Now 20 years old, Communiversity certifies Stone’s vision
Sonja Haynes Stone was not in attendance at the recent 20th anniversary celebration of Communiversity, the educational outreach program inspired by her work. The beloved professor passed away unexpectedly in 1991, leaving behind Carolina students and colleagues who would find themselves changed by her example.
In 1992, a handful of students at the Black Cultural Center (now the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History) honored her memory by starting Communiversity in their cramped 900-square-foot corner of the FPG Student Union.
Their “Saturday college” model was a direct lesson from Stone. Each Saturday, they transported children from a community housing project to Carolina where they provided help with schoolwork and an introduction to the academic and social life of a college campus.
The available space ballooned in 2004 when the 44,500-square-foot Stone Center opened its doors. This year the program added an after-school site at Carrboro Elementary to reach more students. And the handful of volunteers – ranging from education majors to athletes – has, at times, been more than the center could accommodate.
Last Friday (April 20) evening, Communiversity marked its 20th anniversary with a celebration that included musical performances, past and present participants, parents, volunteers and staff. State Superintendent June Atkinson attended and gave special remarks. To honor the program, former UNC basketball player Brendan Haywood made a $10,000 gift via the Brendan Haywood Single Parent’s Family Fund, his first gift to UNC.
“(Stone) was one of those people in the academy who was at the beginning of service-oriented initiatives on campus,” said Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center. “She believed educational endeavors at the highest level should never become detached from the community outside campus.”
If Stone could have been here for the anniversary celebration, she would already have been a step ahead, Jordan said. “She’d have said, ‘OK, 20 years, that’s good. But what can we do next?’”
The power of connection
In the midst of change and growth, the heart of Communiversity has stayed the same, said Chelsea Mosley, the program’s director. It remains a direct extension of Stone’s work.
“The people who volunteer here still genuinely care about the students and are extremely dedicated. If you ever wonder about the mission of this group, just look at the name – Communiversity,” she said. “We want kids to see that connection, and we are here to make that relationship happen for them.”
Local students from kindergarten to fifth grade are identified by school social workers and principals, not only for what they might gain from the program, but also what they might contribute. Communiversity is most effective, said Mosley, when it has a true balance.
“I look at it in thirds – one-third might be underachieving, one-third might be on target and one-third might be above target,” she said. “It’s not just the volunteers impacting them. The kids feed off each other.”
Many students, though living in the University’s backyard, come from backgrounds where college might not be a first priority. Or, they have not been able to take advantage of the range of cultural activities and resources that abound on a nearby campus.
“They’ve grown up in this area and look at us and say, ‘You go to that school?’ They leave saying ‘I can do this one day. I can be like this,’” Mosley said.
It’s that University connection that Mosley had seen shape paths as a Communiversity volunteer her four years at Carolina. She became director after graduating in 2011.
“We show the kids that academics can be fun,” she said. “We give them a wide spectrum of what goes on here.”
Volunteers are in charge of transporting the students to the University – even riding the bus or a taxi with them. They offer homework assistance for the first hour before moving on to cultural enrichment, which can mean anything from a trip to the Ackland Art Museum or a campus tour to lessons in Korean culture, a visit from a drum percussion group or a demonstration from a local beekeeper.
Cultural literacy is another arm of the program – helping students see the roots and history that have helped define their culture.
“It’s important for young people to see and understand the precedents that have come before them,” Jordan said. “Maybe they’re into double-dutch, or hip-hop or gospel music. What are the historical foundations of these things, or in their communities?”
The Stone Center, as one of the preeminent sites in the nation for the critical examination of African and African-American diaspora cultures, is a perfect crossroads for all these things, said Jordan. Over the years, he’s seen a breadth of Carolina students participate in the center’s programming.
“Stone Center programs are some of the most diverse on campus. It’s not only the attraction to the kind of work we’re doing here, but also a testament to the spirit and nature of the kind of student who comes to UNC,” he said. “We’ve been surrounded by a diverse set of people who have been very supportive of us on this campus.”
The relatively small Stone Center staff is an all-hands-on-deck crew, Mosley said, and everyone is involved in Communiversity.
The wealth of volunteers is a happy problem that validates the importance and universal draw of the work, said Jordan.
“At one point we had about 100 volunteers just waiting for something to do,” he said. “So, it’s good to know that students feel connected to their community, and it also makes those original founders of the Saturday college model seem like visionaries. People just assumed it wouldn’t last.”