SEPARATE AND EQUAL AT ASUBLACK-CULTURE DORMS STIRS CONTROVERSY
The Walkman-wearing dude frying at poolside no doubt spoke for most of his fellow Arizona State University students. "I don't want to get involved in the controversy," he said.
Yet involved he was, plopped beside the Ocotillo dorm, soaking up the September sun, because Ocotillo is the site of Umoja Hall, focus of a fall controversy at ASU.
Umoja, an experiment in living defined by ASU officialdom as an "African-American Culture Community," is a special dorm wing for students interested in black culture. Most of the 20 or so students living in the wing are black. Most are also freshmen.
Umoja exists because of ongoing criticism of the university by its black participants. ASU's black population numbers only in the high hundreds. Total enrollment is 40,000-plus.
This hall's beginnings (the school had a similar dorm wing for a brief time in the early 1970s and has long had black fraternities and sororities) trace back to a race riot on the school's fraternity row in 1989. The riot sparked an official, campuswide sensitivity movement, which in turn spawned a new hate-speech code, required cultural-diversity courses for some academic majors and increased visibility for various minority groups at some campus functions, such as homecoming.
Another on-campus disturbance, this one last semester, brought the hall even closer to existence. A coalition of black students demonstrated at the Memorial Union, protesting that the university wasn't doing enough to retain black faculty, did not offer a black-history class and had no sanctioned gathering place for black students on campus.
The points were apparently well-taken. This fall, for the first time in two years, a black-history course (official title: "The Black Experience) is being taught by Wanda Hendricks, a new assistant professor in the history department. And Ocotillo's east wing is now called Umoja Hall.
Lauren Guyton, a 20-year-old social-work major in her third year at ASU, is Umoja's top-ranking student. She carries the title of resident assistant, which means she's part camp counselor, part social director and part cop to the hall's residents. The Swahili word umoja, she says, means "unity in a community."
Guyton, who participated in last semester's MU demonstration, knew the hall would make news. "I was prepared for it," she says. "The controversy last semester prepared me. It told me what I was going to face. And I told the residents, 'Look, it's going to be a long, hard road. You're going to be in the newspaper."
So far this semester, the State Press (ASU's award-winning student newspaper) has run news stories, editorials, columns and numerous letters to the editor on the topic. Based on those writings, chief opposition to the concept seems to break down into two camps. One camp moans about the minority reaction should someone on the overwhelmingly white campus attempt to establish exclusive, white-culture living arrangements. (As one guest editorialist pointed out, though, such groups already exist: ASU has a thriving Greek system.) The other camp wonders if such a hall makes a separatist statement that contradicts hard-fought civil rights battles.
For a time, Guyton had a member of the latter camp in her own family.
"I didn't particularly care for the idea at first," says Eric Guyton, Lauren's father, who grew up in west Phoenix. "I thought they were trying to segregate themselves from everybody else. I told her it took us a long time to get away from that. Why were they trying to bring it back?"
Eric Guyton, a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard who now attends ASU as a nursing student, favored the idea of a common gathering place for campus blacks, but knew the idea of a separate-but-equal living space could spark trouble.
"I knew it was going to be a touchy subject, especially around that campus," he says. "Basically, I feared for her."
Says Lauren: "He came from the Black Power days, and he felt that he had fought so much for desegregation and that we were being segregated again.
"We sat down and had a long discussion, and I told him we weren't closed off from everybody else. . . . I explained to him that anybody could live here, and that if it was 99 percent white people living in the hall and one black person, it would still be Umoja Hall. We'd still have the same type of programming."
Umoja's "programming" might be the most interesting aspect of the hall. The students--including the hall's one white resident, as well as its one Hispanic--have formed committees and are organizing a semesterlong series of films, guest speakers and social events, all tied to black culture and history.
"Just about everyone is on at least two of the committees," says Lynn Bowers, a 19-year-old freshman from Atlanta, who is on all of them.
"We have a lot of leaders in this group," says Nichole Wamble, an 18-year-old pre-med major from north Phoenix. "We were ready to go from the first week."
Other universities have successfully operated similar residence halls for years. ASU, which offers several special dorm plans (including floors for students prone to volunteerism, honor-roll members and health nuts), is also considering "culture halls" for Native Americans, Asians and other groups. Overall, the campus's dorms are only about 80 percent full. In addition to fulfilling the desires of such special groups, the customized-dorm plans help fill rooms.
The Umoja residents interviewed by New Times give different reasons for living in the hall. Several say Umoja offers an opportunity for almost total cultural immersion--a first for some. Others says they like the idea of a "home base" on the large campus.
Guyton's dad says his daughter grew up in the mostly white culture of Coast Guard kids and "didn't have a chance to be around her people a lot." Both Wamble, who attended Moon Valley High School, and Owen Ellington, an electrical engineering major from the Houston area, grew up in suburban areas, where they had limited contact with other blacks.
"I like, for once in my life, being around other black people, other black students," says Ellington, age 18. "This is the first time I've lived with people of my own race. It's just been wonderful."
Black enrollment at Wamble's Moon Valley High numbered barely more than a dozen. "I wanted to be with people all the time that I hadn't been around, to live with people other than my family," she says. "I hadn't done that. Everybody in my neighborhood was white."
And Bowers signed up because she wanted a "home base. . . . Where I was not having to answer questions or justify myself to anybody. . . . Where I wasn't Lynn, the black person, but where I was just Lynn."
At the height of the war of words in the State Press, the Umoja residents published a letter in the newspaper inviting the hall's critics to visit the place. Though the invitation has had only a few takers, the hall's first flash of notoriety seems to be passing. The campus is currently convulsed over more traditional issues, such as various athletic-department crimes. The dudes by the pool have their blasters turned up high once again.
"I think the controversy is dying down now," says resident assistant Guyton, thankful that her young charges have handled the pressure well. "They're a real community. They're here for each other. And I think Umoja Hall is going to be here for a long time."
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