The ground floor of the ARCH building is buzzing. Through one of the glass entranceways, students work with laptops out, while others discuss the relative merits of Drake and the longevity of his career versus Kanye’s (already over, apparently). Above low-slung couches, the white walls are punctuated with African prints and sculpture. This is Brian Peterson’s domain. A three-time Penn graduate, Peterson became the director of Makuu: the Black Cultural Center, after earning both a master’s and Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education. He completed his undergraduate degree in 1993 with a major in engineering.
Peterson’s influence is gentle and understated, with a light but powerful hand on the reins, guiding students toward their future paths, encouraging them to be peer leaders and to lift others up as they progress. Throughout, he is student-focused, creating an empowering and welcoming climate for the Penn community. “Students are claiming their own identity and their own spaces,” Peterson says. “Makuu is extremely diverse. It’s hard for people to see that because ‘everybody’s Black,’ but people are coming from so many different backgrounds. It’s hugely important that everyone feels that Makuu is a safe space for them, however they identify.”
Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. of the Annenberg School for Communication, who was on Peterson’s Ph.D. dissertation committee, says Peterson works “innovatively and ambitiously to help make Penn as inclusive as possible. He brings both passion and professional expertise to such issues in ways that make him a fantastic leader and collaborator.”
Peterson supports a variety of Black student groups as part of his work, including the umbrella organization UMOJA and the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. His commitment to higher education access is seen through Ase Academy, an academic and cultural enrichment program in which middle and high school students attend workshops led by Penn students on topics from public speaking to entrepreneurship. “Our kids are looking for something,” Peterson says, adding that Penn's resources can be used to elevate the West Philadelphia community.
Makuu also operates the Robeson Cooper Scholars Program, which identifies and nurtures students interested in interdisciplinary social justice. Through weekly dinners, Peterson brings resources to students and facilitates their academic and social development. An annual Kwanzaa celebration brings students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and community members together to celebrate and recommit to the spirit of collaboration, self-determination, and purpose.
“Wherever we are is Makuu,” Peterson says, who still remembers when the ARCH building was occupied by the Christian Association. The Gold Standard rented a portion of the building, and there was a bar downstairs where the cultural organizations are now, Peterson recalls. “Now,” he says, “it’s a hub for ideas, community, and self-affirmation.”
Originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Peterson came to Penn in 1989 to study engineering. He graduated in ‘93 but never left. He worked in College Houses and Academic Services for 17 years while completing his master’s before, “for some reason,” he says, “the Ph.D. bug bit.” Starting in 2007, he completed his degree in Graduate School of Education degree in 2013, focusing on race/class intersections. “I would have finished sooner,” he says, “but there was a lot happening.”
“A lot” refers to Peterson’s seven-person family. His wife, Faith Peterson, a doctor who does community-based birth equity work, is a Penn graduate as well. They have five children, including a 17-year-old daughter, Nia, who was accepted early decision to Penn’s Class of 2024.
Peterson’s quiet service is seen throughout his home and professional life. He remains a confidant for many, possibly because his own career wasn’t a clear trajectory. Like many young students, Peterson first started out in a track that he felt was sensible, practical. “In many ways, I realized that my attraction to engineering was because people told me it was a good thing,” he says. He thought he would code for education before realizing the passion was absent.
Turns out he was able to put his undergraduate degree to good use. “Engineering as a curriculum pushes you to think about other considerations in different ways and how they can work together,” Peterson says. “My engineering sensibility was around aligning systems and putting things together. Engineers are problem solvers. We can’t have the conversation until we expand our thinking about how the pieces work together.” Peterson is still building, but these days, he’s working with networks and organizations rather than code.
But first, he had to take the GRE. “When I was young,” Peterson says, “I didn’t read. I hated reading. I was petrified of the GRE. I did not like standardized tests.” On reflection, he thought, “Am I going to let this exam stand in the way of this thing? If I want to continue to take these courses, I have to take these tests.” Peterson committed to the GRE and had six weeks to do vocabulary prep and reteach himself algebra. “Finally, I did really well on the test," he says. “You have to name the things in front of you and then figure out what are you going to do about it.”
Adrian Evans IV of Hackensack, New Jersey, is one of Peterson’s mentees. He describes Peterson as “calm, conscientious. He’s like your favorite uncle.” Not only is Peterson supportive, Evans says, but he has “an extreme amount of foresight. He has plans for you that you don’t even know you have for yourself, as most parents do.” Evans took Peterson’s class Education in American Culture and served as a teaching assistant for the course as well. “It gave me a voice,” Evans says. “That class made me feel like I had knowledge to give and like I had value to add to this university. That class gave me the courage to keep speaking and keep advocating.”
Peterson began mentoring during his undergraduate career, and continued as a graduate advisor at Du Bois College House, where he met Howard C. Stevenson of the Graduate School of Education, who refers to Peterson as a “quiet, compassionate genius.” While supporting students at Du Bois, Peterson contemplated the role of race and culture in higher education. Not all the Black students in his undergraduate class finished, Peterson recalls. Those who did, didn't always fare well. There was a broad gap between the Penn experience and what Black students needed to thrive and feel welcome on campus. “You always felt like people thought you weren’t supposed to be here, or that you got in on an athletic scholarship, which Penn doesn’t even have,” Peterson says.
