California State University, Long Beach
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Keeping History Alive

Published: February 2, 2015

Quite often, history is lost on younger generations. For Black history, it’s equally as true.

“We need to connect the present to the past because I think that really puts fuel in people’s tanks, to be inspired,” said Brett Waterfield, Director of Student Life and Development at CSULB. “Sometimes it’s difficult, but we need to make that connection.”

As the head of the Men’s Success Initiative on campus, a program which had mentored roughly 600 Black and Latino students since 2010, Waterfield is in a position to provide support on many levels as he and his staff provide, as he said, “A place for them to exhale.” He also uses the opportunity to emphasize the need for them to maintain a historical connection to generations past.

“What’s so fascinating to me, especially when you look at Black History Month, is that any of the changes that took place during our civil rights’ time, who were they led by?” asked Waterfield. “Students. All these organizations of people that changed the diversity and fought for civil rights in our country were all students. The Freedom Riders took summers off from college to ride the buses in the South.

“What we try to tell our students is that any change to how we respond, how we work, how things happen is going to come through the voices of students and this group gives them a voice,” he added. “We tell them they need to be front and center because there were people in Greensboro, South Carolina, who couldn’t even eat lunch at a Woolsworth drug store counter and they went through that so you could be front and center. They don’t need to be in the back of the class, aka, back of the bus anymore.”

One of Waterfield’s future ambitions, near future he hopes, is putting together a historical civil rights’ bus tour for students. The idea came about through a recent conversation with a colleague, bolstered by a similar talk with a cousin, who is an administrator at Southern Methodist University.

“They were talking how they took students on a civil rights’ tour,” said Waterfield. “Like we do our spring break to New Orleans, what they do is take a bus along this trail in the South that hits all the historical sites. I was fascinated by this so I’ve been on this mission to see if we can put something like this together. I would love to take our students on that trip during spring break so they can see the journey and the historical sites and monuments about students who really blazed the trail so that they can have the opportunities that they have today. It helps you to understand that things weren’t always the way they are and that people made major sacrifices for all of us to be in the position we are in today.”

He is also looking for a faculty member who could teach a class on the history of civil rights and discuss things that happened during that period and then incorporate such a trip into the course.

“I think that would be fascinating for anyone who wanted to go, not just Black students,” said Waterfield. “Living in California, I think we forget sometimes that there are still pockets of this country where people still think it’s 1954.”

A couple fairly recent exchanges really garnered Waterfield’s attention as to how the connection to Black History may be slowly slipping away when it comes to the younger generations.

The first was Hurricane Katrina, which occurred just a decade ago (2004), but yet to some it’s like ancient history.

“That’s a historical event to students now,” said Waterfield. “One of the first things we do is ask, ‘Tell us where you were when Katrina hit?’ I have to remember that if I’m talking to a 20-year-old then they were only 10 when that happened. Katrina is such a significant event in our country’s Black history in terms of what happened and how the country responded, yet for many of our students there doesn’t seem to be a real connection. Working with students we’ve noticed a further and further disconnect from those historical stories.”

The second had to do with a flyer a student was working on in promoting of the Nelson Mandela Legacy Lecture on campus just last September.

“One of our students was working on the graphics to get a flyer done and a couple students came in and said, ‘Who’s that?’ and then another said, ‘Is that Morgan Freeman?’” said Waterfield. “That told me we need to do more of this work. It showed me that we take some of the things about Black history for granted, that we need to figure out how to get this message and information out in order to keep that connection alive. That’s very important.”