The ground floor of the ARCH building is buzzing. Through one of the glass entranceways, students work with laptops out, while others discuss the relative merits of Drake and the longevity of his career versus Kanye’s (already over, apparently). Above low-slung couches, the white walls are punctuated with African prints and sculpture. This is Brian Peterson’s domain. A three-time Penn graduate, Peterson became the director of Makuu: the Black Cultural Center, after earning both a master’s and Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Education. He completed his undergraduate degree in 1993 with a major in engineering.
Peterson’s influence is gentle and understated, with a light but powerful hand on the reins, guiding students toward their future paths, encouraging them to be peer leaders and to lift others up as they progress. Throughout, he is student-focused, creating an empowering and welcoming climate for the Penn community. “Students are claiming their own identity and their own spaces,” Peterson says. “Makuu is extremely diverse. It’s hard for people to see that because ‘everybody’s Black,’ but people are coming from so many different backgrounds. It’s hugely important that everyone feels that Makuu is a safe space for them, however they identify.”
Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. of the Annenberg School for Communication, who was on Peterson’s Ph.D. dissertation committee, says Peterson works “innovatively and ambitiously to help make Penn as inclusive as possible. He brings both passion and professional expertise to such issues in ways that make him a fantastic leader and collaborator.”
PENN DEMOGRAPHICS: Black students at Penn
Peterson supports a variety of Black student groups as part of his work, including the umbrella organization UMOJA and the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. His commitment to higher education access is seen through Ase Academy, an academic and cultural enrichment program in which middle and high school students attend workshops led by Penn students on topics from public speaking to entrepreneurship. “Our kids are looking for something,” Peterson says, adding that Penn’s resources can be used to elevate the West Philadelphia community.
Makuu also operates the Robeson Cooper Scholars Program, which identifies and nurtures students interested in interdisciplinary social justice. Through weekly dinners, Peterson brings resources to students and facilitates their academic and social development. An annual Kwanzaa celebration brings students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and community members together to celebrate and recommit to the spirit of collaboration, self-determination, and purpose.
“Wherever we are is Makuu,” Peterson says, who still remembers when the ARCH building was occupied by the Christian Association. The Gold Standard rented a portion of the building, and there was a bar downstairs where the cultural organizations are now, Peterson recalls. “Now,” he says, “it’s a hub for ideas, community, and self-affirmation.”