‘Charcoal, in Concept, is Fantastical.’ But Why is Charcoal, in Practice, Unsustainable?
The unrealistic expectations and pressure we’ve put on people of color has been a long-standing cycle of consequential labor. Breaking that cycle by refusing to exist in it is the best form of prevention Charcoal can provide.
Written by Irvin Alonzo
We can’t escape Charcoal. Whenever I meet up with friends the conversion of Charcoal always sneaks up on me. This happens every time Chike, my best friend, and I go out for drinks. Don't get me wrong we still chat about our lives and have found so much love for each other throughout these intense months, but Charcoal is always on the tip of our tongues. I remember making the joke to Chike about how I kind of wish Charcoal ended earlier.
After three intense years of Charcoal, I've been transformed into the person I am most proud of today. But it has come with a multitude of emotional and mental exhaustion. I love Charcoal, but the pressure and expectations we've produced make it unsustainable. I believe putting it to rest at this time makes sense.
On March 22, I received an email from a publication stating how they were “interested” in speaking with me about “learning more about Charcoal Magazine shutting down and Charcoal magazine as a whole.” Immediately I thought what more is there to learn?
Chike, Editor in Chief, and I, Multimedia Editor, spent a whole day discussing a post for the public to understand that students on staff were feeling unsafe and could no longer passionately do the work without the constant pressure that has been built around Charcoal over recent years. Anne, our Director of Operations, Stacey, our Managing Editor, and I spent the entirety of a meeting open to our full 100-plus staff on February 25th, which many of our staff didn't attend, explaining the reasons for ending Charcoal prior to the public announcement. We considered their feelings and emotions despite ourselves not quite understanding our own. We spent weeks hosting office hours, meeting with others in leadership roles, trying to motivate people, but it felt as if few had the capacity to understand what we were going through.
Now don’t misunderstand that there were and have continued to be plenty of people that never stopped showing up in the space earnestly, and openly to understanding and accepting the larger factors at play leading this. Honestly, I just don’t think I had the capacity to believe they were really there. The negative reactions were strong, fairly so because of course people care about Charcoal. Of course, people care about the “why” behind it all. But as few implied just as strongly that those in leadership were not valuing the space by ending things before things went too far, I think I started feeling a bit numb to receiving anything in the space–the good and the bad. The decision to conclude production was never a single conversation, but more so a collection of observations informing a core problem with fewer and fewer solutions as years went on by leadership who have come and gone along with few others we work with at the university. If marginalized people can’t share experiences with one another through work in safe conditions, inside and out, can we guarantee the value and intention of Charcoal as a space of communion and a space of craft?
Charcoal, to me, was a space to find community, create art, and just be around some talented artists. But the more I “climbed up” the hypothetical titles established in Charcoal, I realized this is a collective of students that thrive when the fantasy is provided, not created. When a space raises the bar to what they are defined as it comes with more work and more commitment. I don’t think people wanted the work as much.
It wasn't until I became the Marketing Director in January 2022 that I began seeing the consequences of becoming bigger and more admired. I learned the details of the production and the thousands of dollars provided by our publishers the Howard Thurman Center. I was so excited back then thinking, “Yes, this gave Charcoal the chance to do more!” Together we expanded from creating a magazine and launch party every semester to having mid-semester events such as the fashion show and gallery exhibit. Meanwhile, these events could only come together from the sacrifices of a few members of our staff as the rest were able to relish in the end product. I personally experienced the strenuous work of creating campaigns for our fashion show, and launch parties. While doing last semester's Anniversary Exhibition Showcase campaign, I broke and Chike stepped in to help despite themselves going through their own personal circumstances that made this work hard to rationalize.
“Who will be the next Editor in Chief? Why were we discussing who was the next EIC? Why was it so important?"
On January 28th, 2023, Chike announced two things to our staff going into this season. One, that they would be taking a “step back” from Charcoal, and two, that the massive creative project for the season would be entirely online rather than a physical magazine for the season. Them stepping back was the entry point for us three supervisors, Anne, Stacey, and myself, to provide our own guidance and support for more creative work and resources. However, having been put only slightly into Chike’s shoes for two months was more than I could handle.
The first issue was that I never saw the HTC professional staff as holistic human beings but as our bosses. Consequently, I never built a relationship with the very people who were advocating and supporting us. So by the time I became the Multimedia Editor, I didn't make the move to get to know them. As students, we often think of these people as the owner of our work, but that establishes an unconventional relationship. The lack of a relationship with HTC creates disorganization which affects the whole process of production. But this is the type of relationship built when organizations like Charcoal become bigger. We begin to treat each other the way I treated the HTC professional staff.
