SJR Column: Black History Month, February 2013

Gumbo, grits, collard greens, banana pudding, fried chicken, okra – these and many other foods that reflect the culinary foodways of traditional African American culture are the subject of the documentary film, Soul Food Junkies, by award-wining filmmaker Byron Hurt. The film (and the food) was also the subject of a rich intercultural dialogue held just a few days ago on the UIS campus as we kicked off our annual celebration of Black History Month.

Since its beginnings in 1926, Black History Month, celebrated in February because the month marks the birthdays of both abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, has evolved to become an annual observance in the U.S. It provides an important opportunity to raise awareness and honor the contributions of African Americans among people of all backgrounds and it provides a platform for educational opportunities on university campuses across the country.

Thanks to the leadership of the Diversity Center and some exceptional student leaders, Black History Month at UIS is a month brimming with opportunities for students, faculty, staff and visitors. One of those exceptional student leaders is Ashley Scott. Ashley is a senior majoring in Criminal Justice. She is the founder of the Legacy Dance team and is serving as president this year of the UIS Black Student Union. Ashley is leading by example, mentoring other students every week with the goal, as she proudly says, “… of making sure they get across the stage” [students, that is, at commencement]. “lack History Month reminds us,” says Ashley wisely, “that experiences of the past impact us today.”

Another student leader who has contributed to organizing Black History Month is Blake Johnson. Blake graduated from Springfield’s Southeast High School and refers to his time at UIS as “… an unbelievable collective effort of support and encouragement.” He is now a senior and, in addition to being a fulltime student, Blake has a passion for providing that same support and encouragement to youth. He serves as a volunteer in a Springfield elementary school and, when he graduates in May, Blake will be the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. He plans to become a middle school teacher someday. Blake has worked hard this year to insure that Black History Month is educational; but he also appreciates the “sense of encouragement” that Black History Month provides to African American students at UIS.

Ashley Harris, a senior Psychology major, is vice president of BSU and president of the Voices of Praise Gospel Choir at UIS. She’ll be back with us next year as a graduate student with plans to become a counselor; but this month Ashley says: “I am looking forward to all of the wonderful events we have planned for the month of February because they will educate, inspire, and uplift the students, faculty, and staff on the UIS campus and beyond.”

Vernon Gair is another student-leader who followed his older sister, Verneisha, to UIS from Chicago. They will both graduate in May – Vernon with a triple major in Accounting, Business Management and Business Administration. Vernon has already completed an internship at Crowe Horwath Accounting and plans to earn his CPA credential along with a masters degree. Active in multiple student organizations including BSU and the Student Accounting Society, Vernon told me that Black History Month can also help to dispel preconceived ideas and stereotypes and prepare students for future success in an increasingly diverse workforce, something he has already experienced firsthand.

Black History Month, of course, is part of a larger imperative at the University of Illinois and at the Springfield campus. If we’re going to “transform lives and serve society,” we must prepare all students, whatever their backgrounds, to live and work productively in an increasingly multicultural world. Diversity is both a social imperative and a business one.

As Chancellor of UIS, I’m grateful for student leaders like Ashley Scott, Blake Johnson, Ashley Harris, Vernon Gair and many other students, faculty and staff who understand why diversity matters and who are leading the way on campus creating opportunities for all. I’m also grateful to Dr. Clarice Ford, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Services and executive director of the UIS Diversity Center, who provides such exceptional leadership on our campus.

The theme of this year’s UIS Black History Month celebration is, “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.” If you’re reading this column, you’re invited! Check out the schedule of events posted on the UIS website. I look forward to meeting you at an upcoming event.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch