It was 2012. Dr. Pam Hoff, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF) felt discouraged. Her research was being done in isolation from others at the University, but she knew there was potential for extensive collaboration.
“I saw many people on campus doing dynamic work around anti-blackness and celebrating the unique experiences of Black students. But it seemed to be disjointed. People seemed to be really disempowered because they didn’t have a community.”
Today, Hoff’s tone on that subject has changed. These Redbird scholars have found unity. And the linchpin for change was a graduation celebration inspired by students from EAF and the departments of English and criminal justice.
“It’s clear that Umoja has brought us together,” she said.
The 10th anniversary of Umoja (oo-MOH-ja): Black Graduation Celebration at Illinois State will be particularly sweet for the founders of the tradition.
After all, proceeds from candy sales fueled the first-ever ceremony in 2013.
The student duo of LaCrisha McAllister ’14, M.S. ’18, a junior criminal justice major, and Mesha Garner ’12, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’20, a master’s student in political science, spearheaded the fundraising efforts.
Over 350 people, including 42 students participated the first year, and the energy in the room was unlike anything Garner had experienced at Illinois State.
“It wasn’t just about the excitement of the achievement of Umoja, it was about seeing so many students finish and cross the stage with their supporters cheering them on. It was one of a kind,” Garner said.
McAllister, who was just 21 at the time, said she’ll never forget that day.
“We couldn’t believe what we had pulled off. The whole celebration was so joyous,” McAllister said.
“And we were mindful of everything. Everything is intentional. Everything had a purpose.”
The celebration grew to over 3,000 participants in 2019. While the pandemic forced Umoja online for the past two years, there is strong optimism that graduates and their supporters will celebrate in-person this May.
Speaking it into existence
The desire to host a Black graduation celebration at Illinois State came from Dr. Flourice Richardson, Ph.D. ’18, while she was working toward her doctorate in English studies. After she huddled with Hoff, one of her mentors, the brainchild of Umoja was born.
Richardson said the signature of Umoja is its culturally-centered and community-minded focus.
“My vision for this program was to create a space that brought visibility to the Black community and students,” Richardson said. “All the other cultural celebrations are institution driven. While I could see how Umoja could encourage retention of students, it also provides a space for Black cultural expression unencumbered by overpowering outside influences.”
Hoff explains Umoja as an African and indigenous way of knowing and being described through the aphorism “I am because you are, and because you are, therefore I am.”
The word itself is derived from the seven principles of Kwanzaa. It symbolizes unity, and the value of community is paramount. That’s why the naming of the celebration was so intentional and inseparable from its purpose.
Both Black graduates and their support networks participate.
“Many times in the academy, especially when we talk about first-generation graduates, we remove students from their family, it’s about you, the individual,” Hoff said.
“We want to reconnect them to that communal value to remind them that this is not just your celebration. You wouldn’t be here if others in your life were not supporting you.”
When it came to getting the word out for Umoja, Hoff took the lead on garnering faculty support while Richardson presented to Black student organizations, Dr. Alberto Delgado in the Graduate School, Dr. Al Bowman (Illinois State’s first African-American president), and the Department of English.
Undergraduates were excited for the opportunity, and McAllister’s support was a major factor. At that time, she was serving as the student president for both the Black Student Union and My Sister’s Keeper.
“Cree (McAllister) was not only important because she was active on campus, but because she is just so dynamic,” Hoff said.
During initial discussions with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), the group was split on Umoja. Most of the board resisted the idea of a separate commencement space for Black students.
But Umoja stuck a cord with Garner, who was one of BGSA’s board members at the time.
“After hearing what they had to say, some of us on the board broke from the consensus. We agreed that it was something that we needed and would be awesome to have this opportunity for Black students,’” Garner said.
Within a couple of years, BGSA members became mainstay participants and planners of the celebration each year.
The planning committee overcame several other stumbling blocks during the first years.
One sticking point was the word “Black” in the official name of the celebration. The word made the ceremony too exclusionary to some of the groups on campus who could help fund the celebration.
Yet, the committee felt that Illinois State, like many universities across the U.S., omits tributes to Black culture during the traditional commencement ceremony. The edit would fundamentally misrepresent the purpose of Umoja.
“I don’t want to be negative about the University’s large ceremony,” said Garner, a three-time Redbird alum who earned her Ph.D. in higher education administration from EAF in 2020. Hoff served as her dissertation chair. She now serves as the director of financial aid at Southern Illinois University.