The second issue was that the popularity and expectations created around Charcoal have spread across our staff to the point that students like Chike are seen as leaders and as the ‘higher ups’. An example is the way our Marketing area, last year, had a very brief discussion of “Who will be the next Editor in Chief?” It began as a joke pointing fingers at each other or naming other people who could potentially take the spot. Though it began as a joke, that moment is a reminder of how much we idolize that position in Charcoal. Why were we discussing who was the next EIC? Why was it so important?
Conversations with Charcoal staff have also shown that putting students on a pedestal that they aren't allowed to come down from is an incredibly common phenomenon plaguing collectives beyond Charcoal. ‘Higher-ups’ has been a label associated with our leadership positions. On the multiple occasions I’ve received commentary from our staff on how I am “a higher up”, I have felt a bit degraded. I didn't like it because to me that's not what or who I was. The fact that Chike was ‘gone’ and the supervisors replaced them, we were now expected to do what they were doing for the space. Our time and conversations were being ignored by our own staff, which is reflected by the number of times we invested to support our staff and it wasn't made use of or reciprocated.
At our all-staff meeting on March 25th, Chike returned to the physical space of Charcoal to share everything they had come to understand about our staff, from the way they would speak about leadership to the questions they continue to ask others but not us. This conversation gave us the opportunity to stop talking in private and share with each other the conspiracies we ourselves were perpetuating behind each other’s backs. The lack of true confrontation from our staff spoke for itself. We loved the fantastical end result that Charcoal had increasingly been praised for. But as the path there was deconstructed to publicly show exactly what it takes, we didn't take the time to fully understand the full means of Charcoal’s production. The extent to which modern-day Charcoal could not exist without not simply the Howard Thurman Center’s financial support, but especially the emotional and philosophical council they have provided for years to a variety of Charcoal’s staff that made the mission to curate a space for shared experiences through art their own. But as time has gone on, more and more of us have honestly treated them as a building and a space that provides, to the point that so few of us ever even said hi to them–let alone seen them as a core foundation of Charcoal’s continued safety in the Boston University ecosystem for the past few years. The visceral misunderstanding of the HTC’s role in all this was a central point of Chike’s throughout that meeting.
As Chike came to a pause to give room for any disagreement and inquiry, there was a question from a staff member who stated that this space is considered a safe space for so many people on Boston University’s campus–where do they go now? As I heard the response from Chike, my interpretation was that the sense of community we claim to need to survive at Boston University doesn't need to have a label or be associated with Boston University itself. Those very communities we strive to look for and need, what we believe Charcoal was meant to be, can be created on our own. It should be created, or found on our own. There can be more Charcoal-like spaces around Boston without being called “Charcoal”.
Other staff members at this meeting, part of other organizations locally, opened up about their own difficulty finding a way to practice their passion while building a sense of community without feeling a disproportionate amount of pressure to provide. There was an incredibly heartfelt explanation from someone who expressed just how deeply they adore dancing, but had come to realize they can’t fully express their love for it in the same environment they are constantly providing everyone else the opportunity to safely do it without external factors and internal strife. Guaranteeing the safety of those around them felt like the trade-off for letting go of what brought them to space in the first place.
How do you make these communities on your own? Talking and making friends, finding people who have a commonality, and just hanging out. That is the answer I needed freshman year. When I tried to use my identity as the reason why I needed to be in the Latino spaces on campus. I didn't even enjoy it, but what I did enjoy was building more community with my friends–meeting people in a much more intimate way. I didn't need to force myself to be part of an organization but that's an answer that freshmen or students of color in a predominantly white institution don’t often receive.
All the semesters I have spent in Charcoal have been amazing. I learned a lot and met so many incredible people. But as of today, this work is too much. Students can’t continue to put each other in a position to suffer just for the benefit of others and not for themselves, especially as students of color. This is something that our whole staff, the Boston University community, and other publications won’t ever deeply understand. But we will continue and have continued to support those who are still here working, creating, and helping each other.
So the spam emails by a publication to all our members that continue to mourn and fight through these tough times doesn’t help.
I am spending my days trying to catch up on homework, studying for exams, and crawl to graduation in May. As I walked into the Mugar Library at BU two days ago, I opened my laptop only thinking about my next assignment. Thinking I left Charcoal work at the HTC to finally focus on my personal responsibilities, I opened my laptop to yet another email pop-up,
“I hope all is well. I am just sending an email following up on my previous email. My deadline has been moved to tomorrow, March 29. Please let me know when you get a change in your availability.”
Even at Mugar Library, I can’t escape Charcoal.
Charcoal was my temporary answer to finding a space for myself in an institution that profits from the creativity of young marginalized students, but the labor to continue will always be too much. Charcoal served its purpose as the base for visionary students, and it's Charcoal's place to tell that story and decide the best solution for keeping our staff and other students of color safe.