“You could graduate with a solid GPA but not know how to navigate the professional spaces to secure a quality job. Or, you could have a mediocre GPA and feel inadequate and not apply for internships, whereas other students with the same GPA (and likely fewer student organizations) had connections and multiple offers.” Much of the early work in the 1960s and ‘70s was done by Black student advocates, Peterson says, which contributed to the diversity of Penn today.
As students in the early ‘90s, Peterson says, “We carried that social justice torch and were trying to do the work, but our privilege had expanded a bit. We saw a certain sense of empowerment, but what do we do with it?” Peterson’s answer to this question has been to encourage student organizations and community activism. “He’s spent time creating educational networks for students for as long as he has been here,” Stevenson says. “He has been a force of nature.”
Of course, even Peterson gets worn down. “I’m very even-keeled, and I see that as a gift,” he says. “But it does get to be a lot. It takes a toll.” He manages this through variety, being able to fluctuate between teaching, writing, talking, and planning. He works it all into his daily flow. A “mix of things going on,” Peterson says, keeps him balanced.
“I am his logistics person,” says Daina Richie-Troy, who serves as one of Makuu’s associate directors. “Brian is a visionary. He’s very big picture. And he places the day-to-day work that we do in a larger context,” she says. She originally met Peterson while she was an undergraduate and he was her graduate advisor at Du Bois. Richie-Troy, who predates Peterson at Makuu, was in the position from 2007 to 2013, but left after the birth of her twins. Peterson, she says, was “one of the reasons I went back to work as a mother,” adding that as a father of five, Peterson prioritizes balance and wellness.
For Peterson, the position at Makuu “became a way to center everything I’ve done part time,” he says. “It became like a calling.” Peterson, who had spent his life doing a lot of college-access work, understood the conflicts and struggles that many Black students would have at Penn. He talks about the “hidden curriculum” of internships and the value of investing in time on campus. “That’s the beauty I see now, my generation didn’t have that kind of access,” he says. “You’re being given the keys to innovation here.”
One of the connections Peterson has made is with New York Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland, who he initially met as an undergraduate. They reconnected at an alumni event, when Copeland, who earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Wharton), talked about his dream to teach a course on financial literacy. With help from former undergraduate Ivy Sole, the two men worked together to create a syllabus, which was approved as a course within Urban Studies as Inequity and Empowerment. (Its nickname is Life 101.) Peterson, who finds teaching “therapeutic,” is offering the course with Copeland again this semester. They are passionate about the curriculum. After taking the course last year, one student was inspired to consolidate her loans and begin living at home to pay off debt. “She quoted me interest rates,” Peterson says. “We’re enabling her to be financially conscious and empowered, with an eye on the long game.”
Once his mentees begin to achieve success, Peterson encourages them to lift up other students as peer leaders. “It definitely doesn’t need to be cutthroat,” he says. “Institution building is legacy,” he says. “If we can connect students to different ideas and they can create educational spaces, nonprofits, and business incubators, then we’re closing the wealth gap.”
Britney Firmin, a political science and Africana Studies double major, is one of Makuu’s Robeson Cooper scholars. She says the program has encouraged her to hone study skills and develop a four-year plan for her academic career. Through her coursework at Penn, “I became interested in the history of how law has been used as a form of social control against marginalized communities,” Firmin says. Her long-term goal is to become an employment and anti-discrimination lawyer.
In between classes, she recharges at Makuu. “It’s an outlet for me as a place to transition,” she says. “Makuu makes me feel like I’m not alone.” Firmin’s freshman year marked the first time living on her own, living out of state, and living without her family. Hailing from the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, Firmin identifies as Haitian and Jamaican. “Coming to Philadelphia exposed me to how much larger the Black community is in a way that I had never experienced in Boston,” she says, adding that Penn’s Black community provided exposure to the diversity of the African Diaspora. “Penn is a space for you to craft your own academic journey and pursuit,” she says, “but a lot of times it’s hard to manage that without having someone who knows that process.” That’s where Peterson came in.
“Talk to Brian,” Evans says, “and he’ll figure out your life for you. If you don’t know Brian, you need to because he’s able to connect you to people you need to be connected to. If he doesn’t know the answers, he knows who does.” Peterson is present for students personally and academically, Evans says. He collaborates with them on future plans, “and it doesn’t stop with graduation. He’s there for alumni and the community. So many of us would not be here if not for him. Would not be here, would not be successful. He teaches us how to thrive at Penn, just not survive. He’s just kind of like the godfather. He sees everything and has it up in his head and manages to take care of us. We always need his push to keep going and his guidance overall.”
Stevenson agrees with this assessment. Peterson has kept students from leaving the university, he says. “Most people don’t know the kind of influence he has, but if you ask the alumni, you will find a swell of emotion. He’s a giant for keeping students on the campus and not giving up when they were at the worst moment in their lives,” adding, “He’s a healer. Whatever he says he’s going to do, he does it. He’s trustworthy. He has integrity.”
Peterson shows up for students because he understands the pressure they're under. “Black students at Penn often can’t just be students,” Peterson says. “They have to do race work, have to navigate structures, have to put on masks, have to turn the other cheek, have to fit in, have to silence themselves, have to represent the race, have to do it without access, have to advocate for resources, and then have to do the same work that their peers are doing while those peers don't have to do all of these other things.” Peterson notes these struggles are not isolated to the Black community and is heartened by the progress that has been made since his undergraduate days in the early ‘90s. But he still feels the need to persevere, to carry that torch. “Given the history of race in America and in Philadelphia,” he says, “being Black at Penn has been and continues to be a specific struggle.”