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Entrance to the New Mexico Roundhouse. African-American Day at the New Mexico Legislature is a biannual event to celebrate the contributions of Black New Mexicans to the state. 

African-American Day at Legislature celebrates and furthers progress in New Mexico

On Friday, Feb. 10, hundreds gathered at the state Capitol in Santa Fe to advocate for legislation that supports the Black community in the state. This was a part of African-American Day, a biannual celebration to recognize achievements in the African American community and educate on legislation which impacts them.

This year’s African-American Day celebration was primarily focused on highlighting and educating on legislation surrounding African American issues. Specific legislation advocated for at the Capitol included a bill sponsored by Rep. Pameyla Herndon, the Bennie Hargrove Bill, which passed in the House on Thursday, Feb. 9. The bill would make it illegal to store a firearm so that it is not out of reach of children, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Lanthia Miles, one of the original organizers of African-American Day and the current president of the African American Legislative Day Council, spoke about the lack of celebrating the day in 2021 due to the pandemic and how they are celebrating it this year.

“You know, we didn’t celebrate African-American Day in Santa Fe in 2021 … This year, we’re gonna have a smaller celebration as far as entertainment and stuff like that. We’re focusing on the legislative process and how we can make changes or affect the laws and educate our community as to how that comes about,” Miles said.

Miles got involved with the celebration through her relationship with Albuquerque civil rights activist Alice Faye Kent Hoppes. Hoppes was a prolific force in the state: alongside being the original “brainchild” of African-American Day and co-chair of the first ever African-American Day event, she was a president of the Albuquerque NAACP chapter and director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs, according to Miles.

“She also served as co-chair of the first event. She was a civil rights advocate who believed that African Americans in New Mexico deserved a day of celebration at the New Mexico State Legislature, so she approached former representative Cheryl Williams Stapleton with her vision,” Miles said.

From there, Stapleton carried legislation to recognize African-American Day in the Legislature, and the act was officially passed in 1999. The event was well-received by both legislators and the community, according to Miles.

The African American Student Services program from the University of New Mexico was present at the event to advocate for funding for services they provide. These included the Summer Scholars Bridge Academy that helps students transition into their first year of college, student scholarships, first-year retention programs, hiring more student staff and funding different excursions for students, according to Dannelle Kirven, student success specialist and social sedia coordinator.

“(We're here to) talk about the important work we're doing on campus and African American student services to provide a lot of resources and support services to Black students, as well as programming,” Kirven said. “... We need additional funding to do those types of things and to reach more students with our programs and our services.”

The importance of the center on campus is to provide students with a “safe haven or a home away from home,” and a place to meet and talk about shared experiences, according to Kirven.

“If we did not exist, where would black students go and feel truly represented? Because we have to face the reality of the situation: these spaces are historically not for Black students, and I need a space,” Kirven said. And even still to this day, we have made a lot of progress. But there's still lots of microaggressions on campus and lots of things that people kind of (overlook).”

The keynote address was given by Lenell Walton, an educator in the Albuquerque Public Schools system who received her doctorate of philosophy from the University of New Mexico in special education with concentration in disability studies and critical race theory. She spoke about the importance of Black literature and study.

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“This is also a story about the power of Black studies, the importance of Black intellectual tradition and the relevance of Black experience,” Walton said.

Walton also underscored the importance of educators to play a role in ensuring that content is being taught. She said the graduation rate for Black students in the state is 67%, attributing the percentage to the school-to-prison pipeline. Black students are incarcerated at five times the rate of their white peers, according to the ACLU. This is because schools are more likely to outsource disciplinary action to law enforcement rather than resolving it within the school — even more so when a school has an officer, according to VOX.

“It’s still the job of those who work inside the system to inspire and motivate, to understand their racial reality, to engage Black students with the intellectual content and instructional styles that will foster a stronger and trusting relationship between student and teacher, if we're ever close the belief gap that says with so much velocity, that the American dream is not for young black people,” Walton said.

For Miles, African-American Day is especially important because it gives activists and leaders in African American communities across the state to come together in fellowship and promote change they want to see across each of their individual communities, and on a broader level, it gives African Americans an opportunity to their celebrate achievements and contributions, according to Miles and Kirven.

“It is definitely important because during this month, everyone is reminded of the contributions of Black people to this country and internationally to globally,” Kirven said. “The strong significance of having it during Black History Month is because we're already celebrating and highlighting the excellence of Black people and their contributions to this nation.”

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle

Maddie Pukite is the Managing Editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at managingeditor@dailylobo.com, or on Twitter @maddogpukite. 

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