Danielle Johnson, third-year College student and president of the Organization of African Students, spoke to roughly 25 students attending the Minority Rights Coalition’s Memory Mondays event at the Multicultural Student Center on Monday. Johnson detailed the history of OAS and its previous, current and prospective efforts.
Johnson, a first-generation Ghanaian-American, has been involved with OAS since her first year at the University. During her presentation, she described her work with OAS over her three-year involvement, where she’s been a member of the OAS events committee, communications chair and Africa Day marketing director.
The MRC’s collaboration with OAS began last year when they partnered to raise awareness of global challenges such as the End SARS movement, a call to cease police brutality in Nigeria.
“[OAS is] a multicultural contracted independent organization that serves as a network of support, creating a welcoming and comfortable environment for African and non-African students who are interested in learning about the continent,” Johnson said.
In her presentation, Johnson revealed the origins of OAS. Founded in 2003, the student group was originally called Salaam, an Arabic word used as a greeting which translates to “peace.” One of their most popular events is Africa Day, which takes place each spring.
“Students gather in traditional outfits or fancy suits or attire to celebrate themselves and the beauty of African culture,” Johnson said
Each fall, OAS also hosts its annual Umoja Ball — a formal gathering with dancing, food, music and entertainment. Funds raised during Umoja Ball are directed toward student scholarships distributed by OAS and relevant charities. Last year’s Umoja Ball allowed OAS to award scholarships for African students at Charlottesville High School.
OAS is also a strong advocate and voice for various social issues locally and nationwide. In 2017, the organization released a statement after the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 11 and 12 led by white nationalists protesting the removal of Charlottesville’s Confederate Robert E. Lee statue. The group’s statement denounced the “horrific acts” of the rally.
OAS also released a statement in November 2020 speaking out against racially insensitive comments made by Commerce Prof. Leopold Jeffrey that perpetuated negative stereotypes against Africa. In response to the organization’s statement, Leopold formally apologized to the class.
Other pursuits of OAS include interacting with the African population of Charlottesville through service activities, educating the general University community about Africa, actively responding to happenings in Africa through collaboration with nongovernmental organizations and grassroots organizations, collaborating with external CIOs and awarding and assisting high school students with scholarships.
Johnson discussed potential areas of improvement for the organization. One goal Johnson highlighted is for OAS to provide a comfortable and inclusive community for all students.
“We want to be more representative of every cluster in Africa, “ Johnson said. “Like every other CIO, we are far from perfect.”
In response to a question from Johnson about how OAS has impacted members’ time at the University, many students reflected that the organization has provided mentorship, community and a sense of home.
“[OAS is] like home away from home,” one student said.
Johnson closed the discussion with information about upcoming events, including a movie night in the MSC Oct. 7.
The MRC’s Memory Mondays event series provides a platform for marginalized groups at the University to share their advocacy efforts. Leaders from the Black Student Alliance spoke at the first Memory Monday hosted Sept. 9 and the Cultural Organization for Latin Americans educated attendees about the group Sept. 22.
The MRC is an umbrella organization made up of 11 student organizations representing marginalized students on Grounds. Last week, the Asian Student Union was added as an official MRC organization, called a board member organization. The MRC advocates for increased social and political liberties and has brought awareness to injustices ranging from the voter suppression affected by scheduling classes on Election Day to Palestinian freedom.