Building a strong Black community at Haas

Five members of the Black Business Student Association
The Black Business Student Association’s mission is to uplift and empower Black business students at Haas. Five of the seven board members are pictured. From left to right: Nicole Austin-Thomas, Mwita Wambura, Dalayna Jackson, Almaz Ali, and Allison Slaughter. Photo: Jim Block

For Dalayna Jackson, MBA 21 and co-president of the Black Business Student Association, hosting a crowded consumption function in the Haas courtyard during Black History Month was about more than dancing The Electric Slide and devouring homemade soul food.

For Jackson, last Friday was about creating a presence and assuring incoming and enrolled Black students that there’s a supportive and professional network to help them during their time at Haas.

“It’s important for us to be visible on campus for other Black students,” Jackson said. “We’re making sure that there is a space here for you and that you know about it.”

Mission to uplift, empower

A Kentucky native from Bowling Green, Jackson says she has always been a part of communities rooted in blackness, whether at her church or at social gatherings in her neighborhood.

So it’s no surprise that she’s helping to lead the BBSA, which has a mission to uplift and empower Black students on campus by building relationships with current and prospective students and alumni, connecting with Black graduate students at Berkeley and business schools in the Bay Area, and organizing social and professional networking events for its members.

Black Business Student Association visit museum.
BBSA members visit San Francisco’s de Young Museum for the Soul of a Nation exhibit.

During Black History Month, the BBSA will be hosting a variety of Bay Area events and outings, including a visit to San Francisco’s de Young Museum for the Soul of a Nation exhibit, a game night, a mixer with Stanford’s Black Business Student Association, and a luncheon for Black staff and faculty.

Part of Jackson’s mission is to continue to strengthen the Black community on campus. In the 2018 entering full-time MBA class, African Americans represented only two percent of the class, or six out of 291 students. This year, that number of incoming students tripled.

“I knew I wanted to be involved in BBSA because I wanted to help create a sense of community for my class and for those second-years who didn’t have that community,” Jackson said. “I want to make sure that moving forward, students always have a place where it feels like home.”

Building meaningful relationships

Nicole Austin-Thomas, MBA 21, said she, too, felt compelled to join BBSA to build a support network for current and future students and alumni. As BBSA vice president, not only is she helping organize retreats, study sessions, and mixers to foster connections among members, but she’s also benefiting from her efforts, too.

“I know there are 20 people on campus who I can reach out to for anything that I need and I’m willing to give my time and support to them as well,” she said. “BBSA allows me to have meaningful relationships that will carry beyond my time at Haas.”

While the first-year MBA class has many more African American students, and the school adopted a comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Action plan (DEI) in October 2018 that aims further increase representation, both Jackson and Austin-Thomas say there’s still work to do.

“I want students to know that there are people on campus who want to support you and want to see you succeed, but there’s no stasis,” Austin-Thomas said. “By coming here, you’ll be helping us build.”

 

Alum Dan Kihanya’s plan to get black entrepreneurs’ startups funded

Dan Kihanya, founder of Founders Unfound
Dan Kihanya, founder of Founders Unfound

Attracting funding is difficult for any aspiring entrepreneur. But for underrepresented minorities, the challenge can be even more daunting: just 1% of venture-backed founders in the U.S. are black and about 1.8% are Latino, according to a 2019 study.

That’s a big reason why Dan Kihanya, MBA 96, a serial entrepreneur who runs a mobile banking startup, decided to build Founders Unfound, an online platform to showcase underrepresented minority founders whose startups are ready for seed funding. The site features company information, a blog, and podcasts.

“My approach is to find companies that are at the stage of being venture backed so we can highlight them through the lens of getting the attention of investors and the larger startup community,” said Kihanya, whose father is from Kenya and mother is of English and Scottish descent.

The podcast interviews veer in interesting directions, covering everything from family background and life challenges, to sources of entrepreneurial inspiration, to the complexity of taxes and global manufacturing.

Building something that lasts

Interviewees so far include Stella Ashaolu, founder of WeSolv, which uses data analytics to help large companies improve workforce diversity; Baratunde Cola, founder of Carbice, is developing technology to prevent electronic devices from overheating; and AK Ikwuakor, founder of ELETE Styles, is designing fashionable professional clothes for the athletic build.