“…but to have a moment to defy all the norms of what graduation looks like, to celebrate as you hear your name coming across the stage, to have music that is not just an orchestra… You see Black graduates fulfilled in those moments.”
Before the first celebration, the planning committee was also encouraged by university leadership to ensure students wanted Umoja to happen. The concern was that it would become a faculty-run effort bound for failure.
So, they developed and distributed a survey to Black students at the University.
“We got so many surveys back that we could hardly go through them,” Hoff said. “Overwhelmingly, the students said ‘Yes, yes, yes. We don’t know exactly what Umoja would look like, but we will participate.’”
Additionally, the planning committee would be chaired by a student each year, starting with Richardson. McAllister would later fill the role.
Hoff said the celebration has grown in acceptance and popularity by other parts of campus over the years. There have been overtures to make Umoja part of the University’s larger ceremony. That has been resisted for specific reasons.
“We were definitely aware of how diverse African Black culture is, and it is an ancient, indigenous culture. When we created Umoja, we wanted to try to include diasporic African, not only African American culture. We’ve worked to protect that identity, and we’re adamant about protecting that identity,” she said.
“We weren’t interested in commercializing Umoja, and we felt like taking that route would’ve taken the cultural spirit away from it. Because that’s what makes it so wonderful and strong; it’s a counter-narrative to what is going on in the academy.”
The Graduate School and Office of the President have become funders of Umoja, but the two units that showed the earliest support were EAF and the Department of English. Both individual faculty members and the departments have supported the graduation celebration financially and politically.
“There are a lot of my colleagues here in EAF who I can depend on to contribute financially, support the mission to others, and attend the celebration,” Hoff said. “I appreciate their consistent support.”
Financial commitments are recognized with the Sankofa Circle and Harambee Circle.
Both words are Swahili, and Sankofa refers to the importance of understanding one’s roots before moving forward. Harambee’s literal translation means “all pull together.”
The Harambee circle is the largest and most consistent source of funding for Umoja, explains Richardson. It consists of faculty and staff, but also community members.
“With the success and contributions from Harambee, we started the Sankofa Circle, made primarily of alumni,” Richardson said. “We had so many requests from Black alumni who did not get the opportunity to experience Umoja but wanted to contribute.”
Those donations help to eliminate the need for students, and in some cases their families, to pay for attending the event.
Supporting other groups
Though she is now in Greensboro, North Carolina, Richardson remains a guiding force for the event. And she is routinely impressed by the way the first Umoja inspired the hearts and minds of individuals across the campus and the state.
“After that first year, many of the people who were against the program became supporters of the event. In addition, we had other institutions reach out to us to find out how they could have an event as successful as Umoja.”
On Illinois State’s campus, McAllister and other members of the committee have routinely helped other underrepresented groups to plan their ceremonies.
“In those cases, we gave the game away, but we also wanted them to know, ‘We still want you to be authentic to yourself, so do this in a way that celebrates your group’s unique story,’” she said.
McAllister intentionally attended each of their graduation celebrations while she was an Illinois State student, which also included a master’s program in social work.
But the tradition did not only turn heads at the University. Central Illinois’ Unit 5 district has run its own Umoja celebration for graduating high school seniors.
Unfortunately, not every effort has been successful. But the ones with staying power tend to follow one specific piece of advice from Hoff.
“We tell them that Umoja has been so successful because it is a community of students, faculty, administrators, and staff who came together to make it happen,” she said. “Without that community, it can’t work.”
Ready for 2022
The original four founders of Umoja hope to reunite in person for the 10th-anniversary celebration in May 2022. While only Hoff remains at Illinois State, they are still connected because of how meaningful Umoja is to them.
Hoff appreciates the lasting impact the many contributors to Umoja have made, but there is one aspect of the celebration that stands out above the rest.
“On this campus, we’ve been afraid, to a certain degree, of activism. But the truth of the matter is that activism, and in particular student activism, reminds us of what we’re here to do, what the issues are, and never to be complacent” she said.
“Umoja opened the door for people to become aware and gave people the language to begin to articulate some of the things that they are feeling and experiencing on campus that are certainly contrary to our diversity and inclusion values. It opened the door for activism and for students to begin talking about and showing us where some of those gaps are. So I am really proud of that.”