As a reckoning about racial inequality in America reverberated across the country after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Clark students and alumni started to mobilize.
“Black students at Clark were speaking about racial issues on campus,” recalls Janette Ekanem ’09, the assistant general counsel for Atrius Health. “We wanted to serve as a support system for students.”
That initial desire to support students evolved, growing into a larger effort to build connections among Clark’s Black alumni. Now, the Clark Black Alumni Association (CBAA) hosts quarterly events offering space for reflection, networking, and education. The result has been an experience that shows the value of community.
CBAA was co-founded by Ekanem, Shawnasia Black ’08, Stacey Lawrence ’08, Johnna Plunkett-Chappell ’09, and Karleen Porcena ’09. They’d been friends during their time on campus and had served together on the Executive Board of the Black Student Union and members of the Caribbean African Student Association.
“A lot of the Clarkie spirit you have on campus is lost when you’re an alum,” says Lawrence, the senior associate director for STEM initiatives at the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University. “We were experts at creating spaces for ourselves when we were students. So, to get together in 2020 to form this association was second nature. Being able to advocate for alumni, particularly Black alumni and alumni looking for spaces to affirm their identities, is important.”
The group seeks to sustain a Black alumni network by affirming, enriching, and serving the Black experience at and beyond the University; liaise with students and support Black student recruitment; advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion training on campus for faculty and staff; make diversity a goal of the selection process for members of the Board of Trustees and Alumni Council; and develop a pipeline for student-alumni connections.
“When you’re on campus, you meet people from all different countries,” says Black, an interior designer at Beyer Blinder Belle. “But when I attended alumni events, I wondered where all the diversity that I saw on campus went.”
In fewer than three years, the group has seen dozens of alumni attend CBAA events including celebrations for Juneteenth; a virtual discussion of race and identity in the arts with studio art Professor Toby Sisson; a Black History Month book club discussion featuring “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson; and Holiday Happy Hour featuring Black Holiday Trivia.
“Balance is one of the visions we have for the organization. We’re Clarkies, so, of course, we want to have events with meaning and give people the opportunity to reflect and think critically,” Ekanem says. “But it’s also an opportunity for us all to have fun, reminisce on old times, see what other people are up to, and network.”
Alums have joined virtually from Martha’s Vineyard, New York, Washington D.C., Texas, Ghana, and beyond.
Ekanem has remained involved with Clark as an alumna, serving on the President’s Leadership Council, speaking to the pre-law society, and judging mock trial competitions.
“It’s been cool to be at alumni events and connect with a more diverse range of people,” Ekanem says. “Clark always feels like home for me, so it’s been nice.”
Plunkett-Chappell, a sustainability planner and climate scientist for New York City Transit, has connected with more students and young alums through the CBAA. She’s been pleased to discover more students are choosing environmental science as their major and seeking advice on graduate school and their careers.
“I think people are becoming more interested in sustainability and climate change. People of color are now getting into this very white-dominated field because we realize that if our voice is not a part of it, then there will continue to be environmental management laws that exclude us and continue to destroy our community,” Plunkett-Chappell says. “This younger generation is really passionate about resiliency and sustainability in the built environment.
“I’m grateful to this organization for making those connections, which show current students that they’re not alone,” she adds about the CBAA. “Janette’s an attorney. Asia was just featured in The New York Times. Stacey is a doctor. Everyone here has done such incredible things and I think that it’s important for students to see what these four Black women have been able to accomplish.”
Black has valued the opportunity to build connections with graduating students who want to make change in their community.
“When we graduated, I don’t think that there was as much political strife as there is now,” she says. “I’ve used my knowledge and time since graduating as a kind of sounding board for students who are active in protesting.”
The association is planning a Juneteenth event and a book discussion for later this year.
“We want to make this organization sustainable,” says Ekanem. “We are thankful to the alumni office for institutionalizing this organization so that when we step down from the leadership, there will be other people to step up.”