In one podcast, Ikwauakor, a former collegiate track and field star at the University of Oregon, discussed the link between sports and startup perseverance, comparing the pain of completing the 400-meter hurdle race to the pain of being rejected when someone doesn’t like your presentation. “It’s really about success in life…are you willing to go through the pain, the discomfort, the doubt?” he said.

Cola, who grew up in Pensacola, Florida, with a dad whom he described as a “street entrepreneur from the Bronx,” detailed his decades-long commitment to creating a new kind of thermal material for his startup, Carbice.

“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and build something that would last,” said Cola, who earned a PhD at Purdue.

A mechanical engineering undergrad who formerly worked in the Detroit auto industry, Kihanya moved to the Bay Area to enroll at Haas. “I was drawn to the place where you start something from scratch,” he said.

And Kihanya did. In 1996, he co-founded internet loyalty program MyPoints.com and took it public. A top performing IPO of 1999, MyPoints was acquired by United Airlines’ Loyalty Services Division in 2001.

Showcasing black founders

Kihanya went on to serve as an advisor to many startups, as well as a venture partner for Stockton Ventures on the East Coast. In 2017, he founded Wizely, which provides millennial consumers in India with mobile banking services, and today he commutes between his home in Seattle and Wizely’s India-based headquarters.

Before launching Founders Unfound, Kihanya considered simply increasing his angel investing and mentoring. But he ultimately decided that a digital platform, coupled with social media campaigns, would be a more powerful way to showcase a growing pipeline of black founders.

“I’m at the point in my career where it’s giving-back time,” he said.

When choosing a team of advisors for Founders Unfound, Kihanya turned to Haas, appointing Élida Bautista, the school’s director of inclusion and diversity, and Laurence “Lo” Toney, MBA 97, managing partner at Plexo Capital, whom Kihanya met at Haas.

For now, the website focuses on entrepreneurs of African descent, including Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans. Kihanya plans to expand to include interviews with Latinx founders this year.

Another goal is to post 100 interviews—as fast as possible.

“If we had 10,000 listeners, 100,000 downloads, and if it’s the right audience, that’d be tremendous,” Kihanya says. “If an interviewee comes to me later and says, ‘This employee, or that investor, or this partner came to me because they heard me on Founders Unfound,’ that’s how I’d judge success.”

 

Honoring Black History Month: Jennifer R. Cohen on the ROI of teaching diversity

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February.

Jennifer Cohen will launch a new DEI course this summer.
Jennifer R. Cohen will launch a new course on “Equitable & Inclusive Leadership” this summer. Photo: Jim Block

Haas lecturer Jennifer R. Cohen is gearing up to launch a course called “Equitable and Inclusive Leadership,” this summer. The elective is open to both Evening & Weekend and Executive MBA students. Cohen’s goal with the class is to present the data-driven benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, providing students with the language, concepts, insights, and tools to use DEI best practices in and out of work.

Data is key to Cohen, a scientist by training who holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in biochemistry, cellular, and molecular biology. Though she dreamed of being a scientist as a child, she said she found herself increasingly drawn to the idea of creating inclusive communities where underrepresented students felt safe and supported to do their best. That led to a career pivot. Most recently, she ran Oakland, Ca.-based SMASH, a STEM-intensive college preparatory and pipeline program for underrepresented high school students.

A service-focused family

Jennifer R. Cohen (right) with her parents (middle), and sister, Malia. Photo: Jim Block
Jennifer R. Cohen (right) with her parents (middle), and sister, Malia. Photo: Jim Block.

Cohen grew up in the diverse Richmond and Portola neighborhoods of San Francisco, in a public service-focused family  with her four sisters, attending the city’s public schools. One sister, Malia Cohen, formerly served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Her father, Evered Cohen, was the ordained pastor of San Francisco’s Lutheran Church of our Savior in 2014.

“Growing up, Black History Month was something celebrated in our church and in our school assembly,” she said. “It felt like a reflection. It was very pageant-like and almost Halloween-like. You dressed up as Harriet Tubman and were replaying the underground railroad. It was similar to the talent portion of a pageant.”

Today, Cohen said she’d like to see the month be more centered on amplifying intentional love of the black community throughout the year, including events like Oakland’s Black Joy Parade, organized by Elisha Greenwell, which celebrates the black experience and the community’s contribution to cultures past, present, and future.

