Faculty, students and alumni gathered on Nov. 16 and 17 to witness the exciting reopening of the Institute of Black Culture (IBC) and La Casita. After a four-year closure, both have new buildings and are ready to serve students again.
The story of IBC began in 1971, on a day now known as “Black Thursday” that spurred the beginning of a fight for advocacy in a predominantly white institution (PWI). Student leaders submitted a list of demands, one of which was to have a space to celebrate black culture. Their disappointment at the lack of action in response to these demands led students to occupy the president’s office. Sixty-seven students were arrested. When amnesty requests were denied, more than 100 black students and supporters withdrew from the university. This motivated the administration to act, and in the fall of the same year, the IBC was established.
More than 20 years later, in 1994, the Hispanic and Latino community petitioned for a community space similar to IBC. La Casita, or “little house,” became a gathering place for students to celebrate their unique cultures and unite as one body.
The original structures used for IBC and La Casita were houses along University Avenue that had been purchased by UF in 1954. By 2016, the physical condition of the 1920s-era buildings had deteriorated to the point where they were unusable. “When I first came to the school I saw the state the institutes were in and I really wanted to change that,” said Michelle Valoz, senior ambassador of Hispanic-Latino Affairs. The closure of the two buildings kicked off a three-year, $9.9 million project to revitalize these important areas of campus. Valoz is excited about the new buildings because, she said, “[They show that] we have a place on campus and we’re making ourselves known.”
Will Atkins, associate dean and senior director of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs (MCDA), was heavily involved in the project since its beginning. His goal was to make sure to be transparent, ensure participation and engagement and allow more students input in the process. Students were invited to focus groups to discuss topic ranging from furniture for the buildings to how to set up the spaces for best use.
To Valoz, the purpose of the spaces is to be a home, a place where all feel welcome and there is something for everyone. “The friends that I’ve met [in MCDA] have really been friends that I value and cherish a lot,” said Valoz. “I never feel out of place here. I never feel unwanted.” She hopes that with the aid of these dedicated physical spaces, more students can find this sense of belonging, a goal that Atkins shares as well. “The focus of the buildings has always been a space of advocacy, community, celebration, education and empowerment,” said Atkins. “Our hope is that the same spirit continues.”
The restoration of these buildings is an important step for the University of Florida’s advancement of diversity and multicultural initiatives. “What’s important to understand is the history and the context of these buildings,” said Atkins - that is, the fact that they stand for a movement around the minority student experience; they are a symbol of the fight and sacrifice that students have gone through to get here. “It’s a physical representation of what can happen when people come together regardless of their differences,” said Atkins.
For Beaudelaine Mesadieu, IBC and La Casita project co-chair, being part of the reconstruction and re-dedication of the buildings was a monumental experience. “We not only get to learn about our history, but be part of it,” she said.
Valoz believes that that the new buildings will bring even more opportunities for students like Mesadieu to be engaged and empowered. “It’s important for future generations at UF to see [IBC and La Casita] and to feel like, ‘Ok, it’s not just a PWI, there is a place for us in a big university,” Valoz said. She is hopeful that UF will be able to build more institutions to serve different minority groups.
The University of Florida will continue to look for ways to represent and serve minority students. “As we open the doors to the IBC and IHLC, I believe that we will also be opening the doors to so many more opportunities and advancements for minority and marginalized groups on and off campus,” Mesadieu said.