Snuggled under a blanket in the middle of an oversized bean bag chair, UW-Eau Claire sophomore Avery Benson couldn’t have looked much more comfortable Monday afternoon in the middle of a campus with nearly 11,000 students.
With only about 1 percent of those students being African-American, offering a space where black students could feel at home was a primary motivation for creating the recently opened Black Cultural Center in Centennial Hall.
Based on early reviews, that mission has been accomplished.
“This space is really awesome,” said Benson, a social work major from Mount Horeb who serves as public relations and social media chairwoman for the Black Student Alliance on campus. “I love it in here. It’s so relaxing.”
Benson recalled her excitement the first time she walked into the room and caught sight of an entire wall filled with a giant photo reproduction of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“We actually have a place on campus where we can be ourselves, listen to our music and play our games,” said Collis McCloud, a senior business management major from Chicago.
The new center, expected to be a meeting place for black student organizations as well as an informal gathering spot, was buzzing Monday with about a dozen African-American students doing homework, chatting and playing cards.
The spark for the idea came last fall when members of the Black Student Alliance met with Chancellor James Schmidt and Vice Chancellor Tamara Johnson to talk about the challenges facing black students at a predominantly white university. A top request was creating a space of their own on campus.
A year later, that dream has become a reality, with the help of financial support from the chancellor’s office, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and the university’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs division. The room, with a bank of windows on two sides and a display of civil rights leaders, was converted from a vacant room designed as a faculty lounge.
“We are so excited that the administration is actually taking notice of us and catering to our needs,” Benson said. “That says a lot about the university and how it’s changing.”
The concept isn’t unique to UW-Eau Claire, as many universities across the country are creating affinity spaces to respond to the desires of certain groups of students, said Michael Thomas, student services coordinator in the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
“What the spaces do is provide an opportunity for students to be in community with each other,” Thomas said. “Creating the center was a move to support, uplift and empower students to be successful.”
Johnson, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and student affairs, credited the Black Student Alliance members for speaking up and the campus community for responding to student needs.
“I commend the black students for the strength required to candidly share their unique experiences on our campus,” Johnson said in a university news release. “I also am extremely proud that so many faculty, staff and students immediately responded in ways that supported the importance of taking this step as an institution to create an affirming space.”
McCloud said the Black Cultural Center is the most tangible example of progress at UW-Eau Claire in making students of color feel welcome.
African-American students previously hung out mostly in Davies Center but felt compelled to tailor their personalities and actions to their surroundings, he said, noting that many black students on campus come from urban areas and are used to being loud and playing loud music.
“Here we don’t have to conform to the identity of campus. Anyone who comes here can see us for who we really are,” McCloud said between hands of a four-person game of spades, which one of his playing partners characterized as an African-American pastime.
Benson, McCloud and other students in the center Monday said they spend time in the space just about every day and are optimistic the amenity will provide a boost to the university’s efforts to recruit more black students.
“When you come to campus, you want to see people like you,” McCloud said, adding that the center is a place where potential Blugolds will be able to see African-American students in their comfort zone.
Benson appreciates the opportunity to retreat to a place where she feels safe and can connect with others who understand the issues unique to being black on a campus where roughly 89 percent of students are white.
“Eau Claire is a great place, and you can get a great education at UW-Eau Claire, but I want more people like me to be around, people who understand where I come from,” Benson said. “The center really does bring us together.”