How Simmons Center’s namesake emulates a safe space for everyone

Caroline Bryant | The Southern Newspaper Photo courtesy of FSC | Evett Simmons hugging Rosa Park’s lawyer, Fred Gray, at convocation.

Nathalie Moreno
The Southern Editor

When Dr. Anne Kerr, president of Florida Southern College, asked Evett L. Simmons if the college could name a building after her, she jumped at the chance. It would be the first building on campus to be named after a person of color. And so the Evett L. Simmons Center came to be.

What Simmons and the Center’s first director, Brenda Lewis, intended to do with the establishment of the Simmons Center was to create a safe space for students of color, especially during a time when there weren’t many on campus and many of them had nowhere to go where they felt truly welcome. 

“I was willing to go forward and help because I love my campus and if we’re going to try to become a more diverse campus… if students of color can get what I got from it, a sense of worth that has lasted with me—I’m 65 now—that has lasted this long, I just want them to have it,” Simmons said.

Though the Simmons Center is stationed on Johnson Avenue now, it was not always there. The first location for the multicultural student center was on the opposite side of the campus, down by the present-day Office of Admissions on Callahan Court. 

However, the demand for a new location arose when the building turned out to be in poor condition.

“We went through a few different places, I remember one place, it’s torn down now but 10 years ago when we had the celebration, we had a little building where the admissions building is now,” Simmons said. “We were so proud of it but it was termite infested and I said ‘no we can’t, this is not going to work.’”

Being a member of the board of trustees for the college, Simmons was able to voice her disdain about the current location of the center and have her concerns heard. After searching for some time, they were able to find the house on Johnson Avenue, and the Simmons Center was moved there. Simmons refers to the relocation as “moving to the east side, moving on up.”

Now, 10 years later, the main objective is simply for the center to expand even more than it has.

“It’s not just for students of color. It’s for people who embrace students of color and recognize the importance of our diversity and our inclusion. Sometimes people say ‘that’s the black space’ or ‘that’s the Hispanic space.’ No, it’s the space where those people can feel that they belong, but it’s not exclusively their space,” Simmons said.

In the years since its creation, multiple student organizations for students of various backgrounds have come about—the Multicultural Student Council, the International Student Association, the Black Student Union, the Hispanic/Latinx Student Coalition, and the Asian/Pacific Islanders Student Association to name a few.

The establishment of these campus organizations is only one way that the Simmons center has helped diversity on campus grow.

“I’ve seen it grow because it was at one point [students would say] “I’m not going there because that’s for those black students” or “that’s for those students of color.” Now it’s “I want to go there because that’s…where we can flourish and feel safe and belonging,’” Simmons said. “So, it’s come a long way in terms of the number of students that go through it.”

Simmons hopes that the next step for the Simmons Center is to expand in its spatial area as well as throughout the student population. More than that, she hopes that the center and its impact influences people to see and appreciate each other’s differences, including difference of opinion.

“We have to respect differences. Sometimes it’s hard to respect, or even want to be with, someone who has a different opinion than yours because your opinion has to be right. We [have to] figure out how to meet in the middle.”

The Simmons Center has proven to be a place where people of all backgrounds can go to feel connected to and accepted by each other. As the student population grows, the space will grow and then, eventually, the mindsets and experiences of Florida Southern students will grow as well.

That’s what Simmons describes as her hopes, expectations and dreams for the future of the Simmons Center.

“My dream is that we have a huge building, that Albert’s Loft is 3,000 square feet instead of 350, that Brenda’s Space is 6000 square feet instead of 200,” Simmons said. “That we have staff on there and even more students that are working there and that we can have street parties and just be a strong part of the campus.”

“Nothing’s perfect. But if you don’t start with a spark, you sure won’t get a fire…I’m hoping that by the next 10 years, we will have a fire.”


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