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Celebrating Black History Month with a heritage dinner

The Black Heritage dinner was on Feb. 13 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., and took place at Founders Commons. The event was organized by the Black Student Collective (BSC) in partnership with the newly formed Black History Month Committee (BHMC): a coalition of faculty and staff.

A member of the BHMC and professor of public policy Ashley Adams expressed excitement in being able to help put on the event. Adams appreciated being able to connect with Black students on campus that she wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity to meet outside of teaching.

“I want to know who they are and I want them to know me,” Adams said. “[Heritage dinners] are community building for all students to learn about the Black experience, which is beneficial for the Mills Community as a whole.”

The programming for heritage month events are sponsored by the ethnic studies program in the Department of Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC), and in conjunction with student groups such as this month’s celebration with the BSC.

President of the BSC Imani Smith was a part of curating the Black History Month events last year. Smith enjoyed getting to work with the newly formed BHMC and appreciated being able to re-invite MBA Mills alum Danielle DeRuiter-Williams to speak at the dinner. 

DeRuiter-Williams is the CEO and co-founder of the Justice Collective, a social impact consultancy that partners with projects and organizations to support strategic initiatives and campaigns that advance racial and economic justice.

“Heritage month happens once a year, but making sure that people of color are recognized can happen all year round,” Smith said.

Smith noted that while there is a special emphasis being placed on the events this month, it’s important to remember that there are ways to be involved in events that celebrate and center around the Black experience all year round.

Heritage dinners are an opportunity to celebrate history and culture through sharing food, music and discussion.

It wasn’t until I attended Mills that I’ve gotten to go to a heritage dinner, because I went to schools overseas where that just didn’t happen, so it feels refreshing for me in particular,” said Mills student Meenakshi Marchione.

Guest speaker DeRuiter-Williams gave a talk kicking off the celebration on the empowerment of identity.

She spoke about her early experiences as a teen looking for work, recounting how her mother wanted to protect her from discrimination and advised her to change her hairstyle from braids to something more “professional.” How DeRuiter-Williams felt as a 16-year-old continues to resonate with her to this day.

“Any place that is not going to hire me because of my hair is not a place I want to work at,” DeRuiter-Willams said.

DeRuiter-Williams reflected on her experience in academia and in the professional workforce, and how sometimes being the only person of color in the room can feel isolating. 

She considers being brave and showing up as you are as the empowerment of identity. She concluded by saying that we should be invested in the continued development of ourselves and of our communities. 

Following her speech, Smith announced the upcoming events further celebrating Black Heritage Month such as the Staff & Faculty Appreciation Lunch: to honor the Black faculty and staff at Mills.

On Monday, Feb. 25, Mills will welcome keynote speaker and recent mayoral candidate Cat Brooks for a discussion in the Rothwell Theater. Brooks currently serves as the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network, a network of grassroots activists providing rapid response and healing justice in response to all forms of State violence across California.

Later in the week, the Reading of the Colored Museum & Fundraiser for the BSC will be a multimedia, theatrical performance with a Q+A session afterwards. The reading is taking place Thursday and Friday, Feb. 28 and 29 from 7:00–9:30 p.m. at Rothwell Theater.

The heritage dinner series happens annually, and is curated by members of those communities to reflect with the broader Mills community, by sharing traditional cultural dishes, art, music and dialogue that reflects on both the progress and strides left to make in creating a more socially conscious society.

Upcoming heritage events will be for Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, Asian Pacific Islanders (SAMEAPI) Heritage in April, Latinx Heritage in September and Native Heritage in November.