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UMN celebrates its third annual Juneteenth block party

The University of Minnesota celebrates its third annual Juneteenth block party and enjoyed the festivities despite unexpected rain.

ALEX LASSITER: Hello, lovely people! It’s Alex Lassiter with the Minnesota Daily, and you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast dedicated to the University of Minnesota.

As I’m sure our wonderful listeners know, this past Wednesday was Juneteenth. There were celebrations all over the city for the past few days and the University was no exception. Last Saturday, the 15th, the University hosted their third annual Juneteenth block party. The previous two years saw a great turnout from the community, so the event planning committee had tons of new ideas they wanted to put into motion for this year’s celebration.

Terresa Moses, a professor at the College of Design and the event organizer, said a lot had changed since the inaugural event back in 2022. Moses was also the lead planner for that original event.

TERRESA MOSES: I was involved in the very beginning. We planned the event in six weeks. We were kind-of asked by the Office of Equity and Diversity to see what we could do. And I was like, “Oh, I got this. Just let me do my thing.”

And ever since then, it’s been a six month process to be able to give us more time to plan and bring in vendors and work with community members to get their input on the celebration as well.

LASSITER: Moses said the event has been additive. They try out new things every year to get community members involved and put new art forms on display.

MOSES: I don’t know if there are things that we drop because it wasn’t working. More so we just wanted to try out new things. The first year we had a huge activation it was just a mural, which we had painted on the parking lot of UROC, it says “Black Futures.”  And we have updated that mural every year before. 

And then the second year, we had a screen printing activation there as well, as some other sort of art making and folks coming together around that. This year, we still have that, but we have another organization coming to memorialize the movement to help us with some of the murals that we want to do that will be on plywood. 

And we have a fashion show happening this year. That’s probably one of the things I’m most excited about for this event because we haven’t had a fashion show before and like how are they using clothing to talk about the theme? 

It’s a more building-up of what we’ve done in past years, rather than like dropping things because they weren’t working anymore. So, it’s really just sort of like a layering that’s happening that continues to change like the look and feel.

LASSITER: The event was started by the University’s Office of Equity and Diversity as a response to student and faculty push for greater representation. Keisha Varma, an associate vice president in the Office, said she was involved with the planning committee for the inaugural event back in 2022.

KEISHA VARMA: I was part of the original planning committee to just imagine the way that Juneteenth was celebrated with our University of Minnesota community members and community members from the Twin Cities, and have just been a supporter and collaborator with the planning committee as it’s developed over the years.

It started with a conversation with our then-president, President Gabel and her leadership team. In her cabinet meetings, people brought up Juneteenth as a University holiday and being recognized by the University. We’ve had so many people stepping up saying they want to support the initiative. They want to volunteer their time. They want to share their ideas. And it’s grown and evolved into the event we just had last weekend.

LASSITER: Mercedes Ramírez Fernández, the vice president for Equity and Diversity at the University, said that while she was attending the event on Saturday, the thing that resonated with her the most was the community response and reaction.

MERCEDES RAMÍREZ FERNÁNDEZ: One of the awesome things that I heard on Saturday was just seeing like the grandmas with the little kids and, you know, everybody playing and also being happy to see the University of Minnesota in their community. And that’s what they said, “it’s great to see the University of Minnesota here. It’s great that you all are showing up.”

You know, we had over 200 volunteers and students and staff members. And it is important that we sustain this partnership. So that’s kind of like the work that I have been doing with colleagues. It hasn’t been difficult work at all because my colleagues in senior leadership are on board.

LASSITER: Varma said despite her early involvement, the celebration has grown to where it’s much easier to arrange every year, and requires less direct involvement from University management.

VARMA: I think that now it has a life of its own that we can support. So many people know about it and are already, like, even though this just ended, they’re already thinking about next year. With Professor Moses being so committed to the ways that we work with the community on this event, it seems that now we’ve provided the structure, we’ve provided the knowledge that the University supports this, and it has this, its own momentum to keep moving forward.

LASSITER: I sat down with Moses before the event on Saturday, where she told me about her expectations, and what new additions attendees could expect to see this year.

MOSES: This year’s theme is, you know, We Are the Noise: The Echoes of Our Ancestors. So we have things like noisemakers and we have organizations who are going to be tabling at the event to help us in creating other noisemaking things. We really want music and, you know, the crowds to be very lively this year.

This event is very unique in that we’re not expecting folks to pay for, you know, the food or a lot of the activities that we have. The only thing that folks are contributing to are the Black vendors who are there selling stuff from their shops and supporting Black businesses.

Because it is mainly free, we want to make sure the budget’s pretty tight. So I would say organizing first, making sure that budget is tight, getting our theme together, then doing a call for organizations and vendors to participate.

LASSITER: Aside from free food and Black-owned businesses, the event featured multiple musicians and speakers. Rose Brewer, a professor of  African American & African Studies at the University, was one of those speakers.

Brewer said she was invited by Moses to speak as part of the opening session for the event, after the parade. While she acknowledged the importance of Juneteenth as a holiday, she wanted to dive deeper into the history surrounding it and give listeners an expanded understanding of the context.

ROSE BREWER: I accepted because to me, this is a historical question, that it’s not simply a celebration, although freedom is an important component of the Black struggle in this country. But it represented an opportunity for me to lay out a broader historical context. That although Juneteenth certainly is an earmark event because more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the enslaved Africans in Texas still had not been free.