Breaking stereotypes

We spoke with Cohen about her heroes in the black community—there are many, including her parents, and public servants such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, Cohen’s sister, Malia, who is now chair of the California State Board of Equalization, and U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who, like Cohen, is a Howard University undergraduate alumna.

“I’m inspired by people whose passions and contributions break stereotypes,” Cohen said. “People who are activated. The creators and doers in our community.”

Here are a few more of Cohen’s heroes:

Vivien Thomas. Portrait by Bob Gee.
Vivien Thomas. Oil portrait by Bob Gee.

Vivien Thomas: Thomas was a heart surgery pioneer at Johns Hopkins during the 1940s. When Cohen was a graduate student, rumors spread among black students about a famed black man who had made a significant medical contributions to the hospital. She later learned that Thomas was a surgical technician, who did not have a medical degree, but nonetheless developed a procedure used to treat “blue baby syndrome,” working with a team to save babies from heart failure. “He was someone who was denied access to become a doctor, but that didn’t stop him,” Cohen said. “Countless lives were saved.” Cohen found Thomas’s framed photo in the basement of the hospital. The photo was later moved to the main floor, around the time that the film “Something the Lord Made,” was released, which recounts Thomas’ story. “He has a beautiful gold gilded frame now and that matters,” Cohen said. “I feel like that’s reflection of how we as a society are moving away from having our vast and significant contributions hidden in the proverbial basement to being showcased on the main floor.”

Henrietta Lacks: Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research today. “I would not have graduated or completed my PhD without HeLa cells,” Cohen said. As the founder of the Biomedical Scholars Association in Baltimore, a group that provides a support system for underrepresented minority scholars within the Hopkins community, Cohen brought local Baltimore middle and high-school students into the research lab for hands-on STEM experiences. “I would tell them that your connection to science is right in front of your eyes. You are looking at the cells that came from a black woman from the Baltimore area.” An unknowingly heroic contributor to science and medicine, Lacks “teaches me the power of legacy and the impact we can make in the lives of people we’ve never met,” Cohen said. Some heroes are out in front like Oprah and Michelle Obama, Cohen said. “But with Henrietta Lacks it’s impossible to measure her impact, to monetize the impact of having her cells being harvested and grown all over the world to test for all kinds of diseases and to create cures for all kinds of diseases, including polio.”

Tomi Adayemi: Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American author of young adult novels that are taking Afrofuturism into the mainstream. Her debut novel, “Children of Blood and Bone,” which is currently being made into a movie by Fox 2000/Temple Hill Productions, takes place somewhere that’s “like Wakanda with magic,” Cohen said. (Wakanda is the fictional African country in Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther.”) “When I escape I want to go to a place that’s an alternative reality for black people that sheds the legacy of slavery and oppression and presents blackness in our full glory and genius. So when I think about heroes, these are people who are creating that alternative,” Cohen said.

Honoring Black History Month: Stacey King, MBA 20, on grandparents who paved the way

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February.

Stacey King, MBA 19
Stacey King, MBA 20: “Black history did not end with the Civil Rights era.”

Where did you grow up and what was your experience growing up black in your community?

I was born in Chicago. My dad’s job transferred my family to Raleigh, North Carolina, when I was 10. When we lived in the southern suburbs of Chicago, my neighborhood was all black and my school was fairly diverse. We were very close to family, and my parents ensured that I felt a sense of pride in being black. I don’t think I truly became aware of the impacts of race on my life until we moved to North Carolina, where my neighborhood was all white and my school was predominantly white. I never felt that I identified with any group of people in Raleigh. I often heard microaggressions and stereotypes that made me uncomfortable but that I didn’t know how to deal with or counter. It wasn’t until I found a more progressive, diverse group of friends in college that I had a community where my voice was heard and respected as a black person.

Who are a few African American historical figures/leaders/writers who you honor, or who have had an impact on your life?

"Embarking on such a huge life transformation takes a lot of courage, tenacity, and resilience," King says of her grandparents' trip north during the Great Migration.
“Embarking on such a huge life transformation takes a lot of courage, tenacity, and resilience,” King says of her grandparents’ trip north during the Great Migration.

I, of course, honor the well-known historical figures, but the black people that I most revere are in my family. My grandparents all migrated from the  south as part of the Great Migration, which is a very significant part of U.S. history that has shaped the culture of many major cities in the United States. I feel that embarking on such a huge life transformation takes a lot of courage, tenacity, and resilience. I think the effects of this have trickled down through the generations in my family and have ensured that each generation is afforded more opportunities than the previous. I wouldn’t be at Haas today were it not for their investments in my education and development.

