Shannon Penn on Creating a Safe Space for Black Students at Berkeley City College
By Doris Kiambati
Shannon Penn came to Berkeley City College nine years ago as an adjunct professor to teach in the learning community Persist. But recently she stepped into the UMOJA coordinator role, a new learning community here on campus serving primarily African American students. The BCC Voice sat down with Penn to discuss UMOJA’s second-year at BCC.
When asked the inspiration behind her work for UMOJA, Penn warmly said that aside from the fact that she is a proud African American there is a practical issue when it comes to support for African American students. Penn took on the role to make sure that Black students have a voice on campus, and are able to advocate for things that have not been done on campus. There has not been a forum around academic issues or concerns for Black students. However, Penn does share that the Berkeley City College Black Student Union has been active and strong for many years.
Jerry Brown, Californian governor, recently signed assembly bill no. 19 to provide funds for students at the community college level who are amongst the lowest performing groups. African American students populate that category in large numbers. Penn believes that the outcomes of Black students in terms of retention and graduation rates clearly demonstrate a need for support programs like UMOJA. When African American students come to this campus, they should feel as though they are welcome and that there is a space for them — the UMOJA village space is a safe space for Black students. Penn says that it is important for Black students to feel as though they are moving from a world where they are not seen to a world where they are seen and heard. Creating a gathering space helps alleviate the sense of isolation that many Black students feel at school and the fear that nobody around you understands you.
Pilot programs often face difficulty. Penn, who has a background in nonprofit social work, is not a stranger to difficulty. “Working to establish UMOJA has been a labor of love, whenever you are the first person to do something different or when you are the catalyst for change in a particular industry, it is always challenging to start something from the beginning.” Alley Young, now retired and a former UMOJA coordinator, brought the UMOJA program to BCC only a year and a half ago. Penn says that UMOJA is still dealing with the growing pains. However, a visibly passionate Penn says, she would not want to be anywhere else. Penn is dedicated to getting the needed resources and to get people to align with UMOJA so that the African American experience is more comfortable at BCC.
Penn believes we are already “there” as a wider BCC community in making African American students feel comfortable on campus. The fact that Alley Young and Shirley Slaughter, Director of Business and Administrative Services at BCC, were able to secure funds and to cultivate our plans speaks volumes. Penn points out that there is still work to do, mainly in the financial sector, which is not a problem specific to UMOJA but for many programs. Penn adds that we need to advocate for UMOJA at local levels, to make sure that the program prevails. Penn highlights that she is not the sole person doing this, but has a whole network of supportive people behind her. One of the major successes for UMOJA this year has been that as a district all the UMOJA programs were able to attend the eighth annual UMOJA regional conference in Sacramento this year. A feat that required the acquisition of secured funds and meticulous planning.
When asked what the future of UMOJA looks like, Penn, whose eyes lit up with joy, said that it warms her heart to think about it. Though unclear of the future, Penn is working on creating a community for friends of UMOJA. There is a spirit at BCC that upholds UMOJA and wants the program to stay. Penn wants students in UMOJA to grow in their potential as leaders and to embrace their strength and beauty as Black individuals. UMOJA will continue to carry the energy and spirit through the semesters and years. There is a knowing that something great will come from UMOJA. It starts with BCC coming together and claiming this space for our community.
At the top – UMOJA students and staff represent Berkeley City College at annual regional conference. From left to right – Anndrea, Tyler, Omar, Shannon, Rafael, Amanda, Vanessa, Esther. Photo Courtesy of: Shannon Penn.