A vision for the Black folks of Humboldt County
Visualize a medium sized room full of 60 people. Sixty Black people. Black people with vibrant smiles, warm hugs and endless knowledge. Old knowledge and young knowledge that is mutually retained against a local community that feels unwelcoming to most, if not all, in the room.
Tables and chairs are lined up with red, black and green table cloths. A long table at the edge of the room holds trays of food: shrimp, grits, potatoes, biscuits, gravy, fruit, cornbread, etc. Four gentlemen from the Black Male Empowerment Network (BMEN) are running in and out of the neighboring kitchen as they finish preparing the righteous food that is soon to be enjoyed by their community.
As 9 a.m. creeps up, folks are finding a seat at a table and wrapping up their conversations about the adventures they encountered the previous day to the networking they can utilize to promote one another’s success.
Steve Bell, the visionary lead organizer of BMEN, clinked his glass while asking for everyone’s attention as they quickly debrief the vision of the Saturday morning breakfast. Steve Bell acknowledged the empowering black presence in the room and paid respect to their African ancestors, including Ida B. Wells.
“I want to thank our African ancestors… Without them, we wouldn’t be here. And to our elders sitting in the back, we see you and we thank you.”Steve Bell
BMEN began in September 2014 when Steve Bell and his wife Ramona Bell, Ph.D., a Humboldt State critical, race, gender & sexuality studies professor acknowledged the powerlessness that follows Black people across the country with every fatal shooting of Black males, by authority. At this point in time, it was Michael Brown who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson.
“At that time people in the community were looking at black people and asking ‘How do you feel about what happened?’” Steve Bell said. “I didn’t feel it appropriate in answering that question, but more appropriately I wanted to know how the other Black people in the community felt about it.”
After much organization, Steve Bell created a safe space where Black men could gather and feel at peace with themselves and in their community. He started a breakfast that takes place on the first Saturday of every month, and is open to Black men only. However, on Feb. 1, the first day of Black Liberation Month, BMEN decided to open their doors to Black women as well. Although it is not to continue as a regular occurrence, BMEN plans to hold another breakfast that invites the Black women of the community.
“We’ve built up the strength, and we’ve got up to speed to the point where we now understand that this thing is so good, it’s time to share with the sisters.”Steve Bell
The women’s attendance heightened the communal atmosphere in the room. From elders who have been in the area for 40 years to young folks who are completing their final year in middle school or high school, every woman was happy to be there and every man felt fortunate to have them there.
Corliss Bennet, Ph.D., HSU’s director of student life outcomes, was one of the women invited to the BMEN breakfast. Bennet moved to Humboldt County in 2016 after leaving University of Southern California’s Center for Black & Student Affairs director position behind. She expressed her slow adjustment to the Humboldt County community and shared how different it was from the only other place she called home, South Los Angeles.
“Being able to be here today was really crazy,” Bennet said. “It was a room full of us, and not just students but full of adults that have been living here for 30, 40 years when I am struggling with the three and a half years that I have been here. For me it was just very touching to be able to see that and be a part of it.”
It is the touching feeling that Steve Bell aimed for. He wants students and community members, both new to the area and familiar with the area, to know that they are not alone. When the BMEN breakfast started, Steve Bell initially held the gathering at the Samoa Cookhouse, with a purpose.
“The Samoa cookhouse was originally for Loggers,” Steve Bell said. “They would meet there and when Humboldt County was in its infancy, black people were not even thought of. Imagine the Samoa Cookhouse with all of these Black brothers. We started to come together for the symbolism.”
Steve Bell and his wife want to continue to create spaces for the Black people of Humboldt County so it is understood that they do have a safe space, they are recognized and there is a community that supports each other.
“There’s history and years of Black death at the arm of the state,” Ramona Bell said. “Out here, there weren’t any spaces where we came together and as Black folks we wanted to create a space where we can come together and support each other.”
Correction: In the print version of this story we mislabeled the name of this organization. The correct name is the Black Male Empowerment Network.