L ast Wednesday, the Black Student League held an important conversation about shifting the culture of the black community at Penn. While the “Black Penn” space can be a source of support and belonging for some, for others it can be elusive and hard to navigate. While I was not able to attend the entirety of the event, I was able to get feedback on how underclassmen felt about that state of leadership within our community. From their perspective, the leadership of our community was shaped in a sort of “hierarchy” with the UMOJA Board at the head.
As a senior whose resume is literally dripping with black organizations, I would just like to say that any presumption of a hierarchy or any other system of becoming a leader is bullshit.
The point that must be remembered is that our community and its myriad of organizations are constantly changing. There are no supreme black organizations and there are no concrete steps to having influence. The supposed “leadership of Black Penn” has not been turned into “Game of Thrones,” nor is it “House of Cards.” While a high-ranking position is nice to have, it is not the end all be all of what you can accomplish while you’re on this campus.
As a freshman coming into Penn, I was ambitious and passionate. I didn’t know all the intricate details of “Black Penn” or even the Penn community at large — I just knew that I wanted to get involved. When I eventually joined UMOJA during my sophomore year, it wasn’t because I felt that it was the only or best way to have an influence in the community. Rather, I joined because I simply felt connected to its mission and felt that it was a space where I could grow. At the time, most people didn’t understand what UMOJA was and doubted that a group run by sophomores could make an impact.
Don’t let titles be the gateway you need to create change at Penn. There are plenty of people walking around with fancy positions who haven’t accomplished much. And then there are those without any formal recognitions who will always be remembered for the impact that they have had. The fact that you have made it to this University shows that you are innately talented. You don’t need validation to do shit. Just do it. You don’t have to ask for permission.
In 1968, black students led a sit-in to advocate for the creation of the Afro-American Studies Program and the development of the DuBois College House . A few decades later in 1993, a group of students removed and trashed 14,000 copies of The Daily Pennsylvanian in protest of racist reporting . Even today in 2014, Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation lead weekly “#FergusonFriday” protests to raise awareness about police brutality. I bring up these examples to show that throughout the history of “Black Penn,” students have never been restricted nor enabled by what positions they held. It is our passion for our community that guides us and allows the organizations we embody to have true power.
Don’t wait for the day when Director Brian Peterson comes down from the Makuu mountain and tells you that you are “The Chosen One” because you have ascended to some high position. That day will never come.
The UMOJA Board (and any other black organization on this campus) did not become what it is today because the people were hand selected from some mysterious Illuminati hierarchy. It took the efforts of all our board members and the support of our constituents to make our organization stronger than where we started. And though I love UMOJA dearly and truly believe in its impact, it is not the end all be all. If you want to be great, be great. Stop asking for permission. Boss up.
Nikki Hardison is a Wharton senior from Buford, Ga. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Vision” is a column for black voices that appears every Wednesday.
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