Expanding Awareness

New Community Scholars for Black Lives program is part of Cal Lutheran’s commitment to service and justice.

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For her project, Elysia Williams started a virtual book club featuring positive stories with Black protagonists.

Photo: Elysia Williams

When Cal Lutheran student Elysia Williams was growing up, she couldn’t really find any Black coming-of-age novels that showed a positive experience.

“Those books are usually attached to some sort of trauma, and so, it was really hard for me to read them,” Williams explained. “And, when you’re in high school and your morals and worldview are developing, it’s really great, especially for people of color, to read books that represent a positive experience as their own because the media doesn’t always portray us in a great light.”

Looking to make a change and help youth in her community going through the same experience, Williams recently started a new virtual book club featuring positive stories with Black protagonists.

She created the book club as a project for Cal Lutheran’s newly-created Community Scholars for Black Lives program.

Williams and fellow students Zino Ayetuoma and Landry Irumva are spearheading projects to increase awareness of systemic racism in the media, health care and the workplace as recipients of the new fellowships launched by Cal Lutheran.

The three students are the first Community Scholars for Black Lives selected by Cal Lutheran faculty and staff and local chapter members of long-established national and international civil rights, community service and Black Greek-letter organizations.

Regina D. Biddings-Muro, EdD, vice president of University Advancement, explained that when George Floyd was killed in May 2020, it reminded people of the gravity of racism in the United States.

“My (Cal Lutheran) colleagues, with an abundance of support and compassion, turned to me and others for ideas about what we could do in this tragic moment to let the entire university community see a tangible commitment to service and justice,” said Biddings-Muro, an African American who is the first person of color on Cal Lutheran’s executive cabinet.

Biddings-Muro and colleague Kelly Owens, EdD, director of sponsored research and projects at Cal Lutheran, came up with the program concept and are implementing it with the help of others on and off campus, including university alumni.

After hearing presentations about local needs from partner organizations, each student proposed a project that promotes “a more just society where African Americans do not bear the brunt of racist structures and systems,” Biddings-Muro said.

“Our goal is that students will work with the community to expand awareness and strengthen community to bring about broader societal impact,” she said about the program, in which students received project funding. The Amgen Foundation provided a two-year grant for the program.

Irumva, a native of Kigali, Rwanda, and junior majoring in political science, has organized a networking forum to connect Black students with local leaders from both the public and private business sectors.

“In schools, you have career service offices that help you get into jobs, but this forum will focus on once you get into those jobs, what are the pathways and things you need to do to get into a leadership position,” Irumva said.

Ayetuoma, a senior majoring in biology, is working on a mini-documentary aimed at bringing awareness to the disparities in health care that are harming the Black community. She said she has firsthand knowledge, having had vast interactions with medical professionals because she has sickle cell disease.

“I hope that this would change the practices of some, or at the very least make people aware of the biases that disadvantage many members of the Black community who need medical care,” she said.

Williams, a junior majoring in English, said she was inspired after listening to an explanation of the program by Michele Dean ’78, MA ’89, EdD ’06. The Cal Lutheran field placement director and lecturer noted that there was a need for young role models for the youth in the community.

“I can already see the students are really excited about the books,” Williams said. “The book club is also a real melting pot of individuals, which is really great because it’s not only good for Black folks to read positive stories, but it’s also good for people of other ethnicities and different cultures to read positive experiences too.”

Dean is chairperson with the Channel Islands Chapter of the Links Inc., an African American women’s service organization that is helping Cal Lutheran with the program.

“I was very pleased and honored that the university stepped up and decided to develop this social justice program,” Dean said. “You can’t just sweep things under the carpet. You have to discuss issues like these and share them. People will only grow when they know what is going on and are given the tools for how to improve.”

Ken Barrow, MPPA ’13, also was asked to help with the program due to his extensive involvement in the community, including as executive director for Black Lives Matter Ventura County and social action chair for Omega Psi Phi Chapter No. 779, an African American fraternity.

Barrow said the program was one he long asked for on campus, but it never got the needed funding until now.

“It’s necessary for Cal Lutheran to ingrain itself in a community that’s more diverse than it is,” Barrow said. “The program also supports what Cal Lutheran is supposed to be doing as a Lutheran campus: It is operating with what I consider a heart for humanity and the salvation of people.”

Michele Willer-Allred is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Ventura County Star, Malibu Surfside News and Central Coast Farm & Ranch magazine. She lives in Moorpark, California.


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