Just before the end of the spring semester, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a grand opening for its new Black Cultural Center, located at 716 Langdon street in the Red Gym. Last month it was announced that five-year university employee Karla Foster would serve in a directorial role as the center’s Program Coordinator.
The layout for the new center is a complete remodeling of the former study abroad office that and will feature an office for Foster, a classroom, a lounge area, several private work areas and a space that will be used to host drop-in hours to meet with advisors, University Health Services providers, and financial aid officers. There is also a space dedicated to a rotating art gallery where artwork by campus and community artists will be displayed and can be purchased directly from the artist, as an effort to promote Black economic development.
The center offers a library, computers, and free printing to students and the space can be used to study, socialize, and reserve for events and organizational meetings. “This will let them know that this is their home and their safe space on campus,” Foster told Madison365 of Black students.
Though the center is being prepared for its first full academic year of serving Black students on campus, its existence and Foster’s work with African American students are both years in the making.
The most recent of these took place in December 2014 in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“That turmoil that was happening at a national level trickled down to the university level and students were trying to figure out how to process that,” Foster said.
The protest, which included a rally on Bascom Hill and a die-in demonstration in college library, was the largest since the Civil Rights era, according to Foster who said she marched and demonstrated with her students that night. It was an act that got the ball rolling on creating the current Black Cultural Center.
“Being a administrator, I have to find that delicate balance between being an employee of the institution but also being a Black women and also being an advocate for my students,” she said. “Sometimes that can be a thin line, but I like to think I support and advocate for my students for whenever they’re striving for since the beginning.”
Following the protest students released a list of demands for the university to create a more culturally inclusive environment. These demands included but weren’t limited to more mental health providers of color, better culturally competency training for the entire campus community, and the reopening of a Black Cultural Center, all of which have been meet, according to Foster.
In 2015, Foster was asked to join a task force dedicated to touring cultural centers at other predominantly white institutions and making recommendations for one on UW-Madison’s campus.
The tour included six campuses in the Midwest, three on Foster’s recommendation, two of which were her alma mater. From there a proposal was submitted to and approved by the university Chancellor and funds were allocated to start a center.
“I’ve sort of been there since the beginning,” said Foster, who was approached last year to initially serve in an interim role for the center and convene an advisory board.
Foster and the board conducted research on the past center and what it was like to be a Black student on campus throughout the years.
Foster even spoke to past students and staff who were around for the original center like Dr. Hazel Symonette and the fourth director of the center, Kwame Salter.
“They all said the same thing, that being at not just a predominately white institution, but at UW-Madison specifically there was definitely a need for a cultural center for Black students and there has always been a need,” Foster said. “It was still needed in 1978 when the doors closed on the original center and it’s still needed today because Black students are erased in other places.
She and the board worked to make sure every aspect of the center is a reflection of the students and students’ needs.
“I worked with the advisory board and the director of the Multicultural Student Center, Gabriel Javier to pick out everything from the pattern on the floor, to the furniture and the layout. From the ground up every choice was intentional and well thought out,” she said.
Intentionally centering African American students isn’t new for Foster, though. Before she working with the Black Cultural Center, she was creating safe space for Black students on campus.
Foster began her tenure at UW working under the College of Letters and Science creating programming for Black students in the college as a Student Service Coordinator for African American Student Academic Services. Foster and the coordinators for three other cultural offices were eventually moved to the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement were they served students in their respective populations throughout the university.
“A lot of my previous worked involved revamping that office,” said Foster. “We saw a need for programming that celebrated and recognized Black culture on campus and created programs that catered to that need. I was doing a lot of space creation because there was no specific space for us on campus.”
Foster is responsible for creating an annual Black History Month Student Planning Committee that plans programing for a month long Black History Month celebration that has featured Nikki Giovanni, Marc Lamont Hill, and writer of the HBO series Insecure, Issa Rae.
She also hosts a continuing student conversation circle called Ubuntu and has planned several student forums to address Black student life within and outside of the university. She has co-sponsored and co-planned numerous student organizational events in her last five years.
“I knew that student, faculty, and staff were appreciative the safe spaces we created through our programming but there was still that need for intentional physical space,” Foster said.
“I think one of the strongest assists of me being in this new role is that I was already doing the work for Black students and the Black community on campus, but there wasn’t a central location or space for the work to be done out of, so it was an organic transition for me.”
The programming for the center will be largely a continuation of the work Foster already does with a few additions.
The center will be having a Black new student reception and pinning ceremony where students will be pinned by Black student leader, faculty and staff.
“Students need to know that there’s a space they came to where they can intentionally see themselves in the decor and in the programming for them to be able to empower themselves to go back out into campus and continue striving to change the world,” said Foster.
In addition to being a safe space for Black students, Foster says the Black Cultural Center is also a resource center for all students to learn about Black culture and history.
“Now there is an intentional space on campus you can come to acquire knowledge, because it’s hard for Black students to have to do the added work of teaching their peers about their identity while also trying to just be students like everyone else,” she said.
The center will be fully operational when the semester starts on September 5, complete with a comprehensive timeline of UW-Madison Black history etched on its the walls courtesy of Harvey Long, a doctoral student in library and information studies.
“I think it was a step in the right direction for the university to establish this space and let the campus and the community know that Black lives do matter on this campus,” Foster said.