Black alums must organize, activate for community

Just as alumni encourage their universities to pump dollars into various programs and university departments, black alumni need to encourage them to funnel resources into the community. The support of black alumni of universities cuts to the core of what ‘Black Power’ and personal responsibility can mean in the 21st century, with black people collectively using the resources at their disposal to help other black people succeed.

When Brown University appointed Ruth Simmons as the first African American Ivy League University president in 2000, the University galvanized its alumni with the formation of the Inman Page Black Alumni Council (IPC). Four years later, Simmons spoke at the Schomburg Research Library of Black Culture in Harlem. From that gathering of 300 black alumni, a New York Metro area chapter of IPC was formed, holding its first meeting at the offices of Black Enterprise Magazine.

During that meeting, potential objectives like student mentoring, student summer internships and alumni networking were discussed. While each one of those objectives were well-responded to, the item most alumni agreed on was that black alumni needed to support Simmons. Feeling the camaraderie in the room, I added, “I think we also have a chance to be SNCC 2.0.” To my surprise, some of the younger alums asked, “What the heck is SNCC?” And some of the older alums said, “What do Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown have to do with us?” Not wanting to disrupt the meeting by starting a debate, I let it go.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came into being on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four college students from North Carolina A&T purchased items at Greensboro’s downtown F.W. Woolworth’s, then sat down at the “Whites Only” lunch counter and waited to be served. When a white waitress immediately told them they had to leave, they politely explained that since they’d bought items at the store, they should be allowed to sit at the counter. While a black woman who was working behind the counter called them “stupid and ignorant” and told them, “That’s why we can’t get anywhere today,” there was a lack of forceful opposition from the white store employees. Ultimately, though, the four young men weren’t served – but they weren’t removed from the store either. Emboldened by their small victory, they returned to the same store and the same “Whites Only” lunch counter the next day – only this time they were accompanied by 30 more students.

Soon these sit-ins spread to other black college campuses and caught the attention of Ella Baker, Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker saw the significance of the sit-ins and, hoping to harness that energy, she organized SNCC’s founding conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960. Her guiding principle for the fledgling organization was group-centered leadership – upon which SNCC would unleash the power of communities to pool the collective ability of their residents to overcome oppression.

As SNCC continued to evolve, it formed the concept of ‘Black Power’. Unfortunately, Black Power meant different things to different people and because of this, SNCC was stymied in trying to build an operational framework around the concept. The organization ultimately fell apart.

Yet from SNCC’s ashes, the Black Power concept serves as a much-needed bridge between the activities of the black college students that formed SNCC in the 1960s, and the Black College Alumni Associations of the 21st century.

Clearly the history of any black alumni group at any university is not as dramatic as the history of SNCC; yet I believe that is a sign of the times. When SNCC was created there was an organized struggle that tackled the issues confronting black people. When a group of people decided to take a stand, there was a framework to incorporate them into that organized struggle. Without the skills and stewardship of Ella Baker and SCLC, SNCC would have been nothing more than some sit-ins in the winter of 1960.

Currently, no such framework exists for the activities of black alumni groups throughout the country. This is due in part to the times, but more so to the way that black alumni view the role of the university in society. Case in point, Brown University is a wealthy school. Its endowment is over a billion dollars. Even with a black president, there is often the response from black alumni that “Brown is rich. They don’t need my money.” Meanwhile, the response to that is typically, “You have to be in it to win it. If you want more black students admitted to the University you have to bring something to the table.” While both perspectives are valid there is also a bigger picture that both miss.

A university is one of society’s major problem solvers and universities like Brown, with their large endowments, represent hard resources that can be funneled into our communities. The creation of such structures and mechanisms that aid in this funneling should be the primary goal of all black alumni associations.

In the same way that Ella Baker’s vision formed SNCC by bringing together the students who participated in the sit-ins, black alumni associations need a similar catalyzing agent to bring them together and form a larger organization. For this reason, I propose the formation of a Congress Of Black Alumni Associations (COBAA).

The founders of COBAA can decide what structures and mechanisms can be put into place to deliver those university resources to our communities. They should mirror the three major needs of our community: health, education and economic development. Each of these areas can be mapped to the core competencies of many colleges and universities throughout America. Developing the delivery structures and mechanisms will only take creativity and a serious work ethic – something black college graduates have in abundance.

In areas of health, COBAA can play a key role in addressing some of the issues afflicting our communities. COBAA members can identify which of its alma maters are doing the best research around diseases like AIDS, heart disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. Once the top two or three research universities are identified, black alumni can direct dollars to those institutions. Additionally, black physicians in COBAA can be encouraged to share ideas around health and perhaps even create COBAA health fairs in our communities.

In the realm of education, there’s the obvious desire to get more black students to attend and graduate from whichever university an alumni has graduated, an easy rallying point. It requires a donation strategy to the university and an outreach strategy to the high school students in the community.

Many times the deciding factor in whether a scientist, for example, receives a grant or not is based on the quality of the student outreach strategy proposed – which is one reason why so much grant money reserved for African-American students is left on the table each year. Imagine if there was a concerted effort by COBAA to locate professors who are applying for grants with outreach components. COBAA could be the facilitators of the outreach, building relationships between universities and school districts throughout the country. Not only would this impact the educational opportunities of thousands of black students nationwide but over time it would create many more black scientists while also bringing more research dollars to our alma maters. This is a serious win-win and is really just scratching the surface in terms of potential benefits.

So far, all of my examples have not explicitly mentioned Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In my view, HBCU alumni associations could take the lead in the area of economic development. To kick COBAA off I mentioned the need for a conference to be called similar to the one Ella Baker called for SNCC. In a nod to history, the inaugural COBAA conference should also take place on the campus of an HBCU just as SNCC’s did almost 50 years ago.

Certainly there will be numerous obstacles to the formation of an organization such as COBAA; but if black students with limited resources could overcome relentless southern racism to form an historic organization such as SNCC, then surely black college graduates who benefited from those herculean efforts can pick up the baton and put an updated twist on SNCC’s groundbreaking legacy.