Just over two weeks ago, numerous UT athletes led a March on UT Knoxville against systemic racism. The march had a wide turnout, attended by students, faculty and children alike. Among the crowd on that hot Saturday in August was Zachary West, a senior student in political science and the newly-elected president of the Black Student Union.
West spoke at the march, which was partially organized by one of his closest friends, football player Trey Smith.
The event was an impactful introduction to the semester for the BSU, West says.
“It was a great event to kickstart everyone into taking action, everyone finding that motivation. I feel like that set the tone of the year, not only that people are still willing to fight for something that’s so important during a pandemic, but also seeing the allies we have with many different, other organizations, communities because we saw many people come out. Many people were in support, so I think events like that have definitely fueled us to go on and continue ... I feel like that was kind of that spark to ignite a passion in everyone again,” West said.
The BSU, which has moved all of its events online for the time being, exists to provide community and support for Black students on a predominantly white campus, as well as draw attention to important social causes and create progressive changes.
The organization typically holds meetings for its members and additional events, one of which is a voting literacy program implemented in November. This year, the program will be particularly robust in preparation for the presidential election.
And although the BSU does not currently have any marches planned, West says that any students wishing to hold a march who feel they do not have the platform to do so are welcome to reach out to the BSU.
Another of the BSU’s most prevalent annual events is How to Survive and Thrive at a PWI (predominantly white institution), during which student leaders, faculty, all people of color and more gather as a panel to vet students questions’ regarding life as a student of color at a PWI. The BSU is currently in the process of moving the event online for this semester.
Navigating life at a PWI is an integral part of the college experience for many students in the BSU, including West, who has experienced the difference between being a Black student at a historically Black college and a Black student at a predominantly white institution. He joined UT’s BSU after transferring from Morehouse College, a historically Black university in Atlanta, Georgia, as a sophomore.
“I felt comfortable [at Morehouse]. There was not really a day that I was reminded that I was Black,” West said. “It was just an all-around safe place, and all encouraging and everything. There were not really the distractions that I would have on campus here.”
West then joined the BSU in search of a community that understood the struggles he experienced after leaving Morehouse.
“Coming [to UT], it was like okay, this is different, you could say culture shock type — how can can I navigate and make this college experience what I wanted, because I'm paying money to be here like everyone else,” West said. “I want to feel safe as well, knowing that I'm not alone and other people also share that struggle. We can all bounce tips on how to navigate better.”
The BSU has truly become a community on campus, West explained, where students support one another and become close friends while cheering on peers’ growth and personal development — the type of community whose members happily answer their phones in the middle of the night when another member is in need.
“We kind of created a little home and everything where we all feel comfortable with each other, where we all feel close with each other,” West said. “It’s just comfortable vibes all around and everything, and I think that’s the main thing that we wanted to stress ... to make sure people had those safe spaces they feel like they can go to.”
Vanessa Jackson, another member of the BSU and junior in retail and consumer sciences, also highlighted the sense of community the BSU provides.
Unlike West, Jackson has never attended a historically Black college; she also spent years in private school, where she was one of just a couple other Black students.
“I know what it's like to be in an environment like this from a very young age, because I've been in private school for the first half of my life, and there’s been about probably two other Black people in my entire grade, so I already kind of know how to navigate,” Jackson.
Although her experiences growing up prepared her for life at a predominantly white institution, Jackson has still found a sense of community and created meaningful friendships through the BSU.
“My favorite part is the community. I've met so many cool people from the BSU. We all just share really similar ideas and everybody's different. Once you join, you automatically have like 20 friends, which is great cause I started freshman year. ... You just know you have people around you who are willing to help you no matter what,” Jackson said.
Like many other student organizations, the BSU has been forced to rethink the way it maintains its sense of community in the midst of the pandemic. The group has been communicating mainly through group messages and social media, and members are sure to check up on one another during these challenging times.
And despite those difficulties presented by the pandemic, the BSU still has a progressive goal for the school year. West hopes to unite other Black and people of color student organizations under a common interest, explaining that in years past, a sense of competition has been felt among these different groups.
“What we want to see this year and going forward is more unity between us and all of the other Black organizations, organizations with people of color and everything,” West said. “The direction we want to take this year is to be that hub of uplifting everybody and not creating this idea that we’re all competing against each other, because that's how I felt it was in some previous years. We are going to have normal meetings with the executives of other organizations — if we want to have an event, plan it all together and come together as a united front so that it doesn't look like just a bunch of different organizations with the same goal — one whole.”