On June 3, 2020, a group of Black UC Santa Barbara students spoke before the Associated Students Senate to advocate for an organization that directly supports Black women and non-men — including women-aligned and non-binary individuals — on campus. By the end of the meeting, the Senate approved funding for the organization, and the Black Women’s Health Collaborative, the first organization of its kind in the University of California system, was born.
Now, a year after its formation, the Black student creators of the organization reflected on their work thus far.
The Black Women’s Health Collaborative (BWHC) was founded by fourth-year religious studies major Zion Solomon and fourth-year Black studies and political science double major Suad Abdullahi in response to the lack of space they observed in Associated Students (A.S.) and the university for Black women and non-men.
Despite operating in a fully remote capacity during its first year, the BWHC succeeded in making A.S. funding more accessible to Black student organizations and educated and advocated on behalf of the wellness and health of Black women and non-men.
BWHC is the first organization of its kind on any UC campus as a space that specifically supports the health and wellness of Black women and non-men, according to third-year sociology major Halle Dawite, the 2020-21 external needs advocate for BWHC and the 2021-22 co-chair of the collaborative. Dawite said she applied for the external needs advocate position in fall 2020 after reading the collaborative’s mission statement and finding it “incredibly profound.”
“Finding community at UCSB is very difficult and even more difficult when most of the Black spaces on campus are very misogynoir-istic,” Dawite said. “So to be centering Black non-men in all of our practices and events has been … therapeutic.”
At UCSB, where only roughly 5% of the total student population is Black, Abdullahi described navigating the university as a Black student as “taxing” to her mental and physical health.
“In my four years here I’ve never felt like there’s been an organization that I could walk into and blend in … it’s taxing to be in those organizations and to have to dodge microaggressions and racialized experiences,” Abdullahi said. “So many classes at UCSB and so many professors do not know how to deal or even communicate with Black students and Black non-men in a way that is not traumatizing or exploitative of our pain.”
Solomon said that a primary goal of the BWHC is to make funding more accessible to Black women and non-men. They added that their experience as the chairperson of the A.S. Finance and Business Committee during their time as a senator in the 2018-19 academic year made clear the lack of accessibility to A.S. funding for student organizations.
“A lot of student organizations that I dealt with as the [chairperson of the Finance and Business Committee] didn’t really know that they had equal access to student funding, and as a result of that, they were not asking Associated Students for funding and used fundraising or even their own money on projects and events,” Solomon said.
“Black women’s health and concerns and needs not being at the forefront despite Black women doing the bulk of the labor in [student] organizations really upset [Suad and me],” Solomon said. “We thought it would be wonderful to put Black women at the center of the labor and material resources of Associated Students and have the power to distribute that to Black organizations, organizations of color and [organizations] that are within our mission statement and goals.”
Abdullahi said a goal of the BWHC was to “streamline” the process of allowing Black student organizations to access A.S. funding by directly fulfilling funding requests from Black student organizations.
“I would see a lot of students having to jump through hoops to get funding, so our organization streamlined that process,” Abdullahi said. “Instead of having to go to multiple A.S. entities, you could just go to an A.S. entity that centers [on] the most marginalized, which is Black women and non-men.”
Senior Ajah Whitehead, the 2020-21 Black queer and trans director and 2021-22 co-chair with Dawite, said that the organization has been “amazing” to be a part of for the past year.
“I saw the vision that they had from the beginning of creating this org, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.
Abdullahi said that the organization is distinct from the Black Student Union (BSU) in how it centers Black women and non-men and prioritizes their joy and wellbeing.
“I really want to emphasize that the reason why this organization is not just another BSU is that … Black non-men and women consistently show up for ourselves,” Abdullahi said.
“Finding community with other Black people is great, but when you’re experiencing multiple layers of oppression, there’s times where it’s just really important to be around people within your own specific identity group, because that’s where I personally found the most support, is with other Black women.”
The collaborative’s budget also goes toward funding events that focus on Black women and non-men, including fulfilling funding requests from various university organizations. The collaborative has also directly funded students through an application-based COVID-19 emergency grant for Black non-men and a $250 scholarship offered in collaboration with Career Services, Santa Barbara Young Black Professionals, BSU, the UCSB Umoja Community and the National Society of Black Engineers.
The collaborative has funded 14 campus organizations throughout the Winter and Spring 2021 Quarters.
Solomon said that the collaborative spent Fall Quarter 2020 preparing for the future and planning what BWHC wants to represent and focus on as an organization.
“We didn’t really have non-board meetings in fall quarter [because] we were just prepping and planning on what we want to be as an organization,” they said.
BWHC also created a winter and spring quarter event calendar which planned approximately eight to nine events per quarter.
The majority of these events centered on Black wellness and health, and Dawite said this focus on “Black joy” in the collaborative is what drew her to the board.
“All of our events, whether it’s a discussion, a panel or collaborations, so many of them are centered around Black joy and enjoyment,” Dawite said. “So much of it is based on radical and revolutionary self-love, and I really, really enjoy the fact that that’s what we are centered around, not just the pain and trauma that everyone else projects [onto] us.”
The collaborative hosted various speaker events this year, including a mental health discussion titled “The Journey Towards Healing” with Meridith Merchant, licensed psychologist and assistant director of Mental Health Initiatives and Inclusion at UCSB, and Thema Bryant-Davis, licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at Pepperdine University on April 8; a discussion with Zingha Foma, UCSB alumna and history doctoral candidate at New York University, on traditional African fashion and sustainability on April 20; and many more.
Several events were held in collaboration with other Black student organizations, like “Black Women in Healthcare” on May 25 with UCSB alumna Sam Sanchez in collaboration with UCSB Health and Equity Alliance. Another event titled “Blackness Across the Diaspora,” was held on Feb. 24 in collaboration with the East African Student Association, BSU and the African diasporic Cultural Resource Center.
Dawite, who organized the event, noted the high turnout that “Blackness Across the Diaspora” received.
“I honestly was shocked that there was a second page [of attendees] in the Zoom meeting,” Dawite said. “There were a lot of people that actually sat for two hours and talked about global Blackness and pan-Africanism with us.”
The collaborative also held informal spaces like “study jams” and self-care sessions throughout the year for students to unwind.
The challenge of operating a new campus organization fully virtually required putting an emphasis on social media presence, Abdullahi said.
“We weren’t expecting for us to spend the entire year online, and so I think that’s why our social media presence was really important,” she said. “Just utilizing our group chats and our networks to get the word out there [was really important with this year’s operations].”
Senior biopsychology major and Retention Co-chair Warsan Ali said that the collaborative paves the way for future Black students at UCSB who are in need of a community that prioritizes their health and joy.
“[BWHC] was the first time I have seen anyone at UCSB really take the initiative to say, ‘We need a space for Black non-men,’” Ali said. “If no one else is going to do it, we have to do it for ourselves and future generations of Black women and non-men who are coming to UCSB and desperately need that community.”