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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Coalition of African Americans promotes culture and education

(L-R) Naasira Agreela, Essandra Gilbeaux, Jesse James and Lakysha Cummings make up the leadership of the Coalition of African Americans. A fifth leader, Doretha Evans, is not pictured. PHOTO BY RAMSEY EL-QARE / THE GUARDSMAN

Catherine Lee
The Guardsman

Two students invigorated by City College’s display of diversity at Unity Day, an event when students gather to promote their affiliate clubs, have recently formed a new student association, the Coalition of African Americans.

While there are other affiliate groups for black students at City College, the recently formed coalition’s goal for representation of black students at campus events embraces an educational mission in addition to the cultural platform.

The founders, Jesse James and Essandra Gilbeaux, met in French class during spring 2010. They both admired the organized presence of groups like the Latino and Asian student associations and the cultural events they hosted.

“Black students and black culture were not as well represented as other cultures who had events,” James said.

The coalition’s soft organizing around shared culture, art, food and experience is the most visible part of their efforts. But their larger goals are ambitious and profoundly focused on education and community.

“We want to promote education along with our culture,” said COAA member Lakysha Cummings, a sophomore at City College.

“Education and culture are a bit contrary to each other in many black communities. Education is not really valued in African American culture, but they know it’s important,” she said.

By hosting more public events, COAA hopes to increase their visibility to black students, Cummings said. The coalition wants to let African American students know there is support for their academic careers from their peers within the school.

The COAA is hosting a major five-hour event in front of the Wellness Center May 4 where “there’s good foot traffic and where a lot of black students hang out,” James said. The event is being organized by the 5- to 6-person core membership of COAA and will feature poetry, food and music, and lots of outreach.

COAA Vice President Gilbeaux hopes the event “completes our organizational foundation so we are a continuous organization and we have enough momentum to continue to host black heritage events with active participation.”

Gilbeaux’s themes of stability and permanence are synchronous with co-founder James’ path as an engineering major — he plans to pursue civil engineering so he can build bridges and roads, things that last, he said. Next semester he will transfer to a four-year college and Gilbeaux will carry the organization forward.

Long-term goals
The coalition’s one-year goal is to “go out into the community and get people signed up for college,” James said.

To achieve the community college outreach effort they’re going to need a lot more students. But it’s a real challenge to find students who will commit to the time required to help their community, Gilbeaux said.

The COAA membership is still small, with about 30 students signed up, and constitutes the gains of active outreach since fall 2010. The coalition co-hosted a Black History Month event in February with the two other campus organizations. James has made announcements of the clubs presence to every African-American studies class and multiple history classes.

To add members at first, James walked around with a clipboard and a sign-up list but wasn’t adding many new members. Outreach for new members was a little more successful when the COAA held bake sales on campus, said lead cupcake baker Cummings.

The bake sales stimulated conversation about the COAA’s effort to be part of the African-American students’ academic support structure so the college experience is not a solo journey, James said.

The challenge James found is that many more students came to the bake sale table to talk than to join.

“Everyone talks about community, but few want to pull it together for actual community organizing,“ James said.

But the COAA core members remain undeterred. They hope to sign up many more students at the May 4 event “The Black Heritage Celebration.” Unified in their emphasis on educational opportunities for black students, they’re confident that the coalition’s mission will resonate when students hear it.

“We want to promote the need to be focused on school to succeed in education: we need to block out a lot of noise to take education seriously. Black people have a lot of things going on in their neighborhoods, but it’s important to create these networks and partnerships to succeed in school,” Cummings said.

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