Black Issues Conference: Aaron Dixon

Aaron Dixon and Madison Merrifield lead "Agents of Change" during the 14th Annual Black Issues Conference on Saturday, Feb. 2. 

The Frieson Black Cultural Center gives students a sense of community, even during a pandemic.

The Frieson Black Cultural Center has operated since 1975. In 2001, former University of Tennessee alumni Ron and Don Frieson gave a large donation to the Center. The Center added their name to the building after the donation. It continues to provide a space for students and organizations to gather and utilize their resources.

The coordinator in the office of Multicultural Student Life Aaron Dixon spoke about what resources they provide.

The center works in four departments, focusing on “diversity education, academic success, student org (organization) support and building support.” They have their own tutoring system, provide preparation for finals, support eight different student organizations and educate students on diversity topics.

They provide spaces for students to study and relax.

“Before COVID, students were able to come into our space to utilize computer labs,” Dixon said. “We have four tutoring suites, where you can have individual … relationships with the tutor or conversations with the tutor.”

Dixon added that they have a “library downstairs” for students who want to study along with “a student lounge for students to … relax with a TV, chairs, tables, games.” They also have “full functioning kitchen.”

Due to COVID-19, these resources had to undergo changes.

“Programming wise, we took everything virtual,” Dixon said. “Tutoring went virtual. We took all of our office programming virtual. We started to do like trivias and a lot of social media initiatives that we … still have going on.”

They had “to create policies for sanitation” and make new signs for the Center. He claimed that students not coming into the Center “was a hard hit” for them.

Since last summer, they have worked to make this school year better. Dixon stated that the initial move to online “was our trial-and-error period.”

“Once the fall came, we pretty much knew that most of our things were going to have to be virtual,” Dixon said. “During that summertime, it gave us a lot of time to prepare for the fall. Not that we were like experts in virtual programming or this online way of school now, but I think we did have a good amount of time to prepare and kind of get our programs and services … in place before the semester hit.”

They now allow students to enter the center and use some of their on-campus resources.

“Students have been able to phase back into the building, similar to the Student Union,” Dixon said. “Students have come in to use our tutoring suites. And every now and then we get a student to use our lounge. But … we’re not advertising ‘Hey everybody come into the FBCC,’ just because we don’t want to have the traction.”

They track how many students occupy the building through “a check-in process” where students scan “a QR code and let us know which part of the building they’re going to.” This helps them avoid going over capacity.

The assistant director of Multicultural Student Life Ronni Williams talked about how these measures and how it affects students.

“… we have heightened cleaning practices and making sure that we’re sanitizing and doing our best in that area,” Williams said. “Also, just trying to be an open space for students to come and feel like they can be both safe but have a place to call home on campus. It’s obviously a different time for everyone, but we still want to make sure that students feel like they have a home here at UT.”

They want to provide students with support during this time.

“I want students to know that we are always here to support them no matter what it is,” Dixon said. “If it’s academic trouble that they’re experiencing, whether they need to get involved on campus, whether they just need someone to talk to, or if there’s something that we … don’t provide oversight for, we can always help connect them with different areas across campus.”

They have several events planned for the month of February and onward. Because of COVID-19, students will attend these events virtually.

“We have a diversity dialogue series happening on Feb. 11,” Dixon said. “It’s going to focus on hair and hierarchy and how much power our hair holds. On Feb. 25, we have the celebration of Black excellence, featuring speaker Mr. David Mill. That event is happening at 7 p.m. virtually.”

Williams added that they will hold two Frederick Douglass events on Feb. 11 and Feb. 12. A Black arts showcase will occur on Feb. 15. And the Zuzu African Acrobats will perform on Feb. 22.

They will also hold a screening of the film “Moonlight” by director Barry Jenkins in partnership with the Pride Center. They will show the film in the Student Union auditorium on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.

Students can find these events on the UTK events calendar by searching for the tag “BHM21.” The calendar will update with information on future events in March and April.

They hope that they can continue to reach students.

“… the Center has always prided itself on being able to provide support for all students, especially traditionally marginalized student groups,” Dixon said. “We continue to just provide support and enhance what we can. When we see a need, we try to meet the need. Knowing that we aren’t able to reach every single student, we try our best to reach as many as possible.”

Dixon said that they look forward to this semester and onward.

“I’m hoping that the Center has a pretty bright future ahead where we are able to … continue to grow and enhance our services for all of campus to enjoy,” Dixon said.

The website for the Office of Multicultural Student Life contains further information on the Office along with the Center. They have events planned for students through the month of April.

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