Dabney Meachum arrived at Fort Lewis College four years ago, feeling the same anxieties most freshman experience upon arriving to college: a desire to fit in and make friends.
But Meachum, who is black and a member of the Tlingit tribe from Alaska, struggled more than most to find a social network.
“It was very lonely at first,” she said. “I remember I automatically gravitated toward people of color in my classes or who lived near me in the dorms. I definitely felt like a little bit of an outsider.”
Meachum, who graduates Saturday, helped start the Black Student Union in October at Fort Lewis College. She hopes the group will carry on next year, giving black students an already-established community on campus where they can socialize and discuss race-related topics.
During its first five months, the Black Student Union has helped sponsor about two dozen “actions” on campus and in Durango, including a hip-hop show at the Backstage, the anti-Confederate flag rally at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, a Martin Luther King Jr. march and vigils for Malcolm X, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Anywhere from 15 to 100 people attended the various events.
Only 1 percent of the student body at Fort Lewis College is black, and the percentage is even smaller (0.6 percent) in the city of Durango.
It is important to support black students and give them a sense of belonging if the college wants to retain them and attract more diversity, said Anthony Nocella, adviser to the Black Student Union and an assistant professor of sociology. The same is true for the city of Durango, he said.
“If Durango wants to grow and diversify their tourism and be that tourist spot for all people around the world, they’re going to need to diversify the types of events that they host and promote,” he said.
With several documented cases of police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, it has been a particularly engaging time to be involved in the fight for equality and social justice, said MeKayla Smith, a cofounder of the Black Student Union.
With so much happening nationally, Smith said she was looking for anyone with whom she could share her feelings and experiences.
“The Black Student Union opened up a kind of community, because now there’s more people I can talk to about social justice issues,” she said. “I love how we are addressing it as a community, as a country. The majority of people are seeing what is happening due to people recording. I guess that I’m kind of hopeful that maybe things will change.”
They also have watched Donald Trump’s rise as a possible Republican presidential nominee. His candidacy has allowed some people to “come out of their shells” and feel empowered in racist politics, Meachum said. But it also has rallied communities of color to unite and support each other, she said.
The Black Student Union meets every Monday. It has struggled to recruit regular attendees, even though all ethnicities are welcome. It will be up to Smith, also a senior, to carry on the BSU next school year. At their weekly meetings, participants plan events and discuss race-related topics, whether it is happening nationally or something they’re experiencing on a personal level.
Smith and Meachum said they’ve heard white students use the N-word in front of black students, which came as a shock.
“They think it’s cool, and they hear how black people use it, and they say, ‘Oh, I’m going to use it in my own conversation,’” Meachum said.
Fort Lewis College has been supportive of the new student group, they said. President Dene Thomas has attended events, and in January, the college paid to send Smith and Meachum to the Southwestern Black Student Leadership Conference at Texas A&M University.
The students also are working with the college on a recruitment and retention plan for faculty of color.
Recruiting black professors is one of the biggest things that needs to happen to make students of color feel more comfortable at FLC, Meachum said.
But college spokesman Mitch Davis said the faculty is a little over 1 percent African American, which is about the same percentage as the student population. He added that 46 percent of the student body comes from minority backgrounds – a mix many other colleges and universities can’t compare with. A Native American tuition waiver is a big draw, he said, as is the college’s location in the Southwest for Hispanic students.
“What we look for in a prospective Fort Lewis College student is someone who can succeed here and contribute in a positive way to the FLC community,” Davis said. “That’s what’s most important.”
For the Black Student Union, the most important thing next school year will be recruiting and retaining members, Meachum said.
“Just the creation of the group alone was awesome,” she said. “People know that we exist. Even if the football players don’t show up to our meetings, they still know who we are and that they can come talk to us.”