Answering Antagonism with an Acronym: Valerie Lewis-Mosley and the Birth of AHANA



 n the summer of 1975, before starting her freshman year, Valerie Lewis-Mosley, BC ’79, was walking through the halls of the Connell School of Nursing (CSON) on a tour for incoming black nursing students. Mary Dineen, then-dean of Nursing, spoke to the students individually about coming to Boston College. Ambitious from a young age, Lewis-Mosley asked Dineen about the honors program, because it would allow her to minor in the humanities.

The dean looked at Lewis-Mosley and said, “‘You have some mighty lofty goals don’t you. You just need to be focusing on being able to keep a C to stay in the nursing program,’” recalled Lewis-Mosley.

“Then I said to her, clear as day, ‘My name is Valerie D. Lewis,  I suggest that maybe you read my academic transcript from the high school I came from, and you will understand that a C is really not something that I aspire to,’” she said, chuckling.

Now retired from clinical practice at the New York Hospital-Weill Cornell University Medical Center, Lewis-Mosley came to Chestnut Hill from an all-girls Catholic high school, which inspired her tenacious disposition. When it came time to apply to colleges, her academic adviser guided her toward BC for the Black Talent Program (BTP), a program designed to attract students of color, which grew into the Options Through Education (OTE). The support system and dynamic of the BTP as well as the ability the program gave her to form a community on campus were some of the main reasons why Lewis-Mosley chose BC.

Dineen wasn’t the only person on campus who doubted the students of color in the nursing program. Lewis-Mosley explains that even fellow black students worried for her, as Nursing had a reputation for how the faculty within the department treated their black students.

“Upon [my] arrival at BC, even during the first few days, when the African-American students asked me about my major and I said I was in the [Connell] School of Nursing … the universal response was, you won’t be here next year,” she said.

While the doubt of others weighed on her shoulders, Lewis-Mosley knew she had come to BC’s campus to stay. In high school, although she was the only person of color in a graduating class of 110, she never felt ostracized from the community. The all-girls school was founded on a desire to empower women, a standard that was upheld by the Dominican nuns that served as the girls’ educational and spiritual directors.

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When Lewis-Mosley transitioned to BC her freshman year, she found herself in a vastly different environmentantagonistic is a common word in her vocabulary when she describes the administration. She describes being in classes where faculty members didn’t even try to hide their lack of enthusiasm about having her in their classroom.

“It showed me that there were people who would try and be destructive in the goals I had made for myself,” she said.

Lewis-Mosley arrived on campus in 1976, which she described as a very hostile time for the entire city of Boston. Amid the busing issues, students on campus began to criticize apathy toward the civil rights movement. In April 1976, a lawyer was attacked and beaten with an American flag in front of the Massachusetts State House.

“That was the environment that we were exposed to once we come into Boston during that time,” Lewis-Mosley said. “It was not unusual for students to be antagonized just walking across campus, particularly by white male students. We were always conscious about our safety.”

Surrounded by racial turmoil, Lewis-Mosley leaned on the other black students both in and out of the nursing program. At the time, Fenwick Hall was a safe space for students of color on BC’s campus. A year before the dorm started housing white males, it housed the accepted freshman of BTP, provided a haven for Lewis-Mosley and her peers, and offered a space for a multitude of cultural activities. Lewis-Mosley and her friends were also able to rely on a select few faculty members for support. But it was the BTP that she relied upon for the most support. When the University changed the name to Office of Minority Programs in 1977, Lewis-Mosley and her peers in the programs felt that BC had unfairly left them out of the decision.

“For many of the years, it was students who were studying and taking the weight of trying to recruit, mentor, monitor, advise other students at the time,” she said. “It was students on active enrollment who provided us our admission to Boston College and worked on our packages for financial aid.”

The name was a part of a bigger decision that pushed to include all “minority” students in the program. Lewis-Mosley had no problem with expanding the program to include other minority students. It was the nomenclature of the name and how it made her and her peers feel that made Lewis-Mosley upset.

“The premise of how BC even developed the ‘minority’ education told me a lot about the University’s actions,” she said. “[It was] more concerned about the look of a situation than the social justice validity of a situation.”

Additionally, Lewis-Mosley found the word “minority” offensive. Lewis-Mosley thought there was nothing uplifting about the term, culturally or spiritually. The title “Black Talent Program,” she explained, was an empowering name for the students who were part of it. By the end of her sophomore year, she began boycotting the office, due to the impending name change.

Though she was still eager to mentor her fellow students, seeing the sign that said “minority” every time she walked into the office began to toy with her psyche. Toward the end of her freshman year, in the spring of 1976, Lewis-Mosley remembers attending a meeting with the students in the Office of Minority Programs to form a plan for the following year. Lewis-Mosley can still recall the mood among the upperclassmen in the room as if it were yesterday.

“There was anger,” she said. “This was something that was being ripped from them.”

She found a few seconds to voice her concerns, but as a freshman, Lewis-Mosley did not have much of a platform to speak. So she kept the idea for a name change in her small notepad, knowing she didn’t have a chance of commandeering the conversation. She and her peers went home that summer disappointed and disheartened, and it showed.

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While Lewis-Mosley’s core foundation helped ground her personally during her four years of college, she saw many of her fellow peers fadingnot because they were academically incapable, but because of emotional distress. Being on a nearly all-white campus and not seeing representation in the faculty was enough to make black students leave. And even though Lewis-Mosley’s sturdy foundation helped her navigate her way through this time, she felt the effect of her fellow black students’ pain.

“No one seemed to ask, ‘Is there not something wrong with the students of color, but something systematically wrong with the program?’” she said.

