BRIDGETOWN, Barbados— Every Friday night in Barbados, hundreds of locals and visitors descend on the quaint fishing village of Oistins for the famous Oistins Fish Fry. It’s where you can take your pick from dozens of stalls serving up delectable seafood like flying fish and lobster, ribs, chicken, and some signature sides like macaroni pie and rice and peas.
Beyond the food, the drinks are plentiful, and the live music on the main stage means no one sits down for too long. But, after countless trips I’ve taken to Barbados over the last seven years, this Friday night in June at Oistin’s was different.
There was soca music blended with classic hip-hop from the East Coast and the Dirty South. We swag surfed. We did the bunny hop and heard some of the signature calls of the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities. Then there was the roll call of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Oh yes! This night at the famous fish fry was different because it helped kick off the inaugural For Alumni, By Alumni Festival, aka FABA Fest, on the right note.
FABA Fest is a first-of-its-kind destination festival and celebration of HBCU alumni and friends on the island from June 15-18. The festival combined the spirit of the HBCU experience with the dynamic Afro-Caribbean culture of Barbados for an unforgettable time.
As a proud Howard University graduate (HU… You Know!) and Caribbean American girl, this festival combined two of my favorite things. From beach parties and the first-ever “HBCU Battle of the Boats” to the cultural immersions and community service, FABA fest had a little bit of something for everyone with an added Bajan twist.
“FABA Fest is like my love letter to the incredible HBCU experience,” founder La Chanda Ricks tells ESSENCE.
While homecoming is typically what comes to mind when one thinks of HBCU celebrations, FABA Fest aims to host an epic turn-up and be a source of impactful connections and increased engagement among HBCU alumni and friends across the African diaspora.
There are 107 colleges and universities in the United States that the U.S. Department of Education identifies as HBCUs. These institutions of higher learning are responsible for producing 80 percent of Black judges, 50 percent of Black doctors, and 50 percent of Black lawyers in America.
“There’s so much gratitude that I have and that many others have expressed in the creation of this space to celebrate one another in our shared experience as HBCU grads and also that appreciation for Black excellence overall,” said Ricks, a graduate of Howard University.
The inaugural FABA Fest was held on the island of Barbados due to its unique historical and cultural connections to the United States. “We are a colony that founded a colony, Charleston, South Carolina (founded by a group of Barbadians in 1670), and we have the second largest records of the transatlantic slave trade after the U.K. One of the things that have been able to help us to do is to be able to trace and allow people to trace their roots,” said Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.(BTMI), USA Director, Eusi Skeete.
The Barbados-USA lineage connections run deep. Between 1650 and 1680, nearly 30,000 people left Barbados for the U.S., where they settled in the Carolinas, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, according to BTMI. Today, about 8- 10 million Americans can trace their roots back to the island.
Barbados and Charleston also have a Sister City Agreement, which includes cultural immersions and exchanges with the Gullah Gechee Nation. In thinking of the ideal place to host FABA Fest, Ricks and her team said it was important to be a destination that welcomes and celebrates Black travelers and the Black excellence of HBCUs.
“It was very important to us create this alignment with a place that wants us there, but then a place that also reflects the Black excellence that we’re celebrating,” said Ricks. “When you talk about the world’s newest Republic. When you talk about a place with Black women in leadership at every possible level, when you talk about a place that produces so many outstanding people across all industries, when we talk about a place that has a very real connection more than probably any other islands in the Caribbean with the southern part of the United States, which is where HBCUs are largely aggregated, it just makes so much sense,” she said.
AIN’T NO PARTY LIKE AN HBCU PARTY
The FABA Fest fun officially began with a “Toast to Excellence” VIP rum tasting by Mount Gay Rum, featuring the brand’s master blender and HBCU graduate, Trudiann Branker.
Branker, a Howard University graduate, made history in 2019 when she became the first female Master Blender in the rum brand’s 300-plus year history. Then in true HCBU fashion, there was a “Homecoming in Barbados” party at the Copacabana Beach Club. Festival goers then got a taste of Bajan culture with performances by soca artists like Lil Rick and Nikita.
