Breaking Boundaries

Black Leadership Advancement Coalition Brings Together Community to Celebrate Achievements

By Summer Wong

BLAC

Photo Courtesy of Black Leadership Advancement Coalition

Hopping onto an Uber to get to the Hilton Irvine, I honestly did not know what to expect. When I heard the word “gala,” I assumed it would be one of those parties where people gathered to eat good food, chat and have fun on the dance floor. That was my initial impression, but it turned out to be far more than that.  

As I stepped into the Crystal ballroom, I was at first, mortified on how underdressed I was. The women were clad in drop-dead gorgeous ballroom gowns. The designer dresses ranged from short to long ones, and were of all different colors and designs. For a huge majority of attendees, it was obvious that the hair and the make-up were professionally done at a salon before they got there. The men wore fitted tuxes with pocketed handkerchiefs tucked into the corner of their suits, and shiny dress shoes on their feet. I instantly felt bad about the simple Forever 21 sundress I was wearing and the dirty white Vans on my feet.

May 13th marked the 14th Annual Night of the Stars: Breaking Boundaries gala, hosted by the Black Leadership Advancement Coalition (BLAC). This night was dedicated not only celebrate the black community, but to also encourage everyone from all walks of life to step out of their comfort zone and bring themselves into change and achievement. Keynote speakers like Esosa Agbonwaneten, the founder and CEO of Bulletin, LLC, a company dedicated to keeping students organized while navigating their busy academic lives, gave inspiring speeches about how they broke boundaries in their difficult, yet rewarding journeys. Representatives from each of the black committees on campus described the goals of their organization, and their various accomplishments.

According to Lisa Cornish, the Executive Director of Student Housing at UCI, 90% of the contributions made by staff, faculty, and alumni are not in the job descriptions of those who mentor and support the students. The BLAC gala is a celebration of all who enter that space — those who build the bridges and alliances to ensure the success of black students, including the advocates and family members who show up year after year to the event as well. The audience was not only African-American, but consisted of allies that came in all colors, ages, backgrounds and walks of life.

There were over forty round tables surrounding a large dance floor, each with about ten seats. Over four hundred people easily occupied the grand ballroom, all here to celebrate and support the accomplishments of the black students, faculty and staff of UCI. This event attracted not only UCI’s black community, but also the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, student Deans, the Executive Director of Student Housing and the Chief of Irvine Police. Thousands of dollars of scholarships were also awarded that night.

The dimmed lights contributed to a calm and friendly environment, yet, it was very lively. Catchy pop tunes played from the huge speakers from the podium. John Easton, a professional drummer, banged on the drums with vigorous energy. Raffle tickets were being bought and sold with lightening speed. Reunions and new introductions could be heard from every corner of the room. People were taking pictures, dancing, hanging out at the bar outside, giggling and offering the entertainment performers with dollar bills. Everyone was building connections, shaking hands and introducing one another.

Tamara Austin, Director of Women and Gender Initiatives at UCI’s Cross Cultural Center was the event’s BLAC Gala Chair. To her, this event is a space for students, faculty, staff, and alumni to come together as a family to celebrate the contributions that everyone makes at UCI on a day-to-day basis.

“We try to cover and bring the community together in a way that just is celebratory for one night,” said Austin. “Even though we know there are issues on campus and community wide and nation-wide, this is a time to hopefully just relax, and get energized by what people are doing and are trying to do.”

Being apart of a stark minority on campus means having a sense of identity is important, and for many black students at UCI, BLAC is that restorative place. It is a place where members of the black community can gather and feel like they are surrounded by people of similar background, see familiar faces, and reconnect with family.

 “I want everybody to leave this space feeling that they play a part in being vested in these students,” Austin said. “That when we do the business card exchange, that they have another contact if they need to reach out to somebody, that professionals can finally see people that actually work with them but may not see because they are in different spaces. I want people to walk out with one more connection than they came in with.”

 To many members of the black community, the BLAC gala is the one event a majority looked forward to every year.

“I love being a part of the BLAC because of the energy in the room, the opportunities for connection and networking,” said Cornish. “I love hearing about the success of our students, and those who support them. I love the proud faces of the award winners and to see everyone being themselves and having unbridled fun for one night, free of the stress and stressors that they juggle day in and day out- all of this makes my heart joyful.”

“To me,” said Austin, “this event is a lesson in cooperative learning. We laughed. We yelled. We worked. We became a family. We broke barriers and learned from each other. We broke down distance barriers, hierarchical barriers, gender barriers, and social barriers to help others achieve the same. We are humbled and honored to be a part of this event and we look forward to breaking more barriers in the future.”