October 28, 2002

Ujamaa 'Unity Hour'

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Since 1977, residents of Ujamaa Residential College and others have come together on Sunday nights to discuss opinions, share ideas and learn about current events and the past. For residents, faculty and beyond, Unity Hour often provides a sense of community in the sometimes overwhelming University system.

“It’s to provide a forum [for people] to think about things they’ve never thought about before,” said Miska Shaw ’04, a resident advisor in Ujamaa.

Unity Hour became a weekly Ujamaa tradition five years after the residential college was founded.

Each Unity Hour addresses a different topic, focusing on issues relevant to the black community at the University, in the United States, in the Caribbean and in Africa.

In the past year, topics have included negative stereotypes associated with the hip-hop generation, the war in Iraq and relations between males and females. Campus groups sometimes sponsor Unity Hour, as Black Students United recently organized a discussion on the Africana Center and the Black Southern Students Alliance previously coordinated a dialogue on regional myths and stereotypes within black culture.

Also in the past, political activists, Ithaca community leaders, directors of national agencies and scholars from the University and beyond have spoken at Unity Hour.

Future topics include a discussion of relations between the black and Latino communities on campus and a presentation by the Ivy Investors Quorum, a minority investment group.

Since the residence hall advisors in Ujamaa organize Unity Hour, most of the topics come from student suggestions. Often, the topics and resulting discussion are unique to the program.

“[A topic] might not be [discussed] anywhere else in the Cornell community, but at least [it] will be talked about here,” Shaw said.

As one example, she cited yesterday’s discussion on homosexual black people and the prejudices associated with both categorizations.

Unity Hour serves many different purposes in students’ lives.

For some, the program provides an opportunity to break out of their daily routine.

“[It’s] a chance for people to get outside of their work and discuss topics pertinent to all of our lives,” said Sika Bediako ’04, an organizer of the Africana center Unity Hour and an Ujamaa resident.

Unity Hour also provides a sense of community, for both residents of Ujamaa and non-residents, according to Prof. James Turner, Africana studies. In particular, it offers a safe place where new and shy students can come and meet people.

“It introduces them to this long standing tradition … [that] they feel part of,” he said. “It helps break down the sense of bigness of Cornell, the sense of isolation.”

Among other community-building events, Unity Hour holds Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners each year for students who are unable to go home for the holidays.

Unity Hour also serves students outside of Ujamaa, both former residents and non-residents.

“[Coming to Unity Hour] brought back a lot of good memories, this warmth, this energy, this welcoming,” said Brit Holmberg ’01, a former Ujamaa resident. “This is a safe space.”

For many students, Unity Hour provides an educational experience, in the form of discussions, lectures by faculty fellows and event announcements.

“No matter what they’re doing, I learn something,” said Richmond Owusu-Ansah ’03.

Through discussions and lectures, Unity Hour also offers students the chance to see the world from others’ perspectives.

“It’s definitely pertinent for everyone [to] understand their culture, but other people’s cultures as well, seeing how everyone’s intertwined,” Bediako said.

In addition, students appreciate the opportunity to share their own opinions and ideas with others.

“It’s a time for me to talk about issues that affect me … see what’s affecting other people … and to discuss it with a wide range of people from all over campus,” Bediako said.

“Sometimes you need that, to give your opinion,” Owusu-Ansah said.

Education is one of the main goals of Unity Hour, according to Kenneth Glover, Ujamaa residence hall director.

“One of our stances here is that education is not a passive process, it’s an active process,” he said.

“It helps people learn about the significance of their past, their past as African people [and] their past in regard to other communities.”

However, participation in Unity Hour is not limited to black students. Although most of the people at the Africana Unity Hour are African-American, some Asian American and Caucasian students also participate.

“Quite to the contrary of the kind of myth some people seem so intent on perpetuating at Cornell, … [Ujamaa] is [very] open,” Turner said.

Holmberg, who is Caucasian, said he agreed. “The general feeling on campus is that [Ujamaa] is exclusive … If anything, it means inclusion,” he said. “I think white folks need to step out of their comfort zone and just go. I think they’d be pleasantly surprised.”

In addition to students, many faculty and staff members attend Unity Hour, either to lecture or just listen to the discussion.

“They feel like I’m a proxy member of Ujamaa,” Turner said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher