Dr. Brian Peterson first set foot on Penn's campus in 1989 as an undergraduate student looking to study engineering. More than 30 years later, after earning a master's and Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education, Peterson is still here. Now the director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center on campus, as well as a lecturer in the Africana and Urban Studies departments, Peterson reflects on his path with the ever–present realities of race dynamics of our society in mind. In a conversation that began on the tail end of Black History Month but remains perennially relevant, Peterson sheds light on Makuu, Penn's impact on the greater Philadelphia community, and how we as a university reflect difficult truths about our nation.
What sparked your interest in Makuu, and how does it tie into what you do with your programs today?
There were already some hubs of Black culture on campus [before Makuu], being DuBois College House, Africana Studies, and the African–American Resource Center, but within University life, there was a student–led push to create different spaces. PAACH [the Pan–Asian American Community House], La Casa [Latina, the Latinx cultural space on campus], and Makuu grew out of that—we're all about 20 years old. Greenfield Intercultural Center predates us, and then the LGBTQ and Penn Women's Center are older, stand–alone spaces. Roughly around the time that Makuu, PAACH, and La Casa were founded, Penn bought the ARCH building. It used to be the Christian association, so the opportunity to get this building and centralize student life was really sort of the genesis of Makuu.
For us now, in terms of Black cultural life, we really try to see what's happening and how we can partner with [not only] DuBois [and] Africana Studies, but also partner with Penn Women's Center, the LGBTQ center, PAACH, and La Casa, as well as different academic departments. We try to figure out where they intersect and really support the different student groups that operate under the UMOJA umbrella. There are a whole lot of organizations under them like Black Wharton, National Society for Black Engineers, the African American Arts Alliance, and performing arts groups really amplifying what they're doing on campus and trying to meet the needs of students on the organizational and individual sides. When students have issues about belonging or financial concerns, whether it's first–year students adjusting to campus or seniors trying to get a job or anyone in between struggling with wellness, we're not going to handle the wellness concern primarily, but we'll try to partner with CAPS and other services. Maybe a student is saying, "Hey, I'm not able to focus in class," and we help them get tested, and now they understand that they have ADHD.
Have you noticed an evolution in your experience as a Black man and member of that community during the years you’ve been at Penn?
I got to Penn in 1989, and for a lot of alumni that I know from that era who may be a little bit older than me, they often lead with encounters with police, whether it's Penn Police or Philadelphia Police [Department] in West Philadelphia. In a lot of ways, that clouds their involvement. They don't want to reconnect as alumni, because they have this feeling of not being wanted. When they're constantly asked to show IDs by security guards, or actually pulled over by police on campus for just minding their own business; a lot of Black men from the '80s have countless stories. I have my own as well, but one of the main differences now is that even despite Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, by and large Penn has really tried to step up in terms of what policing looks like. There's still a long conversation that needs to be had broadly about policing, because I think what happened with the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 is that people really began to question, "What is policing?"
When we talk about mental health on Penn's campus, we talk about services and support and resources, but when we have someone facing a crisis like Walter Wallace in West Philadelphia, you lose a life because there aren't support services to be called in. Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, that was the story for Black students at Penn when I was here in the '80s and the '90s. It's gotten a lot better, but for students still, there's still this sense of policing—not necessarily by security, but by the Penn community broadly. Students feel like, "people are questioning my intellectual ability,” or, "people are not letting me be in study groups,” or that people are isolating them in peculiar ways. That happens, but then on the flip side, this generation of Penn students has a lot more access to services and resources than my generation had.
A lot more Black students are traveling abroad, a lot more Black students are applying for fellowships through CURF, a lot more Black students are just in more "mainstream" student organizations where they're a lot more visible. And at the same time, students are still supporting Black student organizations and minority organizations. I think the fact that students have more of a choice, more options, more opportunities, is a really really good thing. Of course, Penn still has a lot of work to do in creating inclusive spaces where people feel like, "I can be my full self here and feel valued,” because sometimes we don't want to have those difficult conversations about what that really needs to look like. It's challenging, but we've definitely come a long way from my time as an undergraduate student.
