25 years of UMOJA at Penn

Penn’s organization for Black student life on campus has provided outreach, collaboration, and unity since 1998.

A man wearing a hoodie that reads "Inspiration" walk among a group of people seated at round tables in the ARCH building
Curtis K. Redding speaking at the December 2023 celebration of UMOJA’s 25 years. (Image: Tarah Paul)

UMOJA, an umbrella organization for Black student life on campus, celebrates its 25th anniversary this academic year. The group’s primary role is collaboration and advocacy, says Shannon Brooks, a third-year student from New York City studying real estate and legal studies in the Wharton School. She and Ngozi Agoh, a third-year student from Spring, Texas, studying psychology, are the group’s co-chairs. 

Serving on the board “showed me how much the Black community really needs from Penn and how important UMOJA is in helping to get those things for Black students,” says Agoh, who joined organization’s board in 2022.

Nine people stand underneath a screen that reads "The Legacy of UMOJA 25th anniversary celebration"
UMOJA members stand with Berry and Redding at the December 2023 celebration. (Image: Tarah Paul)

Since its inception in 1998, UMOJA has spearheaded the Du Bois College House renovation; the 2014 ARCH renovation, when the cultural centers moved into the building; and the reimagining of the ARCH building. Most recently, UMOJA has secured priority housing at Du Bois College House for Robeson-Cooper Scholars, about 15 of whom are chosen each year for their interdisciplinary scholarship and interest in social justice.

The group serves as the political voice for Black students, advocating for representation and public safety, as well as providing funding and compiling resources for students. Brooks says.

“UMOJA gives students a certain confidence to tap into cultural or academic opportunities,” says Brian Peterson, director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, who works closely with UMOJA’s board. “They know that they have this community behind them.”

A group of six students wearing black, standing on the stairs so all our visible
The current UMOJA board, with Ngozi Agoh (bottom left) and Shannon Brooks (bottom right) in the first row.  (Image: Tarah Paul)

Makuu, which was founded in 2000, came about in response to a need to support Black students that UMOJA identified, Peterson says. “Part of what I love about UMOJA is its ability to bring Black Penn together to ask, What is it that your constituents are experiencing? How can we advocate? How can we mobilize? How can we tap into our alumni base? How can we speak on your behalf before administrators?” 

UMOJA was started by Rasool Berry, now a teacher, pastor, and media producer, and Curtis K. Redding, a senior manager at Deloitte. Berry, who graduated in 1999 from the College of Arts and Sciences, was president of the Black Student League during his second year at Penn. The following year, he did an independent study with Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology and the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, surveying the student body and looking at the issue of Black student recruitment and retention. This resulted in a paper called “What Every Black Student at Penn Should Know,” which gave rise to UMOJA, Berry says.

The first significant presence of Black students on campus came in the late 1960s and 1970s, in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Penn created the University of Pennsylvania College Achievement Program (PENNCAP), which evolved into the pre-orientation programs, to support students whose high school experience didn’t prepare them adequately for college, Berry says. 

A card showing two images taken during the same spot in the late 1990s, with people grouped around signs that say "UNITY" and "LOVE"
Historic images of UMOJA show the two founders, Rasool Berry (top, in white shirt and navy vest) and Curtis K. Redding (bottom center, in blue turtleneck).  (Image: Rasool Berry)

“Having grown up in Philly, Penn was never on my radar of something I could attain,” says Berry, who attended high school at Girard College in North Philadelphia. At Penn, he saw classmates leave because they weren’t being supported culturally or academically, Berry says. 

Now, academic support has been normalized. This shift has benefited all students, Berry says, especially those who identify as first-generation, low-income. “Tutoring is an assumption,” he says. “The stigma has significantly decreased.”

“It’s hard to overstate how significant of a paradigm shift it was,” Berry says, “at an institution like Penn, at an Ivy, where the assumption was: If you are here, you don’t need tutoring, and if you need tutoring, you should not be here.” 

Berry and Curtis returned to campus last December, where they were honored at a 25th anniversary celebration and heard stories of UMOJA as an incubator of Black student leadership, Berry says. “What was an idea back then is now a fun reality on campus.” 

UMOJA was conceived as a “league of leaders,” Peterson says. But beyond that, the group brings people together. Black Penn is not a monolith but consists of students with varied identities and experiences, Peterson says. With UMOJA, “you’re able to pull that together and think about what would be ideal for Black people in the future,” he says. “How can we be the best that we can be?” 

“In this very nuanced moment around race, identity, and politics,” Peterson says, “UMOJA means unity.”