.
This year, the Black Student Convocation focused on their “eclectic panel of trailblazing professionals” who shared “their journeys to becoming leaders in their industries: from winemaking to law enforcement to chemistry and beyond.” The speakers discussed “some of the specific challenges they faced as Black professionals in their industry and how they navigated those challenges to command positions of leadership.” Overall, the panelists shared “some of the specific challenges they faced as Black professionals in their industry and how they navigated those challenges to command positions of leadership.”
The event began with breakfast and a breathtaking dance tribute by Olivia Rose ‘22. Brother Charles then recited the opening prayer and Dr. Robin Dunn (BLM Faculty Co-Chair) completed a land acknowledgment, reminding the audience of the necessary reconciliation and reclamation of the Miwok, Yokut, and Ohlone tribes. Her words echo the sentiment that Native and Indigenous people are “still here and working for the right to survive in this country.” Jessie Frank ‘22 and Sean Alexander of Public Safety then invited the audience to sing along to the Black National Anthem (though, who could compete with their vocals? Many audience members were visibly moved by their angelic voices so early in the morning).
President Richard Plumb, Executive Vice President and Provost Corey Cook, Dean of Admissions Sherie Gilmore-Cleveland, Executive Director of Public Safety Hampton Cantrell, and Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Dr. Evette Castillo-Clark all gave words of encouragement and acknowledgment. Plumb reminded the audience that, in the current socio-political climate, this is “not a time to step back,” saying that “if we work together we can make change.” Cook followed Plumb’s message by reading Frederick Douglass’s words “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Gilmore-Cleveland encouraged purpose with the following 321 days of the year, and Cantrell committed “to be present to those who want to make a difference and to volunteerism to uplift the community.” Castillo-Clark followed by reminding the room that “your voice and experience matters to me.”
Next, Lila Leath of Public Safety introduced the first of the two speakers, Be’Anka Ashaolu ‘08. Ashaolu is an alumnus of SMC who pursued a career in marketing and also founded Nirvana Soul Coffee House with her sister, Jeronica Macey. She shared that her time at SMC was “beautiful and complicated.” Her struggles with mental health, along with the difference she felt from other students as a first-generation college student and a product of public schooling, made her feel like an outsider. However, receiving support from her professors helped her leave SMC “aware and proud of her Blackness.” Ashaolu has gone on to found Nirvana Soul all on her own—or, at least with her sister—and is the youngest and only Black higher-level associate of the marketing company she now works for. She left the audience with a few pearls of wisdom: “The thing about purpose is it’s like a train station,” “It's not on you, it's in you,” and the refreshing “Enjoy life more.”
Shilei Bell-Lipsey was the next speaker to share her story of being a Saint Mary’s student. Bell-Lipsey is currently a senior at Saint Mary’s as well as the President of the Black Student Union. She began her speech with the message “power is something that we all encompass.” Bell-Lipsey described how community was something that she found by visiting after attending the Intercultural Center on campus. Within the first few days of her first year, she attended an event at the Intercultural Center. Leaving the event that day, she “felt more like herself.” After she received an offer for a job at the Intercultural Center, she shares she felt even more empowered “to create that sense of pride in that sense of community.” She concluded with, “I know that I made connections, showed up for people, and supported them. I found and made community. I tried”
The Black Student Convocation ended with a Q&A session, moderated by Senior Myles McAroy. Panelists Jeronica Macey, Be’Anka Ashaolu, Paula Harrell, and Troy Clark shared the obstacles they went through to get to where they are as professionals today. The panelists also focused on their life experiences of being people of color in white-dominant career paths and how it has affected them, and how their education has supported their life now. “With all challenges, comes opportunity. You have to make a commitment to what you do, accept its reality and prepare for it,” says Clark.
The Black Student Convocation was especially commemorative and informative and began 44 Days in an unparalleled way.
Madison Sciba '24,