The new Afro-Caribbean Union (ACU) plans to carve a space for the Afro-Caribbean community at Lawrence through social events, educational presentations, and fun cultural celebrations. It successfully petitioned for full recognition as a student organization from LUCC last term, and its members are excited to share their plans for the upcoming term.
I spoke to ACU board members Brianna Carvalho, Fadila Louleid, Brett Bamfo, Debora Michele Osso, Maisaa Hamed, and Faith Onukaogu about the importance of an Afro-Caribbean cultural club at Lawrence, the complexities of their Afro-Caribbean identities, and the positive impact they hope to create through this organization.
Carvalho stated that the idea for an Afro-Caribbean student club was born two years ago amongst a group of Black international students who bonded over their heritage. While Lawrence provides services and organizations for international students, there were limited resources for international students of African and Caribbean heritage. Likewise, Lawrence’s Black Student Union (BSU) focuses on empowering Black students, but many of the organization’s events are centered around the experiences of African Americans, rather than Black students from other countries.
While Afro-Caribbean students share some common experiences with non-Black international students and African Americans, Carvalho emphasized that Black international students have unique, distinct experiences that need to be celebrated.
“We didn’t really see our specific international backgrounds being highlighted,” she said. “We wanted to create a space where African and Caribbean communities would be illuminated.”
ACU takes a laid-back approach to community meetings. One does not have to attend regular meetings to be a member, and events are open to students from all backgrounds. Onukaogu referred to ACU as a family and expressed that this community is an empowering space where members can take pride in their Afro-Caribbean identities.
“[This community] makes me more relaxed and comfortable in my identity being African,” said Onukaogu.
Osso said that the close-knit Afro-Caribbean community at Lawrence helped her integrate into the broader Lawrence campus, while for Carvalho, ACU provides a welcome reminder of her country even while she is studying far from home.
“It was nice to find a space where I could speak in my accent, play my music, cook my food, and be appreciated,” Carvalho said.
Another of ACU’s main goals is to introduce the rest of the Lawrence community to Afro-Caribbean culture. Bamfo praised how ACU promotes cultural exchange. He enjoys representing his own culture on campus while also opening himself up to learning about others’ backgrounds.
Hamed said that ACU provides a great opportunity to embrace her heritage and share it with other Lawrentians.
“We have this place where we’re able to present ourselves and feel like we’re broadcasted to the whole campus,” she said.
Carvalho observed that the Afro-Caribbean community is often treated as a monolith with a single culture. She hopes that ACU will spread awareness of the diversity within the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.
“We really want to break down that stigma and show that there are many different parts of that big group,” Carvalho said. “We don’t want to see one term used to group a community with so much to offer.”
When it comes to planning events for the upcoming term, ACU is open to suggestions from the Lawrence community. Carvalho asserted that ACU values student input and will design its events based on what students want to see most. However, all events will be organized around the same goals: bringing communities together, providing opportunities for socialization, and evoking joy.
One of ACU’s upcoming events is an Afro-Caribbean cooking class to celebrate Black History Month. They plan to invite a professional chef from Milwaukee to teach Lawrence students how to cook traditional Afro-Caribbean dishes. The event will be hosted in collaboration with Black Student Union.
When asked how the Lawrence community can better support Afro-Caribbean students, Bamfo and Louleid urged people to attend ACU events with curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to learn. Since most college students can’t afford to travel around the world and learn about global cultures firsthand, Louleid is excited that ACU allows students to learn about Afro-Caribbean culture from members of the Afro-Caribbean community without leaving campus.
“We’d love to see more people coming in who are not from the African or Caribbean diasporas,” Louleid said. “By understanding each other’s cultures and practices, you build a safer space for both African and Caribbean communities and non-African and non-Caribbean communities.”
Carvalho pointed out that since the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is culturally and ethnically diverse, students who are not from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds don’t have to worry about feeling like outsiders in ACU. Bamfo believes that ACU can help bridge the gap between Lawrence’s inclusivity statements and the reality that students of color experience.
“We’re having [these events] so we can become the community that Lawrence preaches about,” he said. “We want to share all our experiences and cultures and include everyone in this space.”