It was a celebration Wednesday night at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Macky Auditorium. A crowd attended for the grand opening of the Center for African and African American Studies. But it was more than that for CU professor of ethnic studies, Reiland Rabaka — it was a homecoming.
“I'm trying to create a home away from home for Black students, for Black faculty, Black staff and to reintroduce us to African culture,” said Rabaka, the center’s founding director.
For Rabaka, the event, attended by Chancellor Philip P. DiStefrano, CU President Todd Saliman, Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett, Boulder County Commissioner Marta Loachamin and even CU’s head football coach Deion Sanders, has been two decades in the making.
“I've been here for nearly 20 years. I can't think of a campus-wide Black History Month celebration that the University of Colorado Boulder has had. And I think that's the whole point of this center,” said Rabaka, who is a professor of Africa, African American, and Caribbean studies.
“To be perfectly honest with you, because we are African Americans, we go around saying that. but we may not have any knowledge of Africa,” Rabaka said. “So, this is a space where people between 18- to 25-years-old can come and study African culture, African American culture because we don't even sometimes learn about our own culture.”
Student co-founder and CU-Boulder alum Isaiah Chavous also remembers those days before the center, which is known as the CAAAS — the acronym said like the word “cause.”
“You had a more athletic-oriented aura around being Black on campus and then you had academics. Um, There wasn't a place for that to coexist,” said Chavous, who graduated in 2021. “Before that, it's word of mouth and networking with friends, and that's why it's isolating. It’s hard to keep a community when there isn't a place to actually house it.”
The CAAAS was established in May 2021 by Rabaka, student leaders Chavous, Audrea Fryar, Ruth Woldemichael and Karia White.
It features offices and study rooms for students and faculty. The Ethnic Studies classes are also held at the center. Rabaka teaches courses on Hip Hop and Black Lives Movements and seminars on the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. The center also offers a mental health and awareness program with a Black therapist on staff.
At the opening event, DiStefano announced that CU-Boulder is committing $1 million in matching private donations to the CAAAS.
Finding a home at CAAAS has been pivotal for freshman Ester Amato. The integrated physiology major came to Boulder from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her initial plan was to go to a historically Black college. But the financial aid brought her to Boulder. Amato’s first few weeks on campus were difficult enough that she considered transferring. But CAAAS gave her a sense of belonging.
“I started working with them and being more involved with the CAAAS like Black students. It gave me hope to stay here. Amato said. “On my job, I felt uncomfortable. In classes, I felt uncomfortable. All over campus, I felt uncomfortable, and this is the No. 1 place where I'm comfortable and I can be myself. I can be Esther.”
Another student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Naomi Shungu agrees. The freshman integrated physiology major graduated from Denver East High School where the student population is more diverse. It was still a culture shock when she arrived in Boulder despite living in Colorado for 10 years.
“Outside of the CAAAS, Boulder feels a little bit unfamiliar. But whenever we come to the CAAAS, we can just kind of chill, do homework, watch movies, share about our experiences and just vibe with our friends,” Shungu said. “It's like all of us are kind of living the same thing, and it just kind of feels like we've built our own family that we got to choose.”
It was an emotional day for student co-founder and alum Woldemichael. It was her first time seeing the CAAAS. She was impressed about the center and how much the community invested in the project. She hopes other alums help continue the legacy of the CAAAS.
“We're hoping to be more involved with the cause and be more hands-on. At least, I hope to be involved and come up for community events and engage with the students in a way that I was once doing as a student myself, but now as an alum to just build the bridge to continue building bridges between current students and alumni.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Ruth Woldemichael's name.
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