What can be done in the schools or in our country to build more understanding of black history outside of Black History Month?

Conversations need to be more open and honest about the history of black people in the United States and how that has had positive impacts on our society but has also led to violently oppressive systems. I think people need to discuss the true reasons behind current “controversial” topics surrounding the black community today (Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, etc.) instead of dismissing them as un-American. These events are Black History, and people balked at integration in the same way. I think simply taking the time to engage with what’s happening in the black community today and legitimizing the thoughts and feelings of black people is a way to learn more about black history. Furthermore, it’s important to note that black history did not end with the civil rights era, it continues today and is still evolving.

King, who earned a BS in chemical engineering in 2010, with her brother and her parents at North Carolina State commencement.
King with her brother and her parents at North Carolina State University commencement. King earned a BS in chemical engineering in 2010.

Black culture and history is everywhere! There are so many books, movies, and articles in popular culture that are now easy to access. Articles such as The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the documentary 13th on Netflix, directed by Ava DuVernay, are current pieces that I believe provide insight into how legalized discrimination has impacted the black community. The Smithsonian Museum for African-American History and Culture in DC is a beautiful free museum that thoughtfully examines black culture in the US, and I think everyone should visit.

What do you wish others knew about being black in the U.S.?

I want others to appreciate the diversity within the black community and look beyond stereotypes. A lot of black culture that is widely circulated and exported only shows one side of the black community. There is culture that is emerging (HBO’s Insecure, Black Panther, Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance) that gives a more nuanced glimpse into what it is to be black in the U.S.  As in any culture, black people vary in their political opinions, religious beliefs, gender identities, and sexualities, socio-economic and educational experiences, and family structures. I would hope that these aspects of pop culture will encourage people to appreciate the rich diversity of the black community. Haas has been one of the few places where I feel people are genuinely interested in the black experience, and I wish others would express the same desire to learn and understand more about being black in the US.

I also want people to understand that black pride is not racist. These are movements and ways of thought that are meant to build a sense of community and pride in a world that is constantly telling us that we are less than, we are not qualified, and we are not American.

Honoring Black History Month: Matt Hines, MBA 19, on black heroes

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February.

In this interview, Matt Hines, MBA 19, discusses the challenges of being black in mostly white Atlanta private schools, how his parents championed Black History Month, and the Haas course that helped him share his feelings about race.

"Being comfortable and confident with who I am took awhile for me, in relation to race," Matt Hines, MBA 19. Photo:
“Being comfortable and confident with who I am took a while for me, in relation to race,” Matt Hines, MBA 19. Photo: Eric Tecza, MBA 18.

Tell me about what is was like growing up black in your community.

While Atlanta is very diverse, the community I grew up in was not very diverse at all. I went to private school my entire life and grew up in a fairly white community. The first black student I remember having in my class was in fifth grade. For a while I struggled with kids at school assuming I should act a certain way, talk a certain way, or listen to a certain kind of music—kids having expectations for what I should or shouldn’t be. Being comfortable and confident with who I am took a while for me, in relation to race, and it’s definitely something I still work on.

 Hines with his father. "It's something I think about, how my father handled having a black son, and the conversations that we had and are still fortunate to have today."
Hines spending time with his father:”It’s something I think about, how my father handled having a black son, and the conversations that we had and are still fortunate to have today.”

Did you have experience with Black History Month as a child?

Black History Month wasn’t a big thing when we first got to our school in Atlanta, but I remember both my parents petitioning the school and setting up their own events every year when they would bring in speakers. We watched the movies Ruby Bridges (about a six-year-old African-American who helped to integrate the all-white schools of New Orleans) and Little Rock Nine (about The Little Rock Nine group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock) during Black History Month whenever they came on TV. When we lived in San Antonio (before Atlanta), my sister and I participated in the Mahogany Brain Challenge in our church, an African-American history trivia challenge between kids in various churches across the city. We’d study black history with other black youth and learn facts about black leaders such as George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman.

Who are some African Americans who inspire you?

Jackie Robinson was Hines' childhood hero.
Hines admired Jackie Robinson for “everything he stood for, everything he fought for.” Photo: Bob Sandberg, Cowles Communications, Inc.

