An island girl moves to the big city at age 10 and then discovers she’s a despised minority at age 18 when she goes off to college in small-town America. Karlene
Burrell-McCrae (GEd’96, SW’00) has experienced anger and success, something worth sharing with black students who come to Penn and feel lost or in need of help.
As director of Makuu—formerly called Umoja—the black student cultural center, Burrell-
McCrae is finding a way to bring black students together and to smooth their way to the services and events of the University.
Makuu, which means “home” or “headquarters” in Kiswahili, has just issued a directory, the “Black Resource Guide.” And Makuu is working on a Web guide to the city, featuring hot spots from restaurants to barbers, that Burrell-McCrae expects will go online by the end of this semester.
Q. Tell me some of the things you have done on campus.
A. I created Alliance and Understanding to work with black and Jewish college students on campus to have a dialog. …Most of them give up their spring break, and we go to Alabama and Georgia to learn about the Civil Rights movements, and just how all these invisible giants impacted change.
Q. Invisible giants? What do you mean?
A. Lots of people who didn’t get credit who actively participated [in the Civil Rights Movement]. Because I think oftentimes we have these dialogs and students say, I don’t know what I can do; I’m not sure how I can make a difference. So meeting all these amazing people you hear someone saying, I helped to register folks to vote, or I helped to hide people, or I crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Q. What’s that?
A. It was in Selma. That was when they did the march to Birmingham. …
So you get to meet people who were teenagers who said, I really wasn’t trying to initially do it. It just seemed exciting, and then I got caught up. And [you meet] other people who really actively, strategically participated. So they’re meeting lots of people, and how they participated in different ways, and how the Jewish community supported it, and at times, when the Jewish community had to retreat. …
So part of it for them is to see its risk and sometimes you take it and sometimes you don’t take the risk. But it doesn’t mean you can’t participate in some other way. ...
If you talk to the students who participated they’ll tell you it’s a life-changing experience.
Q. What inspired Makuu?
A. The vice provost [for University Life, Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum] has been really instrumental. I remember being a graduate student and working with students [at the Greenfield Intercultural Center as an intern/work-study student]…and helping them to work more collaboratively together and trying to really concentrate on their studies and being able to help them identify the resources that they needed on campus. They’re coming from such different backgrounds and experiences.
Q. How many black students are here at Penn?
A. I want to say it’s not even 600 undergraduates. Including graduate students, it rounds out, I think, to about 1,200 students.
Q. And Makuu also caters to people from Africa, people from the Caribbean?
A. I’m Jamaican, not a black American, so I’m very mindful of the inclusivity. That’s why I tend to use “black” versus African-American, or I always say students from the African diaspora. …
One of my big things is how do we get all of them to come together to be able to support each other’s programs. My experience as a black person in America is very different than my husband, who is a black American. I grew up in a place where most people look like me. It’s a very different experience on your psyche, on who you think you are, on how comfortable you are with who you are.
Q. Why did you create the directory?
A. I want students leaving Penn feeling they had good support from lots of people, and when someone calls them because they want them to come back to speak on campus or they’re asking them to contribute financially, they’re not going to say, I will never give to Penn....
When we were doing the directory I thought there are some centers on campus that our students need to know about. They need to know about Counseling and Psychological Services, they need to know about Victim Support. They need to know about the Student Conduct offices.
Some of these places don’t have people of African descent in them. Do you not go there? No, you need the service; you need the support. …So when our students need support, they can go and say, OK, there’s the person that [the guide] said I can call for help. There are people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered who are black on this campus. Prior to a few weeks ago, there wasn’t someone of African descent at the LGBT Center. But there are amazing staff members over there. ...
I see the value in having allies, regardless of who they are and what they look like. And that’s what I’m hoping I can encourage the students to kind of take away.
Originally published on October 17, 2002