Lewis-Mosley continued to distance herself from the office while still providing emotional and academic support to her fellow students until her senior year, when Donald Brown became the director of the Office of Minority Student Programs. He heard about a black student on campus who was protesting the new name and brought Lewis-Mosley in for a meeting. For the first time since the change, Lewis-Mosley felt like someone was listening to her concerns, and she began to inform Brown what it would take for her to be involved in the office again. Not only was he considerate of her concerns, but he agreed with them, calling the word minority “pejorative.” Brown became a very helpful mentor and advocate for Lewis-Mosley during her senior year, and, to this day, he and Lewis-Mosley have remained friends.

“She was highly regarded among students … not only AHANA students,” Brown said about Lewis-Mosley. “She [is] a powerful woman, extremely bright, and very outgoing.”

Fueled by the inclusive initiative that Brown had, Lewis-Mosley joined forces with fellow student Alfred Feliciano, BC ’80, around the end of her junior year. Despite not being a part of the Office of Minority Programs, he was very involved as far as events and friendships are concerned. Additionally, he was highly active in the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, which for many years had been exclusionaryin fact, UGBC had elected its first black president, Duane Deskins, BC ’76, a year before Lewis-Mosley arrived on campus.

The first semester of her senior year, Lewis-Mosley told Feliciano about her concerns. Around the start of their second semester, students gathered in response to the UGBC administration’s proposal to dismantle the minority student caucus and the women’s caucus. With an exclusionary student government and a protest-minded group of students, Lewis-Mosley had to make her voice heard. No longer a freshman who silently scribbled down ideas in a notepad, she slammed her hand on the table to get everyone’s attention and began to present her argument. By the end, the UGBC representatives agreed to sustain the two caucuses.

“We sat in great celebration that out of our own agency, we were able to initiate those caucuses to stay,” she said.

Propelled by this victory, they turned to the name change. For a while, Lewis-Mosley proposed the acronym AHAAfrican-American, Hispanic, and Asian. Feliciano was strongly against the name AHA. He pointed out that the acronym was asking for people to take it and use it as a joke, due to it sounding like a laugh. As they sat around the table, bouncing ideas off each other, it occured to Lewis-Mosley how many of the black students on campus had native ancestry. Since they had always referred to themselves as black, the native aspect of their identity slipped their minds. They realized that under the initial acronym, AHA, they hadn’t included Native Americans.

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Lewis-Mosley wrote down AHANA on a sheet of paper. Everyone agreed that was it.

“At that moment, immediately, everyone began to drum a beat on the table, using the acronym,” she said. “We did it in multiple rhythms that spoke to all the different cultures.”

While the idea began in 1976, the name AHANA finally came to fruition in 1979. With acronym still in play 40 years later, Lewis-Mosley says Feliciano was the engine that pushed AHANA to where it is now. He knew his work was far from over after they had come up with the name, and proceeded to present the new acronym to the Board of Trustees. In the end, they agreed that AHANA would replace the word “minority” in every office on campus. According to Lewis-Mosley, the whole University is indebted to the work he put in.

“You can have a dream, you can have an idea, but unless it gets an engine that pushes it, it stays a dream and not a reality,” Lewis-Mosley said. “Alfred [was] the engine.”

During her four years at BC, Lewis-Mosley stood tall in the face of antagonism, took fellow black students under her wing, and found a caring community. While it was a tumultuous experience at time, Lewis-Mosley is grateful for every experience she had. She said it taught her how to be an agent of change.

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This desire to help has not been deterred, and neither has her drive to make BC the most inclusive it can be. Frequently returning to BC to give talks to the student body, Lewis-Mosley says she does this because she believes BC has not changed a whole lot since she lived on campus. When Lewis-Mosley heard about the racist incident that took place in Welch Hall last semester, she was disappointed, but not surprised.

Driven by her love for BCbut also her disappointment in the UniversityLewis-Mosley called University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. to voice her concern. In response to her concerns, Leahy said that BC has a zero-tolerance policy and reassured her that the Jesuit ideal for social justice was being upheld. But For Lewis-Mosley, BC’s zero-tolerance policy is a poor excuse that lets years of racial discrimination fall by the wayside.

“At the [center] of BC, they have never dealt with a core perception that they have not been inclusive and diverse in dismantling the issues they needed to dismantle on their campus,” she said. “At the core, there is no understanding of zero tolerance on this campus.”

While Lewis-Mosley has no problem calling out BC’s gaps in their zero-tolerance policy, she’s grateful for her four years on the Heights. She thinks BC has issues surrounding race that need to be addressed in a greater capacity on campus, but Lewis-Mosley does not regret her time here.

In 1979, she graduated, along with three other black students in the nursing program. Out of 11 other black students in the program, Lewis-Mosley and the three others were the only ones to graduate on track. One of the three had to return the following spring the repeat some classes. To Lewis-Mosley, her peers were fully capable of graduating on time. But antagonistic attitudes, a lack of diverse faculty, and having to fend for themselves slowed their drive.

She also believes she took advantage of her situation, learning how to prevent the pressure she was under from shaping her. Instead, it taught her how to become an agent of change. Taking what she learned from the nursing program during her time as an undergraduate, Lewis-Mosley recognizes that it’s not just a part of her duty to help make change in the world of health, but in society as a whole.

“[It] made me look at what was in front of me and not subject myself to what was an oppressive environment. It made me look from a model of being Christian, ‘How do I engage this environment and not become like the environment?’” she said. “It gave me the power to stand my ground in front of antagonism … and to speak my truth.”


Featured Image Courtesy of Valerie Lewis-Mosley

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