When I was a kid it was always Jackie Robinson. I remember having a picture of him in my room growing up and reading autobiographies about Jackie Robinson and admiring everything he stood for, everything he fought for. I have since enjoyed reading Malcolm X, appreciating both the vigor with which he sought to uplift the black community and his commitment to introspection and learning that allowed him to continually shift his rhetoric throughout his life. Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite authors. He writes a lot about his relationship with his father and then his son. It’s something I think about, how my father handled having a black son, and the conversations that we had and are still fortunate to have today.

What can be done in the schools to build more understanding about black history?

The Dialogues on Race course at Haas has been an exceptional opportunity for me to start to get more comfortable discussing topics about race in my life. (Hines is a course co-facilitator with America Gonzalez). The goal of the class is to force us to think introspectively about our own racial identity and our own biases and the way we interact with society and to really dive into the historical context of racism—the institutional and systemic racism—that exists in the country. For me, it’s been very powerful to get more comfortable hearing my own thoughts about race and to speak them with a group of peers in a safe environment. That’s a model that I think can be used elsewhere.

How do you feel about speaking frankly in front of white people in the classroom?

I feel comfortable talking about this subject with black people and I do it all the time. The goal is to speak about it with people who don’t look like you. If we look at the way this country is run it is still dominated by white people who are making the decisions and have the capacity to make change. In my mind, no significant change can happen without white people on board so we have to have these conversations with them and we have to create allies.

Hines with his parents at his University of Michigan undergraduate commencement in 2013.
Hines with his parents at the University of Michigan undergraduate commencement in 2013. (He earned a degree in business administration & management) Photo: Hines family.

What do you wish others knew about what it means to be black in the U.S.?

For me, growing up black has been mentally taxing more than physically taxing. It’s constantly second-guessing every interaction I have with someone. Are they genuine in the way they look at me and talk to me? Am I the the first black person they’ve talked to this month and has that changed the way they talk to me? There are little microaggressions that get to you, like when I’m in line at the grocery store or the bank there have been multiple times when a white person has just “accidentally” walked in front of me and that person acts as if he or she didn’t see me. It’s not the end of the world, but you’re thinking: Is this person even worth wasting the energy on or do I want to just let it go?

Beverly Tatum (the president of Spelman College and the author of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) talks about how we live in a racialized society that is impossible to escape and that we are all complicit. She used the analogy of breathing in the smog in a polluted city and that it’s truly impossible to escape unless we are consistently putting in counter measures to counteract the racism and segregation that exists in our society today. The first piece of that is acceptance and I don’t think that we’re at a point of acceptance. If we do ever get to a point of acceptance we have to teach the truth in our schools and the truth about our history.

Honoring Black History Month: Devon Howland on why mentors matter

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February.

Devon Howland, internship and alumni coordinator for the Boost@BerkeleyHaas pre-college program at Haas. Photo: Jim Block
Devon Howland, internship and alumni coordinator for the Boost@BerkeleyHaas pre-college program at Haas. Photo: Jim Block

Devon Howland’s passion for mentoring led him to a fitting role, as internship and alumni coordinator for the Boost@BerkeleyHaas pre-college program. The 30-year-old program has helped prepare more than 1,000 Bay Area high school students to become the first in their families to go to college.

Howland, a first-generation college student himself, oversees all aspects of work-readiness requirements for students entering Boost@BerkeleyHaas summer programs, internships, and site visits to Bay area employers.

We spoke with Devon about his views on black history in America and on Black History Month, and the need to do a better job in teaching black history in schools.

How did you learn about black history in America?

Personally, I had to go out to find black history on my own through study and personal stories. What we learn in school is just insufficient. I happened upon an African-American history museum as a junior in high school and got really interested in the topic, which led to me reading and researching on my own. I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. These books helped me see into the lives of other blacks so I could relate my life to theirs. In the end, this allowed me to value black people and their contributions in ways my education did not.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings “helped me see into the lives of other blacks.” Photo: William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

This desire to know about and value the lives of those like me continues and fuels my current family genealogy searches. Ultimately, this led me to realize that black history too often gets reshaped and softened in its retelling. I think partially this could be because young people would naturally question why our founders displaced the original inhabitants of this land and enslaved others to build it. We must teach how this oftentimes torturous and demeaning yet sometimes inspiring and brave history has been and continues to challenge black status in U.S. society.