What can do, as members of an institution like Penn, to expand this movement to the greater community?
In some ways, Penn could do more. Penn scholarship has experts in different fields, like Dorothy Roberts, Mary Frances Berry—you could go down the list. But there's a disconnect in who you're talking to and who's actually paying attention. It's complicated, because the past two years have a sort of asterisk on them, because we were doing it during a pandemic. You can't just hold a town hall in a crowded forum, right, so I don't know when that asterisk will be completely lifted. So yes, Penn has this scholarship, Penn has this reach, but this is also not a Penn–specific issue. America has a lot of challenges talking about race in a relevant way, and it's not necessarily for Penn to solve America's problems.
Philadelphia is a very neighborhood–specific city, which is very racially isolating for specific groups depending on where you are, but that's not a Penn thing. Penn could do its part and not displace people, but we can't draw a new map for Philadelphia and figure out how to have more integrated spaces. It might be due to financial concerns, or this complicated neighborhood’s history—that's not a Penn thing.
In some ways, the best thing that could happen at Penn is bringing in diverse students and then allowing them to figure it out in the way that they want to, which is what I would urge Penn administrators and faculty to do: Listen to the students as they're figuring their stuff out and creating their own spaces. Then, we still have to be careful not to indoctrinate them into the same racially isolating modes that history has given us, and if you're not careful, you fall into that same trap.
What can students do to really make that happen?
I think you are doing it. The way that leadership responds to students now is definitely much different than it used to be. I mean, you can go back and look at a lot of anti–war protests: Students got a lot of stuff done, but now, you're much more connected to each other because of social media and phones, so you can get a lot more done quicker and more effectively because of the communication that you have access to. To me, across the nation, institutional presidents and faculty need to better understand how you all operate. There's a disconnect in terms of their access to technology and their experiences coming up through this stuff, but it definitely makes the impact that you have much deeper across the board.
I see a lot of change that has occurred, but there's still some deep questions that are really hard for students to tackle when you're talking about racism and antiracist work, just because that's hard for everybody. But you have a clearer understanding of what justice should look like, and you're really helping older generations understand gender fluidity, identity, and intersectionality in ways that people didn't have language for. Now, faculty members are Googling, trying to figure out what this language is.
And that's really important: You can't just say, "Oh, this doesn't really matter because they've tried to say that." There are people who mis–pronoun people on purpose, for example: There's no place for that, and students are the ones who are saying there's no place for that.
What are Makuu's and the Penn administration’s goals for us as an institution to address everything we’ve discussed today?
It's hard to really name the goals now just because there [are] so many question marks. I think we're still, despite what we want to believe, in COVID–19 times. Knock on wood, we don't have to cancel a graduation again. We also have a new president coming in, we have a new provost, so there's a lot of trying to get everyone acclimated. Regardless of who's here, I hope that we can figure out constructive ways to unpause some of the conversations about what justice looks like, figuring out how to bring people to the table, whether it's faculty, community members, staff members, grad students, undergraduate students. The answers are probably already within our community: If we just get the right people talking to each other, we can figure out some really constructive ways to break down barriers.
I guess that's the biggest thing, in an abstract and direct way: We have to break down more barriers. Penn is very compartmentalized in a way that's sometimes counterproductive, and when we allow those barriers to exist and be okay with whatever people can produce in their own spaces, it's not what we should be doing. If we do want to pick up the torch on their bigger conversations from 2020, that's going to require a different way of thinking and a different way of doing. I'm hoping that we can commit to that, and figure out what that could possibly look like, and just keep moving forward. We could take a cue from youthful impatience and say, “This needs to be done by this time, let's set a day.” Let's set a day, and let's get it done.