The great party vibes continued the next day with the “Rise and Lime” breakfast fete experience with Stades Rum, followed by a Diving Nine Pool Party at Deia Beach. The Friday night finale was at the legendary Oistin’s Fish Fry with a twist as HBCU DJs mixed on the main stage for the first time. The “HBCU Battle Of The Boats” party cruise and the “It was All A Dream” brunch experience rounded out the fetes.
“At our welcome event, the tuck band with the rhythm section, I was like, I’m in the French Quarter. To me, it was no different than the way that I would hear a brass band on Frenchmen Street during Essence Fest. It’s just one way we see and hear and celebrate those strong bonds and connections,” Ricks shared with a big smile.
IN TRUTH AND SERVICE
In addition to the sun, sea, and vibes, some of the most impactful experiences during FABA Fest occurred during events centered around service, which is near and dear to the HBCU community.
The one-day HBCU Engagement Summit brought together leaders in the HBCU advancement, alumni relations, and international outreach space to discuss innovative approaches to alumni giving and engagement. It also looked at ways to increase international alumni engagement and international student outreach across the diaspora.
“I kept looking at the emails, and I was thinking about the importance of collaborations and strategic partnerships, and I knew that this is something that I needed to be a part of,” said Sedderick Hill Sr., a Talladega College Alumni who made history in 2021 when he became the first African American City Manager for the City of Talladega. “Many HBCUs and alumni think that they can’t do anything because they don’t have the funds. But you can use your influence, title, friends, and network to do something big. I wanted to do something big for FABA and bring my network here,” Hill shared with ESSENCE.
“Of course, we love the social piece of FABA Fest, networking and gathering when the sun goes down. But to me, the most important part is the networking component. I’ve met HBCU student affairs professionals and alumni relations directors. We’ve formed this bond, and I would love to see it move even further,” said Shannon Henderson, Director of Marketing And Community Engagement HBCU GO television.
The group also participated in a service activity at The Shirley Chisholm Primary School, where they planted a garden, painted, and interacted with students. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress and the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. The school was recently renamed in honor of Chisholm, who was of Bajan heritage and attended school on the island as a child in April.
Following the service activity, FABA Fest participants helped organize an HBCU College Fair at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, where high school students from across the island got to speak directly to representatives, including some admissions directors and recruitment officers from schools such as Texas Southern University, Tennessee State University, North Carolina University, Howard University Xavier University and Talladega College among others. One high school student from Barbados was even admitted to the Alabama-based Talladega College on the spot during the college fair.
“I think one of the things that I would want to underscore certainly is the importance of seeing the opportunity to get the best and the brightest from the region to becoming a part of the community and really expanding the HBCU family across borders,” said Skeete. “It’s not only visiting the destination, but it’s a cultural exchange, the educational exchange and then creating those long-lasting diaspora connections that will naturally keep people coming back and in communication,” he added.
BIG HBCU ENERGY
FABA Fest seamlessly combined the spirit of the HBCU experience and the values important to this community with a dynamic travel and cultural exchange experience. It was indeed big HBCU energy! But, whether you attended an HBCU or not, this festival embraced and spoke specifically to global Black excellence in all its forms.
“I think the tie that binds is Black excellence, so whether or not you went to an HBCU, you can identify with Black excellence. Whether or not you are from the United States or you are from Barbados, you can identify with Black excellence. It lives in Barbados, the same way it lives on the campuses of our universities,” said Ricks.
Many attendees say they were so engaged and inspired by the weekend of events that they spoke about their plans to give them time to create and serve on an advisory board, expand outreach efforts in the Caribbean, and implement new initiatives to increase alumni giving year-round. Plans for the second year of the festival are already underway.
When asked to describe the experience by finishing the sentence FABA Fest is, Henderson summed up a sentiment that many expressed throughout the weekend.
“When I think of FABA Fest, I say that FABA Fest is ineffable, which means too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words,” she said.