What do you think of Black History Month?

I’m glad it was initiated by (historian and author) Carter G. Woodson, but in its implementation, we have stopped short of making it all it could be: an opportunity to talk about this very tangled, difficult, and tragic story of how black people were brought to this country and later made to integrate into a society that was unwilling to accept them. Let’s rightly celebrate what has been achieved for sure. We all are direct recipients of intentional and unintentional foundations laid by all our predecessors.

How do we do a better job of educating K-12 students about this?

Students in the Boost program at Haas.
High school students who participated in the Boost program at Haas. Photo: Jim Block

We have a generation of young people who no longer want to be victims, nor put up with what prior generations put up with. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin (the unarmed 17-year-old African-American teenager from Miami Gardens, Fl., who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman), many became aware that African-American parents must have these difficult talks with our sons and daughters about how to survive. We must tell our sons what they can and cannot do in a public setting because it might risk their lives. K-to-12 could be this great place to bring to life these ugly realities that people of color have to face.

Who are your heroes in the black community?

I would just point to people in my life who took the time to invest in me. In the past, that would include people in my neighborhood, but it’s also been people of color in positions at the university or in the corporate world, or even just my uncles, who were father figures to me, who stepped up. When I think about Black History Month, I think about people like that. Not necessarily nationally known figures, but people who had their own opportunity to make an impact and influence and used it.

You also mentor outside of Berkeley Haas.

Devon Howland: This current generation desperately needs mentors who can really be their heroes. I currently mentor several youths I’ve met through volunteering with two programs that impact teens: Alive and Free and Young Life. Both organizations focus on helping to young people at risk and their need for Christian values, respectively. In both I see how small investments of my time and heart produce tremendous tangible dividends in the lives of young people. Inside and outside of work, I get to see lives change. In the end, there is nothing more rewarding than that.

Honoring Black History Month: Mia Character, BS 20, on finding black pride

"We have to speak up and share our different perspectives in order to learn from one another.” - Mia Character, BS 20.
“We have to speak up and share our different perspectives in order to learn from one another.” – Mia Character, BS 20. Photo: Annie Wang.

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February here.

When Mia Character arrived at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate in 2016, she found the perfect community in the Afro Floor of Barbara Christian Hall. The hall, named for the professor who founded Berkeley’s African American Studies department, opened Character to a new world.

“There was something so special about living on a floor in Christian Hall with people who looked like me,” she said.

The students on the floor celebrated Black History Month, and every week attended a one-unit seminar class together with the African American Theme Program (AATP). A seminar with Blake Simons, a local community organizer and assistant director for the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center and African American Student Development Office, taught her a lot, Character said.

“I was a college freshman still trying to figure out my identity and the amount of knowledge and perspective he had to share was truly transformative,” she said. “On top of that, I took African American studies classes, which I never really had a chance to do. Having the opportunity to learn about black history, art, and culture at UC Berkeley was something so special to me as a freshman.”

A precocious student

Character is a native of Gretna, Louisiana, just east of New Orleans. As a second-grader, before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, her family packed up their SUV and fled Gretna for her grandmother’s house in Georgia.

“I still have a vivid memory of us sitting in hours of traffic just to get past the toll gates because there were so many people leaving,” she said.

Mia Character accepting an award in elementary school.
Mia Character accepting an award in elementary school.

Character, who was always a precocious student, moved often throughout her childhood, until her family settled in Redlands, CA.

At Redlands High School, there were some black students, she recalled, “but a lack of black students in the AP system,” she said, so she stuck with her choir friends and took AP courses. She recalls her junior year in particular, in which she took AP history with her first black male teacher. “He would teach us about slavery and black history and I appreciated the authenticity that he brought and taught, but at times it felt like that he had to joke about it to lighten the mood and make sure the other students weren’t uncomfortable, which was always frustrating to me.”

Mia Character (right) with her best friend, Frances James.
Mia Character (right) with her best friend, Frances James. Both are campus diversity advocates.

At Berkeley, Character, a double major in Business Administration and Media Studies, joined the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association (HUBBA), and is a member of RISE, an undergraduate admissions program that encourages  underrepresented minorities at UC Berkeley to apply to Haas.

She’s also a former house manager of Afro House, an eleven-bedroom cooperative in the Berkeley Hills where she lived her sophomore year.

