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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life April 8, 2019

Mwangi Center: A Space for Community Building

Mwangi Center student coordinators 2019

Since it reopened last year after a major renovation, Smith’s Mwangi Cultural Center has emerged as a prime venue for student engagement and community building.

Whether it’s Zumba classes, discussions of the history of people of color in the Pioneer Valley or casual study groups, the center’s creative programming and outreach have made it an increasingly popular venue for students of color.

Renovations completed last year have provided new spaces, including a conference room, larger multipurpose room and a study lounge. Those spaces, combined with new outreach efforts, have helped widen the center’s reach among students.

“Since renovating Mwangi, the space feels and functions more like a cultural center,” says L’Tanya Richmond, dean of multicultural affairs. “Students of color have been able to find, build and sustain a vibrant community, while also gaining a sense of belonging.”

The addition of student coordinators at Mwangi has also “been a big draw," says Whitley Hadley, assistant director of multicultural affairs, who collaborates with students on programming ideas. “Not only do students feel a sense of ownership over the space, but having student coordinators is also indicative of how Smith is invested in maintaining and providing resources within the center.”

Opened in 1968 as the Afro-American Cultural Center, Mwangi was named in honor of Kenya’s first female physician, Dr. Ng’endo Mwangi ’61. While it was originally used by student unity organizations as office space, the center has successfully rebranded itself as a place for cultural gatherings and organizing, thanks to effective collaboration between the student groups and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

New outreach efforts include MwangiTalks, an email newsletter, where students can find interviews with their peers, as well as quick tips about topics such as funding resources and academic and professional opportunities for students of color.

The Multicultural Experience (ME!)—another recent center initiative funded by President Kathleen McCartney’s Innovations Challenge—is a series of events organized in partnership with other campus organizations and departments.

Events this semester have included Dining with Diversity, hosted by the Office of Alumnae Relations, through which 80 Smithies shared dinner with alums of color; and World Café, a teaching arts luncheon about diversity in the classroom hosted by Smith’s Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Science program, the Clark Science Center and the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning.

On a recent evening, members of Al-Iman, the Muslim students’ organization, were gathered in Mwangi’s multipurpose room for a weekly discussion session, while other students were studying or relaxing in the lounge and conference room.

Josephine Nyoike ’20, one of Mwangi’s new student coordinators, says having a space that can accommodate many different activities at once has meant unity organizations are using the center more often.

Since it reopened, she notes, Mwangi has become an important campus hub for conversations about racial bias and other issues important to students.

“Initially we had people come in and be really quiet,” Nyoike says. “Now people are more relaxed as they interact with the space. The conversations are more free flowing.”