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Building community bridges

BY PARKER SMITH | NOVEMBER 13, 2009 7:20 AM

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There weren’t enough chairs to go around at the Afro American Cultural Center forum on Thursday night.

Students, professors, faculty, and citizens gathered around the living room of the center, enjoyed dinner, and discussed cultural issues related to Latino and African American relations and life in Iowa City and at the UI.

The forum was part of the monthly Black Male Forum facilitated by the Hubbard Group — a task force of African American faculty and staff created in 2007 — and it examined recruitment and retention issues for minorities on campus.

Directed by Motier Haskins, a clinical assistant professor of social work, and Mario Duarte, an academic adviser at the UI, the forum provided a relaxed atmosphere in which people spoke openly about experiences and concerns they’ve had on campus.

The night began with a presentation of new courses offered through the African American studies program.

Although only around 15 students are majoring in African American studies, Assistant Professor Bridget Tsemo said her classes have grown exponentially and are very diverse.

As the night wore on, people engaged in discussions of perceptions and stereotypes.

Duarte said these events build bridges among communities. He spoke about growing up in a town with limited ethnic tolerance and the ethnic diversity of his immediate family.

“Iowa City is one of the places where we don’t get the weird looks,” he said.

Haskins called the forum a place and space for discourse to exist. People spoke about the cultural divide among blacks and Latinos and other cultures.

“It’s important to bring together students who feel alienated,” said UI freshman Martin Lopez.

Approximately 2.4 percent of the UI population is black, and 3.2 percent are Latino, according to fall 2009 numbers from the UI Office of the Registrar.

Other students talked about how a city even as diverse as Iowa City can be a culture shock for some small-town students who have never met members of other ethnic backgrounds. Some expressed frustration that the university is motivated to enroll students of diverse backgrounds but not to graduate them.

“They’re tracking us coming in but not coming out,” one participant said.

The group has been hosting monthly forums to address issues such as these since its inception two years ago.

Jaycee Bryant, a Chicago native majoring in social work, said he has attended forums in the past and they get bigger each time.

“It’s important to see new faces,” he said. “We need to build alliances; if we come together, our voice is louder.”


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