Diverse cultures bless new space

:Well-wishers filled nearly 200 chairs and lined the walls in Room 228 of Smith Memorial Center Tuesday. They came to welcome the resurgence of the Multicultural Center.

The ceremony to dedicate the new space took on an “up from the grave” atmosphere. The center recently emerged from the obscurity of the Smith Center basement. A succession of speakers welcomed the new beginning. A more elaborate grand opening celebration will occur this fall.

African drum beats by Obo Addy summoned celebrants to the program. Jon Joiner, new director of the center, moved the roster of speakers and performers through a brisk one-hour program. It began when Addy assisted Kwasi Mensah of the Homowo Foundation for African Arts in a Ghanian invocation ceremony. The traditional libation ritual centered on the pouring of water into a bowl. Mensah spoke in his African language. He invited the spirits of the ancestors, both in Africa and Oregon, to be present and guide the center in its objectives.

The program ended with an American Indian ceremony. Sergeant Michael Soto of the Campus Public Safety office wielded a smoking bundle of sage. Simultaneously, Rose Hill, coordinator of Native American student services, offered a prayer to the Great Spirit, asking it to bless all present and saying, “We ask our prayers to soar to you like eagles” to bring wonderful energies to the new center.

In between, PSU president Daniel Bernstine led off the roster of speakers. He hailed the event as a rededication to diversity, saying, “Space is at a major premium but I am pleased to see the Multicultural Center out of the basement.”

He said PSU is increasing its dedication to diversity under his campus life diversity initiative. But “it is important we attain critical mass” in the increase of students, faculty and administrators composed of people of color. The University, he said, can claim the most diverse campus in the state, “but I don’t consider that our final goal. It is just another path in our steps in the right direction.”

The co-chairs of the Multicultural Center advisory board delivered their good wishes. Reiko Williams, assistant director of admissions and records, hailed the emergence of the center from the basement.

She said, “I don’t think a university that values diversity deserves it to be hidden. Not only do we speak to diversity, we do something about diversity.” Flores saluted the opening as a step toward diversity, while saying the event marked progress of the university “in baby steps.”

Devorah Lieberman, special assistant to the president, spoke on behalf of the Diversity Action Council. She said “everybody is thrilled to see this happening.” She added, “It is the only center on campus where it all comes together, regardless of race, creed or culture.”

The first director of the center, when it started on the main floor of Smith Center, recalled her memories of the struggle to establish the facility in 1993. Gwen Jagernauth gave credit to the students for their persistence and energy in convincing the administration to found the center.

“The students asked for a location on the first floor or this location,” she recalled. “We started on the first floor and now we’re back to our second choice in location.” The Multicultural Center had been displaced from the first floor to make room for the ASPSU Children’s Center. This resulted in its move and near-demise in the Smith Center basement.

A succession of students offered brief comments. Dramaine Irions, co-coordinator of the Black Cultural Affairs Board, said in five years on campus “this moment is one of the true victories I’ve had at Portland State.” He wished that the progress of diversity at the university “could have moved a little more swift of foot.”

Francene Ambrose, coordinator of the American Indian Students for Engineering and Science, saw the center as creating a welcome place for native students. She predicted, “It can help create a more united student community.”

Jesse Shapiro, ASPSU Multicultural Affairs Director, said, “I find it really empowering to be feeling this collective effort on campus for diversity.” He deplored what he saw as a tendency to turn efforts for diversity into cliches which sometimes has diluted attention from the effort. “We must do more than celebrate institutions of diversity, we must initiate it.”

The spot of featured speaker went to Douglas Samuels, Vice Provost for Student Affairs. He said he was amazed when he came to the campus a year ago as a black man to be interviewed for the position. Only four students showed up for the student interviews and they were all white.

Among them were Mary Cunningham, ASPSU president, Emily Garrick, vice president, and Shane Jordan, student senator. He said he asked the students, “Why do you care, you’re white?” They convinced him they had a commitment to racial equity.

“I had been to several other campuses and not heard anything like this,” Samuels said. He said Clevonne Jackson, Program Director of the Educational Opportunity Program, asked him what he would do if there was a student protest outside. His answer was, the coordinator has to make sure it goes off well. He saw his role as facilitating the learning experience. His position is to educate students, not to control students, he declared.

“We have to have a sense of community. I consider myself an internal influence, not an external.” He conceded, “We still have some struggles, we still have some changes to make, to make the campus community better for everyone.” But, he affirmed, “I’ve got very high expectations for change.” He saluted Joiner as the new director of the center and charged all to be involved in positive change, no matter what their station.

“It’s doesn’t matter where you’re positioned in the community, it’s what you’re contributing,” he declared.

Two students, Veena Thekkedam and Lalitha Ambatt, performed a dance from South India in traditional costume. At the end of the program, attendees munched meatballs and chicken wings and sipped mango juice while Alfredo Muro played guitar and sang.