The Wright House living-learning community has a vision to cultivate Black leaders on campus.
Starting in Fall 2020 with 25 students, Wright House—the newest Living Learning Community—will replace the Black Cultural Living Group as a “hub” for Black students on campus, according to junior De’Ja Wood, vice president of the Black Student Alliance. Wood said that the BCLG had previously served as a social space for the Black community to congregate “without feeling like we were under surveillance all the time.”
No space on campus
The BCLG was located on Yearby Street on Central Campus. After Duke tore down Central, the Black community “missed that space” and felt that they no longer had any spaces on campus, Wood said.
That was when they thought of creating a new Black space on campus as an LLC. Wood noted that the LLC format serves their vision better than a selective living group.
“We want it to be a vibrant social hub for Black students, but then we also want it to serve as a unique space to cultivate Black leaders on campus,” Wood said.
A couple of weeks later, BSA hosted a Black caucus, an open forum for Black students to talk about issues they felt were important. Discussions about a Black space on campus were constantly brought up, Wood recalled, especially for underclassmen who had never experienced Central Campus and didn’t know “what Yearby meant.”
LLC brings institutional support
The key difference between the LLC and the BCLG would be the fact that the LLC would have institutional support behind it and thus be more sustainable.
“The fact that this [LLC] will have institutional support, it will have administrators behind it, I think that makes all the difference,” Wood noted. “So, the BCLG was a first step, but it's not being fulfilled, and it hadn't been fulfilled. It's just now starting to really be fulfilled by the [LLC].”
Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and Frederick Kenley, assistant director of student engagement, serve as advisors for the Wright House. Guinn wrote in an email to The Chronicle that she hopes to offer suggestions on instructional materials, experiences for cultural appreciation and conversation that “engenders growth and a deeper understanding of Black identity, history, culture and the myriad of contributions Black people have made.”
Wood said that both Guinn and Kenley represent large populations of Duke’s Black community and interests, so having their consistent support will ensure that the Black community is not being left out of broader conversations.
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She added that another problem was that people felt that there was a “consistent lack of effort” to take care of the BCLG on the part of the University. She said that seniors would put in work orders that never got filled, so they were cognizant of making clear their demands and expectations when planning for the LLC.
Another difference is that the LLC is “very intentionally an [LLC],” according to Wood. She said that Duke has a rich history of Black people at the University, but many students don’t know it, including Black students. This history includes undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff, she noted.
“So the goal of this LLC is for us to also get into that history,” she said. “What the people before us were asking for and what they did to get those things, and from that, ask ourselves ‘what can we do with that now to ensure that we're continuing to push our community forward?’”
A Black history house course
Wood emphasized that Black students on campus have been protesting and demanding for improved policies and conditions for years. Learning about this history will be empowering for Black students today to realize the urgency of these issues and how long they have been around, she said.
The associated house course will be specifically focused on analyzing what Black leadership and the history of Black leadership has looked like at both Duke and at universities across the globe. Wood noted that “the Black community at Duke is not just American-based.” It will then ask how Black students can implement those same tactics or values in their own community.
“The contributions that can be made through this unique opportunity are probably unimaginable for some, but given the ways that Black students have historically contributed to the positive transformation of this University, we should all be hopeful for and helpful to this group of students that have committed to being a member of this LLC,” Guinn wrote.
Wood emphasized that the LLC would also ensure that the administration will thoughtfully consider the impacts of decisions on the Black community, such as tearing down Central Campus. She stated Black students and the BCLG were not consulted about the decision to tear down Central Campus.
“I really don't think they thought about the impact that [the decision] would have on the Black community,” Wood said.
Mary Pat McMahon, vice president/vice provost for campus life, joined Duke after the planning around Central Campus started. She emphasized that her goal has been to have as many conversations as possible with different people and campus groups to understand their “place in time and context,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
McMahon has sought to create avenues for students seeking a more meaningful connection to the identities they carry, as well as provide spaces for students to connect with and meet others who share those identities.
“My approach is grounded in Student Affairs' mission to support meaningful inclusion for all Duke students,” McMahon wrote. “Providing responsive, adaptive supports to our current students' needs, including dedicated support for students from historically marginalized identities, are at the crux of our ongoing work in Student Affairs, including [Housing and Residence Life] and campus life.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Black Student Alliance as Black Student Association. The Chronicle regrets the error.