My point was that the struggle didn’t begin with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. I certainly lifted up the fact that the involuntary enslavement of Black people in the society, the resistance to it, went on for 250 years. Juneteenth is a culmination of that, and post-Juneteenth is a continuation of the struggle for freedom. Actually Juneteenth, in some parts, is called Freedom Day, or Freedom, or Jubilee. So it represents a particular node in terms of the Black freedom struggle.

LASSITER: As the days leading up to the event got shorter and shorter, things seemed to be running smoothly. Moses had been leading the planning committee in preparations for the event, Brewer was preparing to speak, word had been put out, people were made aware of when and where to go.

Everything had been meticulously planned, right up to the day of the event. The stage was set, the vendors were vending, the parade was past… and then it started to rain.

BREWER: You know, it was delayed a bit.


BREWER:  The rain happened the entire day and into the night.

LASSITER: A whole lot.

BREWER: The crowd obviously was much smaller than it might have been. People did the best they can.

LASSITER: However, even though Ramírez Fernández was there when the rain started coming down, she said she didn’t feel upset or worried about the success of the event. Instead, she felt a completely different emotion: nostalgia.

RAMÍREZ FERNÁNDEZ: I was with the vendors when the rain started to come down, like in sheets. But as I mentioned, one of my most loving memories from Puerto Rico is like running around and being in the rain because it’s warm rain. And so I had not experienced warm rain like that, you know, here because it’s always so cold.

So I was like, “Oh, this is great. This is just like, you know, being back home and just playing in the rain and being with your friends.” So for me, the rain was just not a big problem. The people, the vendors were, like, so upbeat and just, you know, it’s just rain we’re blessed because we have rain.

LASSITER: Before we began our interview, Ramírez Fernández and I found out we had shared Puerto Rican heritage. She said the warm rain that was falling during Saturday’s event reminded her of growing up on the Island. It gave her comfort, and served as a chance to show the resilience of the community.

RAMÍREZ FERNÁNDEZ: I will say there was just a sense of hope and a sense of lightness. People talking about all the other opportunities for us to continue to do the work together. So this has given, I think members of the community that I spoke to, you know, a sense of hope. 

VARMA: I came as the sheets of rain continued and did not let up. I was so impressed that the vendors and the community members, they were there until we packed up. We packed up an hour early. It was pouring down rain the entire time I was there and people were still engaged in all of the spaces, getting haircuts, doing the art stuff, getting food.

Then what I really loved was seeing everyone band together to break down the site. Folding chairs and tables and tarps and we were all just drenched. And the thing is everyone was chatting with each other and still enjoying the whole experience. There were still over a thousand people that came across the day, so it was still a great turnout.

LASSITER: I did reach out to Moses for an additional comment after the event ended, but she felt so exhausted after needing to make all these short-notice adjustments that she told me she was taking some time off to rest. 

Which was completely understandable, given the literal whirlwind she’d just gone through. But she and the other interviewees for this episode did say that the University putting on a celebration like this is a beacon to other institutions, through rain or shine.

MOSES: We’re the University of Minnesota. We are a Research-1 university and for us to put our stamp, our name, on something like this gives an event like this validity. So I think it’s important that institutions with power are able to change the narrative; are able to dismantle systems of oppression. We’re able to disrupt the status quo because we’re seeing in our country the huge fight against things around Black history, and it’s really important that we stand up to support what our ancestors have done.

BREWER: We’re four years out from the uprising around George Floyd and the issues are still relevant. The whole question of policing, the whole question of the tremendous disparities in terms of education, in terms of access to employment, housing. The University has as much a responsibility to speak to those issues as it does supporting a holiday such as Juneteenth.

VARMA: I think the example that we said is that we honor and respect the community that we’re working with. We elevate their voices, and we’re a huge predominantly white institution and we check that at the door when we’re doing all of the things that are part of Juneteenth. I love that about this event and I love that we have been so thoughtful about that.

RAMÍREZ FERNÁNDEZ: The way that I see the University of Minnesota is an anchor, as an anchor institution and what that means, is anchoring all of our communities and the people that form our communities. At a time where it seems like the world has forgotten that, the commitment that everybody had made, you know, or they felt very strongly back in 2020. And the University of Minnesota is here. It’s just honoring its commitment. It’s about the love, you know? You feel the love, you know, you show the love.

MOSES: We understand this is a historical moment. This is something that we will continue to remember and it’s something that we have to remember if we want to move in a more futuristic way in regard to equity and anti-racism and anti-oppression that will be happening throughout our community. 

LASSITER: During our interview, Ramírez Fernández and Varma told me the University is already taking feedback for next year’s celebration, not even a week after this one happened. Despite the sudden rainstorms, everyone involved with the event showed a deep sense of pride with how the organizers reacted and the attendees responded. Whether the day is full of shining sun or massive monsoons, the community remains committed to showing up, and the University will always provide a place to celebrate.

This episode was written by Alex Lassiter and produced by Kaylie Sirovy. As always, we appreciate you listening in and feel free to send a message to our email inbox at [email protected] with any questions, comments or concerns. I’m Alex, and this has been In The Know. Take care, y’all.

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