Celebrating Black history at the nation’s community colleges

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The presence of African-American presidents, staff and faculty has played a key role in advancing the open-door policy and primary mission of the American community college system.

During the 1960s and 1970s, community college campuses were expanding rapidly within urban and suburban America. It was also during this period that the central cities of urban America were exploding in rebellion. African-Americans were organizing to seek greater participation and representation within the major institutions of the American society. Historically, expanding opportunities within the major institutions of the society were relatively closed to African-Americans and other disenfranchised minorities.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 accelerated African-Americans’ demands for equal opportunity and access. Many of the students who were making up the new community college student population were veterans, reflecting as in society the larger disproportionate number of minorities who served in the army. As veterans were coming back into the institutions that were expanding, there was no one representing that population.

Addressing inequity

At the 1969 American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual meeting (then known as the American Associate of Junior Colleges, or AAJC), Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes – the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city – and political activist Ralph Nader addressed the convention, raising awareness about many issues in higher education, including the general civil unrest that had begun to pervade many college campuses. Novell Smith, president of Merritt Community College in Oakland, California, addressed the convention and asked whether the community college would change to meet the changes in society.

Concerns about the apparent neglect, insensitivity or lack of concern primarily for the nation’s Black population at community colleges led AAJC to form a Black caucus, led by Charles Hurst, president of Malcolm X Community College in Chicago. The Black caucus of the AAJC challenged the organization and its member colleges to be more responsive to the needs of Blacks and to include more Blacks on their staff.

The start of NCBAA

These actions eventually led to the founding of the National Council on Black American Affairs (NCBAA), the first affiliated council of AACC. The council serves as a collaborative voice promoting the academic and professional success of African-American staff and students within the community college sector nationally.

Today, we are still working toward the goals set out by that initial challenge to be more responsive to the needs of Blacks in higher education. Whether students, faculty or staff, NCBAA continues to work to advance the community colleges in their efforts to increase diversity, access and success at all levels.

In 1984, the NCBAA board of directors established the Presidents Round Table (PRT), an affiliate of NCBAA, that recognizes the need for African-American presidents and chief executive officers to share concerns and information as senior community college leaders. During its 37-year history, the PRT has held true to its founding principle – to support, guide, advise, encourage and mentor each other as African-American presidents and aspiring leaders of the nation’s community colleges.

Developing leaders

Recognizing the need to expand leadership opportunities for African-Americans, NCBAA initiated the Leadership Development Institute to prepare leaders and to foster an environment that encourages professional and personal development. The institute helps to prepare professionals and was designed to train and activate a qualified pool of individuals for administrative positions in community colleges.

Our first institute was held in October 2002 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with the focus of preparing 20 African-Americans for leadership positions in community colleges. To date, we have served hundreds of professionals. Over the years, the PRT advocacy agenda grew to include the creation of the Thomas Lakin Institute for Mentored Leadership, designed to provide a week-long professional development opportunity for growing numbers of African-Americans aspiring to senior-level positions within community colleges. The Lakin Institute has graduated the highest number of African-Americans who have gone on to community college CEO positions over any other leadership institute in the United States.

Get involved

We celebrate Black History Month in February but know that now, more than ever, our work is critical to the success of our colleges. I urge you to get involved and connect with us to further advance your diversity and equity agenda. Learn more about NCBAA and the Presidents Round Table.

In our current political climate, I encourage you to create spaces for equity of thought, inclusion for all, and the opportunity to demonstrate leadership amongst supportive peers. May the conversations you have and lessons you learn encourage you to promote equality, inclusion and leadership in your home institutions.

About the Author

Rhonda Spells-Fentry
is president of the National Council on Black American Affairs, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges. She is also vice president of enterprise technology at Prince George's Community College in Maryland.