On Wednesday afternoon and evening, Northwestern administration hosted the Black House Listening Session, an open forum for students to express their reactions to plans to add administrative offices to the Black House. Around 50 students, alumni, faculty and staff attended the event in Parkes Hall, where several students and alumni shared emotional accounts of their personal experiences with the Black House, urging the school not to continue with the construction plans.
Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin opened the event, assuring students that the administration would take into account everything the speakers had to say in moving forward with plans for The Black House.
“To start off, I want to apologize that the attempt to communicate the proposed use of the space of the Black House was not successful in engaging the community,” Telles-Irvin said. “Nonetheless, I believe that when we misstep – as we did – it also opens up an opportunity to bring the community together to have a dialogue, one that I hope will bring clarity and also opportunities that will enhance the way the Black House serves black students best.”
The administration further expressed understanding that their intent did not necessarily match their actions when they announced plans earlier this summer that would cohabit the Department of Campus Inclusion and Community within the Black House.
The Reverend Dr. Jamie Washington – a speaker many will recognize from his work on the Welcome Week Diversity and Inclusion eNU event – moderated the listening session. Washington urged all students and alumni to feel comfortable and safe speaking in front of the crowd, even with the bright lights and cameras that live-streamed the event.
Printed sheets of paper were taped along the walls and floor, illustrating the safe space guidelines for the session. Students complained, however, that the environment felt disingenuous and made them feel like they were putting on a show.
Many students expressed discomfort with the amount of cameras and requested photos not be captured when they spoke in front of the crowd. NU administration expressed sympathy for the discomfort, but said the cameras and lights were only there to provide access to the event for those who could not make it. Again, they said, actions do not always match intent.
When expressing their concerns about the plan, students and alumni emphasized the emotional importance of the Black House to their college experience.
“In my own unique experience, both of my parents had passed away by the time I started my senior year of high school, so when I was at the Black House, that was really my family,” Patricia Mosley, Medill ’79, said. “When I had bad news to share, that’s where I went; when I got accepted to Kellogg, the first place I went was to the Black House.”
Eyes glistened around the room as Mosley shared her personal account of the impact the Black House had on her college experience. Heads nodded in agreement as she articulated the importance of the Black House community for African-American students at NU.
Students past and present agreed that what makes the Black House special is the unconditional acceptance and support the students there give each other. Even a first-year student who has only been at NU for one month said that he immediately felt more comfortable at the Black House than anywhere else on campus.
Weinberg sophomore Jade Mitchell said that the presence of the Black House on NU’s campus actually helped sway her to choose to attend Northwestern.
“During my first quarter here, I wasn’t as involved in going to the black house, and I can see how it affected my first experience here, because I had a lot of issues, both personal and academic,” Mitchell said. “I think that if I was more involved in the Black House, my experience would have been different, because people who actually had my best interest were there.”
Students said they go to the Black House as a place to feel safe, do homework or even take a nap. With administrative offices in the house, the students said the atmosphere of the house would be much less welcoming and relaxed, and as a result, less valuable to students.
“I hope and want people to trust the process,” said Charles C.M. Kellom, Director of Multicultural Student Affairs. “We haven’t already decided to go forward with anything, and we really are seeking input before any decisions are made."