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The Umoja Effect: How DEI Programs Transform Students' Lives

Updated: May 24

Sable Thomas’ experience is a testament to why DEI Programs matter more than ever. 

By Kaya Dantzler, Staff Writer 


Sable Thomas, former BSU President in the Umoja Center at Valley (Kaya Dantzler for The Valley Star).


Sable Thomas, former BSU President in the Umoja Center at Valley (Janessa Scoggins for The Valley Star).

Exuding main character energy with stunning makeup, the soon-to-be graduate stands naturally suave at the entrance of the Umoja Center. Sable Thomas pays homage to the culture with effortless flair in her acid-washed jean jacket layered over a Malcolm X T-shirt and camo pants, with cream and dark chocolate Air Jordan 1 sneakers.  


Thomas' journey to graduation has been wayward. She dropped out of Santa Monica College with a full scholarship and dreams of attending USC after becoming a mother. When her daughter was two, she enrolled at San Bernardino College but left due to a lack of support and challenges securing consistent housing. Eventually, she found her footing once she started working the night shift at the post office.


Umoja is a mentorship-based program that empowers African American students to achieve academic success and define their futures through culturally specific engagement and support.  


After 15 years of attending three different colleges, Thomas is graduating from Valley this fall. With vital support from the Umoja Black Scholars Program, she achieves this milestone amidst an accelerating anti-DEI movement that threatens triumphs like Sable’s.


In January 2023, the same month she enrolled at Valley, the Manhattan Institute released a model legislative brief advocating for the elimination of DEI initiatives at public universities. The brief has become a blueprint for conservative activists to ban programs like the Umoja Black Scholars nationwide.  


The Manhattan Institute’s ideology spawned over 80 bills in 20+ states and Congress targeting DEI programs in higher education which contributed to the repeal of Affirmative Action in June 2023.


Right-wing figures like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick claim that D.E.I. initiatives encourage censorship, are discriminatory, misuse funds, and undermine meritocracy. 


Eight years into unfilling work at the post office, Sable decided to finish school to demonstrate the importance of education to her 13-year-old daughter.


After a brief conversation with a general counselor at Valley, she was referred to the Umoja Center, the campus hub for a D.E.I. program for African American students, led by Elliot Conney, Rip, Dr. J, and Yvonne. Sable left the counseling office with Dr. Conney’s email address still nervous about returning to school. 


"I emailed Dr. Conney, and he told me to stop by," Sable recalled. "He immediately got on the ball. He asked about my major, looked at my transcripts, and said, 'You'll be a great fit for nursing. Here are the requirements.' In less than five minutes, he typed up my entire educational plan. In my head, I said, who is this man? How did he know this is what I needed?"


Thomas' story is an example of “Black Girl Magic” and the transformative impact of the Umoja Program. It demonstrates how D.E.I. programs expand access to opportunities, advance equity, and support students impacted by the legacy of discriminatory legal precedents like Plessy vs. Ferguson , Jim Crow Laws, or the 1994 Crime Bill. 


Sable left that first meeting at the Umoja Center, enrolled in classes, relieved of her anxiety, and on her way to achieving her goals. She became a fixture at the center, learned to advocate for herself, and eventually formed a study group with other nursing students enrolled in the Umoja Program. 


“Bailey and Ifeoma,” Sable shared, “There’s something to be said about encouraging one another. The accountability is real. Girl, are you studying? What did you get on this test? Where are you lacking? Did you look for tutoring? That was such a beautiful thing. I got straight A’s again in the summer session.” 


The community care, support, and resources Sable accessed through the Umoja Program helped her earn straight As in her first two sessions at Valley, ultimately setting her up to graduate after a 15-year hiatus from pursuing her education.  


As the debate over D.E.I. continues, Sable’s story reminds us of the importance of D.E.I. initiatives in education, their real-world impact, and their role in creating a more equitable and brighter future for everyone.

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