By Sade Smith, Managing Editor
Over twenty years ago it was a pizza place.
Today, the newly renovated space below the Marketplace that belongs to the Frederick Douglass Unity House (FDUH) serves as a lively meeting place and daily hangout for UMass Dartmouth’s Black, Latina/o, Asian and Indigenous students. Known as Unity House by its regulars, it is a place where students, faculty, and administrators join forces to create events and programs that bring cultural education to the forefront.
Established in 1995 as a resource for the university’s Black students, the FDUH has further developed its mission and its programming for an increasingly diverse population on a campus that remains 68 percent white. The presence of the multi-cultural support system has had a significant impact on the university community, both socially and culturally.
“The unity house is a sanctuary,” said senior English major and president of the Caribbean Student Association Alani Okyere. “I believe the Unity Houses’ primary focus is the students and the student orgs; they cater to us. They set us up with the right people to make sure we’re getting everything we need. If they can, they will.”
Walking through the doors of the FDUH, visitors are greeted by a student worker at the front desk. A computer lab to the right serves as a study space for students, with access to a printer for those last-minute paper prints. In the main room there are paintings and photographs of prominent Black figures such as Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass himself.
A television hangs on the wall and as of this year, new couches and loveseats, are mostly used by student organizations during their general interest meetings.
“For me, what it’s really about is setting direction and tone for what I believe the campus community needs,” said Nicole Williams, Director of the FDUH for the past six years. “We’re insuring that we’re graduating culturally competent students and helping to develop the leader within students; helping students become a better version of themselves.”
Through yearlong programming like field trips and guest speakers, students can gain cultural competency in ways the classroom cannot provide.
“And some of that programming is continued traditions, such as collaborating with the Leduc Center for the International Day of Peace,” said LaSella Hall, the Associate Director of the FDUH, who likes to create events that give students opportunities to discover cultures that aren’t their own as well as celebrate their own culture. “And an event like The Million Man March a couple of years ago. That wasn’t something that we had done before. Continuing purposeful programming, also continuing to work with various student groups and so on.”
Okyere has experienced this excitement.
“I went to NYC to the African-American Day Parade. I felt so welcomed there, in a city where our culture started, in Harlem. It made me interested in more cultures. Focused on educating and to enjoy ourselves. They recently did an Underground Railroad trip, and that was amazing, seeing things that you wouldn’t see by yourself. Not forced education, things that you want to know.”
Okyere said she uses the Unity House space “to do my homework, nap, socialize, to attend club meetings. To print. As a student organization officer, we hold our executive board meetings there. We store our supplies there, post our flyers there and what not. Network with other student clubs. It’s a home for us, and we don’t meet there on a regular basis, but it’s a good place to go.”
As Williams began to describe how she would like to see the space being used by students, a student rapped on the usually unlocked office door. She held up an index finger, silently communicating to come back later.
“There are students who don’t feel comfortable on the main campus and this may be that space,” she said. “Students may say that they need a couch, and that’s what makes their day before classes better. And see, students know it’s an open door. They can talk about the stress of their day or ask how to find a certain resource. LaSella probably has fifty-thousand students in his office every day asking how to plan an effective program to make an impact.”
Pizza may longer be no longer served, but for minority students on campus the Unity House offers something even more sustaining: community.