How Should Student Development Staff Engage with Black History Month?

By Ted Cockle, Maliek Blade

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    Black History Month was first officially celebrated in 1976 to honor the contributions of African Americans to United States history.  The month of February was chosen because the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln both fall within its days ( 

    In today’s social climate, the month has come to mean much more than a celebration of Douglass or Lincoln and it’s important for Christian student development professionals to understand why.

    Today’s post is an interview* with Maliek Blade, Assistant Dean of Students at Oklahoma Baptist University.  I invited Maliek to share his vision for engaging with Black History Month in light of his role as a diversity officer at his institution. We had the opportunity to connect last week over the phone.

    You serve as the Assistant Dean of Students, with an emphasis on diversity and multicultural student services, what does that role entail on your campus?

    We have begun to have conversations about what diversity looks like for Oklahoma Baptist University. In light of those conversations, I also function as the chief diversity officer for the institution. What that means is I oversee the whole school and craft messaging and programming as it relates to diversity and our school’s vision.  From that vision, I’m responsible to instill and institute those things into every aspect of our campus. 

    I think more often than not diversity relations efforts just look at advancing programs for students, but I feel like that’s only one side of the coin.  The other side is the employees and administration who shape the culture of the school.

    So, as the Assistant Dean of students I can focus more on students specifically, but as the Chief Diversity Officer, I overlook the whole institution and make sure we’re consistent in our messaging.

    Would you mind elaborating a bit more on what the staff/faculty side of your role entails? Is it focused on professional development?  Do you end up counseling staff through various situations?

    Definitely, so one aspect is training for areas like our resident directors (and assistants) and the varying departments our associate vice-presidents are over. I do training for their staff whether it be the admissions office or financial aid or even faculty.  In the short-term I'm seeking to cast a vision of cultural awareness and diversity for our university.  In the long-term I intent to demonstrate the implications of said vision in speicific departments.

    The goal is that everyone who is here—whether student, staff, or faculty—is able to communicate cross-culturally and understand the experience of someone other than a person who comes from where they come from. 

    Now, of course, you can’t understand everyone and everything, but we do want to push everyone in that direction and challenge them to think beyond their own cultural context.

    We’re in the middle of February now, how should Christians be engaging black history month?

    I think Black History Month is something that’s helpful for us to be aware of within the climate of America.  Now, the United States of America has a spotted history with race in general, but specifically as far as black people or African Americans.  And that’s something we should be aware of and understand.  It’s a cultural awareness thing so that when we’re going into certain contexts we understand some history and some background there.  That way, as we engage we are sensitive to certain things.

    But we can also leverage knowledge of a certain culture for gospel sharing.  So, I think it’s helpful, in general, for Christians to be engaged in black history month because it helps them serve.  It challenges us once again to think beyond our own context.

    How should higher education, student development staff, in particular, engage with Black History Month?

    Once again, Black History Month is helpful in the sense that it will affirm students often under-represented or not heard, or not represented at the administrative level.  One thing that I realize is that one can go through higher education, earn a bachelors, masters, and a Ph. D., in a Christian setting, and be considered learned without ever reading a minority author.  I think that is a disservice to people who we are sending out to serve in a variety of contexts.  When we think of the great commission in Matthew 28, we’re being sent to every nation. With that in mind, we have the responsibility of reaching out to a diversity of people, and we need to do the extra work in ensuring that we’re aware of various cultures and contexts.

    Lastly, I’ll say that specifically in Christian education, where we do have schools that are doing church history and things of that nature, often times church history is taught from a Eurocentric perspective. We’re only presenting our students with white contributions to church history and not showing the truth that there have been many contributions beyond Zwingli, Luther, and the like.  There are other people we can be pointing our students to.  So, it’s not to say that that’s wrong, but we’re not being as robust as we could be.  I think we should guide [students] to engage with [these voices]—while maintaining the theological convictions, of course.

    But once again, there’s an underrepresentation of voices in higher education in general as far as what we teach and who’s leading and in the student body.  And it would be great if we could change that.

    When planning for Black History Month, do you feel like student affairs staff should jump in and initiate programs or is that something that staff should let students initiate?

    I always recommend a top-down approach.  I think this approach is better because it is longer lasting and it bakes these ideas into the cake that is the school.  I say top-down in the sense that those who run the school are the ones who shape culture, and the students end up assimilating into the tone that is set by those that run the school.  So there needs to be representation, and if not representation, majority culture leaders who are thinking through these things well.  Whether it be black history, Asian history, Hispanic history, it needs to be present at [the institutional] level.  They institute that into the planning and organizational structure of the school and then it trickles down into the other areas. 

    I think if we just focus on the students and take the down-up approach we may hit some short terms goals as far as the student body, but it still will not be reflected in the culture shapers of the school.  So, I think this needs to be thought through and acted upon at the administrative level for us to see cultural change.

    The vision of ACSD Ideas is to provide content that promotes imagination and effectiveness in ASCD members.  How should Christian Higher Education imagine effectiveness with regard to ethnicity and race?

    I would think of both short and long-term goals.

    I was just watching the news recently and I saw they had a gentleman on and he was of Asian descent.  He was talking about North Korea.  And I know that more often than not—in that particular interview and in other contexts as well—we do invite some minority voices into the picture, but we typically relegate them to matters of race or their specific ethnic experience. This gentleman that I’m speaking of on the news, although he was Asian, he was speaking on the subject because he’s an expert on it—the potential of war and things of that nature.  It wasn’t that he was invited to speak just because of his ethnicity, but he studied the area well. 

    So, I think a long-term goal for us is having minority voices present in various areas outside of just speaking on the Asian, the Hispanic, the African American experience.  Have some Asians doing theology, have some African Americans doing missiology, and have some Hispanics talking about higher education and Ph.D. programs and things of that nature. 

    I think a goal for us would be the representation of these minority voices by having them in a variety of positions.  I think some schools need to be looking having a minority president.  A minority provost.  Those are tangible goals that we need to seek because I think those things will ultimately change culture

    I know some would say when you’re instituting initiatives like this that you’re moving too fast.  But my assessment is that we’re moving a bit slow, and we could move a bit faster. But, it depends on who we’re trying to appease and who we want to keep happy as we’re pursuing this.  So, I think we could be doing a lot more.

    Again, those short and long-term goals can include representation of minorities in strategic areas at our school outside of diversity—the director of student life, or the president, or the provost, or even the librarian or professors. 

    Effectiveness with regard to diversity would be having these diverse voices in diverse jobs, not just diversity jobs.

    MALIEK BLADE serves as the Assistant Dean of Students with a special focus on diversity at Oklahoma Baptist University and is also a diversity consultant for universities and the non-profit sector.

    Interview by TED COCKLE, Editor for ACSD Ideas

    *“Resources and People” is one of the new categories on the ACSD Ideas site to help promote imagination and effectiveness within our membership.


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