A tight-knit community

Being at Cal has finally allowed her to find pride in and embrace her blackness, she said. “I really appreciate all that I have learned and how it has made me proud to be me,” she said.

While the black community at Berkeley is small, about 3 percent, it  is very tight knit, she said. “I’ll go to class and there won’t be anyone who looks like me, and as much as this bothers me, I know that I have a community I can go to at the end of the day,” she said. “Being at Haas with my best friend, Frances James, who is also a business major, has been amazing because I know that I will have someone who shares a similar experience to confide in both on a personal and academic level.”

Character says her experiences have allowed her to get comfortable with speaking her mind, too. “I will say what needs to be said, no matter how uncomfortable it may make others feel,” she said. “I feel comfortable with speaking my mind, so I’m going to speak up when I have the opportunity. We have to speak up and share our different perspectives in order to learn from one another.”

Character, (center), is executive of internal affairs for the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association.
Mia Character (front, center) is executive of internal affairs for the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association.

Honoring Black History Month: Jason Atwater’s search for his enslaved ancestors

Jason Atwater with his mother and sister at Berry Hill Plantation
Jason Atwater with his mother and sister at Berry Hill Plantation.

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February here.

Curiosity fueled MBA student Jason Atwater’s bittersweet journey to uncover the history of his enslaved ancestors—and to walk the grounds of the Virginia plantation where they once lived.

“I always wanted to find out more about my family’s history,” said Atwater, a member of the 2019 class of the Berkeley MBA for Executives program, who grew up in Pennsylvania. “I thought it would be amazing if I could track down one of my enslaved ancestors, but I thought it would also be so unlikely because of the lack of information that was available.”

After five years of tracing his family tree on both sides, Atwater hit a research wall—specifically, the year 1870, when formerly enslaved people were listed by their names for the first time in the U.S. Census. But a lucky break came in 2017, when a distant cousin provided new information on Ancestry.com, where Atwater works as a digital marketing manager. Atwater had earlier registered his own DNA on Ancestry.

Jason Atwater touring the mansion at Berry Hill.
Jason Atwater touring the mansion at Berry Hill.

Along with a name—Matt Duncan—the cousin included a copy of a ledger, written by the owner of Berry Hill Plantation in Halifax County, Va. Atwater recognized Matt Duncan’s name: He was his two-times maternal grandfather. The ledger also included the names of Matt’s parents, Darby and Lucy Duncan. “It had their actual names, which was amazing,” Atwater said.

“This wave of emotion”

Darby Duncan, Atwater discovered, worked as first chef to the plantation owner, who at the time was the third wealthiest man in Virginia, owning 3,600 acres, and was a personal friend of Thomas Jefferson.

After an article about Atwater’s experience ran on the Ancestry.com blog, the company’s creative team suggested accompanying him to the plantation to document the experience. Atwater, along with his mother and sister, traveled with a film crew to Virginia in August 2017.

Watch a video of Atwater’s journey to Berry Hill Plantation with his mother and sister.

A list of enslaved people at Berry Hill, including Jason Atwater's ancestors.
A ledger of enslaved people at Berry Hill, including Jason Atwater’s ancestors.

“It’s almost hard to describe how many emotions I was feeling simultaneously, driving up and getting out of the car and looking at the plantation and seeing how enormous it was—the mansion, the giant columns,” Atwater says in the video, as the family arrives at Berry Hill. “It was just overwhelming. I could just feel this wave of emotion, almost like being in the water when waves hit you, one wave at a time. Each wave was a different emotion. It was fear and sadness and happiness and anger, all just kept washing over me.”

The family toured the Greek Revival style mansion and a preserved stone building that served as slaves’ quarters—one of few that are still standing on the property. They also walked through Diamond Hill Cemetery, where more than 200 slaves are buried among unmarked stones. “All I could think about is that they’re here, they’re buried, but no one knows who they are,” Atwater said.

(The estate, which is now a conference and event center, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1969.)

A Darby cooking gene?

During a stop at Darby’s Tavern, a restaurant on the grounds that is named for Darby Duncan, Atwater touched a large metal pot that Darby used for cooking. Atwater learned that he had been sent to New Orleans to study creole cooking—and was considered a top chef of his time. In the midst of being an enslaved person, Darby had some autonomy, Atwater said.

“I tried to put myself in his position. What was his life like? Was he treated well?” Atwater says as he walks through the tavern in the video.

