BEMIDJI -- Beatrice Kjelland may be black, but she didn’t necessarily grow up knowing very much about black culture. Coming from a small community in North Dakota, there just weren’t that many people of color around.
That started to change for Kjelland after getting connected with the Black Student Union at Bemidji State, a new organization that is just getting off the ground. The Black Student Union aims to celebrate black culture, provide a social network for black students, while also providing volunteer opportunities throughout the community.
“For me, it’s been a learning experience,” Kjelland said about getting involved in the Black Student Union. “I never even really went out and tried to learn a lot about black culture on my own because I was trying to fit in and not wanting to stick out. So, coming here… it’s helped me grow as a person.”
According to Bemidji State, the number of students who are black, including those who identify as more than one race, is just under 200. In a campus of nearly 5,000 students, the black population comes out to around 4% of the overall student body.
Bemidji as a whole does not have a lot of black representation either. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.4% of the population in Bemidji identifies as black. The Census Bureau said that 5.2% identify as two or more races, but it doesn’t indicate how many people in that group, if any, identify partly as black versus some other race.
“I feel like it gives them a place of comfort; hopefully it also gives them an opportunity to celebrate their culture,” said Gabriel Warren, a professor of business administration and one of the advisers for the Black Student Union. "There's not a lot of black people that live in northern Minnesota. So, I feel like having a Black Student Union gives students a sense of pride about their culture and who they are."
In some situations, celebrating black culture may include something such as learning about prominent black people throughout history.
In light of February being Black History Month, the Union has helped develop a number of events around campus, one of which will be a presentation on Feb. 25 called “Everything you wanted to know about being black but was afraid to ask.”
But, the Union is also a place where black students simply can socialize about things that are much more basic on a day-to-day level. Kjelland began laughing when she explained how she didn’t even know that much about hairstyles for a black person when she was younger.
Aside of what it can provide to current students, it also may be another incentive for potential students who are still thinking about coming to BSU. Warren said it's part of his presentation when speaking to prospective black students.
"I get questions from parents saying, 'hey, how is my student going to fit in here?'" Warren said. "Part of my presentation has been -- this year -- talking about the Black Student Union."
Kjelland is part of the group’s leadership. She and the group’s president, Zoe Christensen, are trying to get other students to step into leadership roles to help.
Although the group is focused on providing an outlet for black students and celebrating black culture, Christensen was quick to point out that the group will not turn anyone away based on the color of their skin.
“You do not have to be black to join the Black Student Union,” Christensen said. “I just want everyone to have a place to go and feel included.”
Although the initial concept had been in the works for a couple years, the Black Student Union first came on the scene at the start of the semester this past fall. It's reportedly the first Black Student Union that has ever existed at BSU, though there was at least one earlier attempt.
Even though helping to run the organization may be a heavy load at times, Kjelland said it is something she's very proud to take part in.
“I definitely think this is going to be something that we'll be able to tell our kids (and) our grandkids... that we did that,” Kjelland said. “This is huge, I think, to have this on campus and to be able to say I was a part of this.”