For black students at the University of Idaho in 1971, discrimination could be found anywhere – even in housing. According to an Argonaut article published Dec. 10, 1971, many black students who turned to off-campus housing options faced discrimination and were ultimately rejected. As a result, students often opted to live on-campus in the Black Student Union Building instead.
The building, formerly located on Elm Street, was torn down in 1976, displacing the 40-45 black students who lived there, reported The Argonaut April 23, 1976.
The BSU has worked to find their place on campus ever since.
Jamal Sanders, the current president of the BSU, said finding a consistent community space is one of the BSU”s primary goals.
“One of our future goals is to get a location for the BSU so we can have a permanent office or meeting space,” Sanders said. “So we can get used to having a more secure location.”
The organization currently meets every Tuesday at 6 p.m., but Sanders said the locations of the meetings vary.
A Nov. 15, 2005, Argonaut article said the group was first established in 2005. However, Sanders said the BSU has come and gone on UI”s campus since the 1970s.
The organization was brought back for the third time three years ago, Sanders said, when UI alumna Chelsea Butler saw a need for more support for black students on campus.
Today, Sanders said he and the organization”s members are working toward restructuring the BSU.
These efforts include developing a voted-in constitution that represents the future goals of every member, looking into chaptering as an organization, and planning future fundraisers, community events and volunteer opportunities.
“We”re trying to get more members, trying to get more community work done,” Sanders said. “We”re doing a little bit of volunteer opportunities, kind of looking at our future.”
When it comes to keeping BSU alive, Sanders said the greatest challenge has been keeping up a strong membership.
“We”re a pretty inclusive group. We”re just looking to further the education of black culture, black history, things like that,” Sanders said. “To educate people on anything they want to ask questions about, really.”
Cynthia Ballesteros, a former BSU president and current member, said she also found retaining a core group of members to be difficult during her time as president.
“Since we were a small group there were some issues because of our membership, our man power,” Ballesteros said. “We had some challenges with that but overall, we were able to overcome that because we had some great support from faculty and other student organizations on campus.”
Ballesteros said she first joined the BSU to expand her knowledge of other cultures and has loved being a part of the organization ever since.
“I”m Latina,” Ballesteros said. “I”m not black, so it was also a way for me to get to know more people and know their backgrounds.”
BSU Vice President Eli Brendt said anyone is able to join the group and members of the student organization encourage people of various backgrounds to take part.
“We want to be here for everyone, not just black students, but allies,” Brendt said. “Anyone willing to support or learn more about black culture and black history rather than it just being crammed into February, because there”s a lot more to a culture than you can learn in one month.”
While the BSU provides a safe place for black students to come together, Ballesteros said it”s also a group that creates a community and prompts conversations about important social issues.
“It”s a place where students who identify as black, African, Afro-Caribbean, different shades and textures of, you know, seeing what its like to be black on campus come together to form a community, to feel welcome, to have difficult conversations about what it”s like to be black in American society,” Ballesteros said.
In the past, the organization has hosted screenings of documentaries about race that are paired with paneled discussions. Brendt said having high diversity in such cases is beneficial for everyone, because members of different backgrounds can share their respective perspectives.
“Since not all of our members are black, they can educate (us) about their culture and we can educate them about our culture,” Brendt said. “You can see their perspective, their point of view, from someone who”s not black, about the issues, you can compare and contrast perspectives. It”s cool.”
In addition to organizing their main fundraising event, the Soul Food Sale, Sanders said the BSU has been working to host more panel discussions and similar events to help educate students about black culture.
“We”re looking to be educational as well as informative and have it be in an inclusive manner where anybody can come and not feel awkward or afraid to talk about any topics,” Sanders said.
When it comes to educating people about black culture, Sanders said one of the most difficult parts is approaching misconceptions in a tactful way.
Discussions about things like race and culture can become heated and Sanders said reasoning with someone when topics have the potential to turn emotional can be challenging.
“If you”re learning chemistry or biology or something like that, there are the concepts and ideas, the main parts,” Sanders said. “But then there”s the deeper, rich parts that some people hold close and it”s tough if people get emotional in responses or actions.”
Beyond educating the public and prompting conversations about important contemporary issues, Sanders said the ultimate goal of the BSU is to provide a sense of family and community where anyone can turn to for support.
“The idea is we”re of the Vandal family,” Sanders said. “We”re all just kind of a group of people who are all here as college students gaining experiences through each other, through our classes, through other opportunities. That”s been the idea – we want to make a group or a family or an area (people) can go to, where they have people to rely on.”