King County Councilmember Larry Gossett visited the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC) yesterday to speak with current students and community members about his experiences with activism.
Gossett, a UW graduate, was a founder of the Black Student Union (BSU) on the UW campus and advocated for more enrollment of students of color. After graduating, Gossett served as the first supervisor of the Black Student Division in the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. In 2008, the UW Alumni Association recognized Gossett for his work in the Seattle community by including him in the “Wondrous 100,” a group of influential UW alumni.
Dr. Marisa Herrera, executive director of community building and inclusion at the ECC, began the event by acknowledging that the ECC is nearing its 45th year anniversary in the space, and 50th anniversary as an entity.
“We have had open doors for close to 50 years and we are the only building on campus named for a person of color,” Herrera said.
Herrera also recognized the program as a part of MLK week and expressed hope that Gossett will inspire students to follow in his footsteps.
“He has continued to rise to the occasion, scaled walls, and we are proud to be a part of his legacy,” Herrera said. “He planted a seed and look at what we have grown.”
Following Herrera, Asian Student Commission director Sam Le spoke about the “Gang of Four,” a group of community leaders who were active in promoting civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s. The members include Gossett, Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, and Bernie Whitebear.
“Hopefully acknowledging the giants that came before us will allow us to stand on their shoulders,” Le said.
Following a spoken word piece by Black Student Commission director Mariama Suwaneh and a short dinner, Gossett took the stage to reflect on his time at the UW. He began by summarizing the goals of the BSU he helped form.
“We were fortunate to have brilliant young brothers and sisters,” Gossett said.
Gossett stated that the BSU not only promoted the recruitment of more Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American students, but also more disadvantaged white students. In 1968, he said that the UW had only about 60 Black students out of 35,000. He also pointed out the low number of Latinx and Native American students on campus, and that they ended up joining the BSU because they did not have their own community.
Together, they demanded the development of a Black Studies program, a space for their groups to gather on campus, and a theater for them to express their culture.
“We wanted students on this campus to learn the truth and we also wanted a place to survive and feel comfortable,” Gossett said.
Gossett and the BSU were able to push progress by staging a sit-in on May 20, 1968 in the president’s office. Despite the UW Black community being small, several Seattle community members joined them for a total of 134 people. The following September, enrollment for Black, Latinx, and Native American students all went up.
Gossett concluded his speech by commenting on the current racial atmosphere in the United States.
“The [president-elect] has the great potential to exacerbate social problems,” Gossett said. “We cannot allow them to split us any way anymore.”
Reach News Editor Susana Machado at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @smacha1995