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IU's Neal-Marshall Center to put on virtual Umoja Week through social media



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Students walk by the photographs on the walls Jan. 29, 2019, in the lobby of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. The culture center will present the annual Umoja celebration virtually from Sunday to Friday. IDS file photo and Nora McMahon

The Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center will present the annual Umoja celebration from Sunday to Friday virtually due to the pandemic.  

According to a flyer posted on the Neal-Marshall’s social media accounts, Umoja Week serves as a “virtual celebration of Black entrepreneurs, creatives, leaders and organizations that support our community." The Neal-Marshall Center’s social media accounts will post information and photos of Black businesses, organizations, clubs and creators around Bloomington each day. 

Due to social distancing requirements, the celebration will look different this year. The typically two-to-three hour one-day event is now solely a social media initiative. Instagram and Facebook posts have replaced physical methods of advertisement, such as booths. Each day of Umoja has different types of posts in store, with each day being dedicated to either businesses, organizations, clubs, specific artists and so on.

Umoja festivals have a rich history within the Black community. Umoja, meaning “unity” in Swahili, is one of the seven principles celebrated during Kwanzaa. This traditional Black holiday runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with each day dedicated to a specific principle, umoja being the first.

Gloria Howell, associate director of the Neal-Marshall Center, said the Neal-MarshallCenter helps encompass the idea of umoja so Black students feel more at home on campus.

“We’re in a predominantly white institution,” Howell said. “So for them to literally step foot on campus and be immediately introduced to folks who not only look like them but also folks who have similar interests, similar backgrounds, I think that does wonders for folks who are Black and coming to campus and trying to find that community."

Many organizations, such as the IU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Campus Coils and Curls, the Black Graduate Student Association and PopKorn Kernels With a Twist, will be showcased during Umoja Week in an effort to uplift Black voices and raise awareness. Howell said the goal is to put a spotlight on various Black businesses and groups around Bloomington.

“We want to highlight these organizations and businesses and give them some exposure to the students,” Howell said. “We want to show our Black business owners and organizations that we’re here to promote them and support what they’re doing.”

Despite the festival being a traditionally Black holiday, the celebration welcomes all students. Ramatou Soumare, a sophomore and social programming chair for the IU NAACP, hopes other groups will get in touch as well.

“It’s definitely a way for everyone to kind of expand beyond their normal circle,” Soumare said.

While going virtual is a challenge, there is also an advantage to using social media, Sourmare said. 

“While yes, I think it’ll be harder to engage with that virtual aspect it’ll also be a lot easier to reach out to people through social media," Sourmare said. "I’m just kind of hoping that we’re able to make those connections virtually, that we’re able to celebrate Black communities, Black love, Black family, because that’s essentially what we have to hold onto right now.”

Howell said the decision to have Umoja Week rather than Umoja Day stemmed from the need to find an equally effective way to connect. 

“What I appreciate is that us not being able to do it in person didn’t stop us from thinking of creative ways. One of the advantages of doing it through social media is we can basically do it as long as we want, so we decided why not have a weeklong celebration?”

The coronavirus pandemic is not the only recent matter affecting Umoja Week, however. The 2020 Umoja celebration is different due to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement across the nation. For many, such as Sourmare, there is a greater sense of urgency this year among not only those attending Umoja Week but the Black community as a whole to take a stand for recognition and awareness.

“We are made more aware of kind of asserting our identity a little bit more, taking pride in being Black, letting everyone know that we’re going to continue to fight,” Sourmare said. “It just makes us even more encouraged to go harder and to use the platforms we have available to us to bring light to the social justice initiative.”

Howell hopes the spirit of umoja can remain intact and that people get a sense of representation and support out of Umoja Week. 

“We really want Black students to see that we’re still here, and we might have to be creative but we are ready and willing to support them in any way we can,” Howell said. “We might not get to do all the things we would usually do if we were in the culture center with Umoja but we hope that the spirit of unity is still something folks can feel.”

Those interested in applying to be represented can fill out a form. More information can be found by visiting the Neal-Marshall’s social media pages. 

The event provides a recognition of Black-owned businesses and organizations across IU’s campus and Bloomington. 

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