University of Washington: UW celebrates 50 years of the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center

Visit the University of Washington’s Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center once, and you’ll be impressed by its size, the historic murals and the number of resources available to students.

Go a second time and you’re likely to make friends, feel at ease and find what many students call a “home away from home.”

“It is like a totally family vibe,” said Calen Garrett, a UW junior studying psychology with an eye on medical school.

Garrett arrived on campus from his home in Concord, California, at 18, and felt immediately overwhelmed and alone. But he quickly found the Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, or Kelly ECC, and that set him on a path toward academic success and campus leadership. He’s now a student senator, president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and vice chair of the Student Advisory Council in the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, OMA&D.

“I really felt like I wasn’t alone in my experience, because a lot of people that were in that room at the Kelly ECC were in the same situation that I was: I’m the only Black person in this class, I’m the only Black person in my major, I’m the only Black person who lives in the same residence halls as I did,” Garrett said. “And it was really refreshing for me to not feel isolated.”

The 26,000-square-foot building on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and Northeast 40th Street provides study and meeting space for students and groups, a computer lab, cultural conference rooms, multipurpose rooms, a dance studio and a 161-seat auditorium.

It also has a history.

Born of the demands of the Black Student Union in 1968, on Thursday, the community will celebrate 50 years of the UW ECC.

portrait of man outside
Rickey Hall

“It’s always been students leading, and we see that still today. They believe that this is their institution, as they should, and they believe that they should be treated fairly and equitably,” said Rickey Hall, vice president of OMA&D and university diversity officer. “The Kelly ECC was established because back then, it was important for students of color to see representations of themselves on campus. It is just as important now as it was then.”

The 50th Anniversary & Commemoration is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday, March 3 at the Kelly ECC. For more information contact mikese@uw.edu.

Back in 1968, UW students from the Black Student Union staged a sit-in to demand a minority educational program. Despite UW’s sprawling campus, the number of Black, Latinx, Native American and other minorities enrolled was miniscule. The protesters wanted the UW to recruit, retain, educate and graduate more Native American and Alaskan Native students and students of color, and diversify the faculty.

After months of discussions, the UW opened the Office of Minority Affairs, which evolved into OMA&D, launched the Special Education Program (SEP – later to be known as the Educational Opportunity Program) and in 1972 opened the Ethnic Cultural Center/Theater.

Former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, helped lead the 1968 protests. He recalled that students demanded the establishment of a place on campus where they could go to feel more comfortable and less alienated.

“It would be theirs,” said Gossett, who’s also the 2021 UW Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, a UW Wondrous 100, 1975 Charles E. Odegaard Award recipient and a graduate of the class of ’71.



Learn more about the Kelly ECC in this KING5 story.

Originally, the ECC was to be a temporary, 10-year facility located on the west side of campus. Progress was made in the years that followed, with increasing representation of Native American and Alaskan Native and students and faculty of color. Gossett noted that in those early years, enrollment from underrepresented populations at UW swelled.

New policies helped diversify the student population, but in 1998 the state legislature passed I-200, which eliminated the use of affirmative action on campus. Part of the university’s response to the legislation was a renewed investment in the ECC, including a $1.75 million grant to renovate and improve the building. In 2001, after three years of negotiations, design, development and construction, the ECC reopened.

Then, about a decade later, in 2013, the campus celebrated the grand opening of the newly renovated Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, named in honor of the late Samuel E. Kelly, the inaugural vice president for minority affairs at the UW and the university’s first African American senior administrator.

“Sam Kelly was a really unique person, with high character and significant experience,” Gossett said. “We wouldn’t have made the progress we made without him.”

The Kelly ECC became the largest and oldest stand-alone college cultural center in the United States. It is also the first UW building named for an African American, and it houses 22 historical murals that were brought over and restored from the original building.

“The Kelly ECC is such a significant piece of how students express their identities and where they find community on campus. Today, there are more than 100 Kelly ECC affiliated registered student organizations, many of whom have dedicated office space in the building itself. The building is impressive, but it’s the students that bring it to life,” said Kristian Wiles, the assistant vice president for Student Success in OMA&D.

For Letauaeletise “Tise” Hunkin, a senior from Spanaway who is double majoring in American ethnic studies and medical anthropology with a double minor in diversity and Oceania and Pacific Islander studies, the ECC offered a safe place on campus where she could be herself, hang out, nap, watch TV and study.

“It’s really hard for underrepresented students to find a place where they feel comfortable enough to be themselves or safe to do so,” said Hunkin, who chairs the ASUW Pacific Islander Student Commission. “We’re all able to just be our authentic selves, and I feel like it’s hard to do that at a school as big as ours, like making a big campus smaller.”

Wendi Zhou is a junior double majoring in history and philosophy. She’s chair of OMA&D’s Student Advisory Board and has benefited from OMA&D educational programs supporting underrepresented students in the graduate school application process.

“It really does show the importance of student activism and creating an environment where students can feel respected by the institutions that they’re a part of,” she said. “It also reflects an ongoing commitment to promoting justice and equity in our institutions.”

She’s using her platform to call for more to be done. The university needs additional services, especially mental health, for students with marginalized identities, she said. And the Black Student Union continues to use campus activism to call for change. In January, the group updated demands first made in 2020: They’re asking the administration to improve campus safety, connect Black students with Black faculty, remove racist statues, create a Black dorm and provide healing circles for Black students.

“I’m very confident that the university has not yet achieved satisfactory stature where we can say equity has been established,” Gossett said. He blames state policies, like I-200, but also acknowledges that students today face many of the same struggles he did five decades ago.

Still, it’s important to celebrate successes and acknowledge the student activists and leaders working to ensure UW is a space that respects all students, Zhou said.

“There’s still work to be done, but what has been accomplished over the years is really inspiring,” Zhou said.

Diana Paola Vergara, a first-generation, first-year student from Auburn, sought out the Kelly ECC after reading about it on Instagram. As an undocumented student, she’s sought counseling from Leadership Without Borders, and, like so many other undergraduates, finds commonality and peers at the center. Vergara, who plans to major in business and labor studies, also chairs Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán, or M.E.Ch.A.

“As a person of color, you’re very afraid of coming to this new place where you have no idea and you don’t know what to expect,” she said. “But as soon as you come and you see that there is this place where there’s other students like you and they offer you hope and so many other resources, you kind of find peace there.”

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