A stop at Darby's Tavern, to honor Darby Duncan.
A stop at Darby’s Tavern, to honor Darby Duncan.

Cooking, he noted, is a passion shared by his entire family. “We inherited that from Darby Duncan,” he said. “The cooking gene.”

While in Virginia, Atwater also traveled to the Special Collections Library at University of Virginia in Charlottesville to view the Berry Hill Plantation ledger in person.

Atwater, who is co-vice president of diversity for the EMBA class, has shared his story with classmates, and encourages other African Americans to overcome any fear or shame they may feel in tracing their enslaved ancestors.

“It’s been a great experience, just so amazing to be there and connect with a piece of my family’s history,” Atwater said. “Complete strangers have written me about how the story touched them, and that’s led them to research their own families.”

Honoring Black History Month: Evan Wright, MBA 20, on growing up in D.C.

Evan WrightIn honor of Black History Month, we’re running a series of profiles and Q&As with members of the African-American community at Haas. Follow the series throughout February here.

We kick off our series with an interview with first-year MBA student Evan Wright, a Washington, D.C. native who is VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the MBA Association student government.

Berkeley Haas News: Tell us about where you grew up.

Washington, D.C., primarily in Southeast Washington, DC, which is a predominantly black and low-income part of the city. When I grew up in D.C., it was still a majority black city and the black community there was solidly middle class. I grew up in a famously progressive church, the People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, which had a strong social justice component. My pastor’s father-in-law was Andrew Young, who was famous for being a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a part of the civil rights movement. I’m not very religious but I think growing up in that church where there were black lawyers, judges, black doctors, people living paycheck to paycheck, and manual laborers, I saw the full spectrum of what black people could be and how our lives could be anything—and I had a very strong social justice founding that very much influenced how I thought about myself as a black person.

Evan Wright with his mother.
Evan Wright with his mother on Easter Sunday in 1993.

What was your experience growing up black in your community?

Being low-income in D.C. meant that I had access to things that low-income black children in other cities didn’t have access to: free museums, summer programming, (former Mayor) Marion Barry’s program to give stipends for unpaid internships in the government allowed me to have government internships and get a bus and train pass to get to and from. Growing up in D.C. I had access to so much opportunity that I’m very thankful for. At the same time, I also grew up in D.C. in the 1990s during the war on drugs. I have had—and my family members have had—negative interactions with police from very early on. I had to very early on think about my physical safety coming to and from home in a way that other children I went to school with later on didn’t have to think about.

Was Black History Month a big part of your childhood?

Very much so. It was a very big event in my church. We would have people from leftist political movements, we’d do interfaith dialogues between the Jewish community and the Muslim community in the area. It was a very progressive education and we dove deep.

Who are some black historical leaders/writers who have impacted your life?

My favorite book my senior year was Revolutionary Suicide, written by Huey P. Newton, the famous leader of the Black Panthers. James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time was one of my favorites—just thoughtful in the way he can seamlessly talk about race, sexual identity, gender, and religion, and in all the ways that he interacts with being a black person in America.

MLK and Malcolm X at a brief meeting before the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Wright admires both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, pictured at a brief meeting before the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo: U.S. News & World Report collection at the Library of Congress.

More than anyone else, I admire MLK and Malcolm X and I think both of them are much closer in ideology then they are seen to be in popular culture, where they are often whitewashed. Both of them were very critical of capitalist structures and arguably anti-capitalist, which I think is also something that people never talk about. Malcolm X had a quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism” and King spoke and wrote about the “evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” King wasn’t a pacifist; he was a strategic, non-violent activist, which is very different.

What do you wish others knew about what it means to be black in the U.S.?

Growing up black in the United States is to constantly be told that you aren’t part of the group, that you’re somehow removed. You are told by the justice system, by the educational system, by all of these institutions that we hold up to be important, implicitly or explicitly, that you’re not an American, that you’re not a part of society. I don’t think that I could have expressed this idea until I went abroad to Singapore after graduation. I was there for a year and a half and I had Singaporeans come up to me and say, ‘Oh, where in Africa are you from?’ Their conception of what an American is is a white person, so I had to often say, ‘I’m African American. I’m an American.’ That was my first time having to assert my American identity.

Evan Wright (top, left) with friends at the 2019 Haasquerade ball.
Evan Wright (top, left) with fellow MBAs at the 2019 Haasquerade Ball.

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