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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Reacting to on-campus racism

Karen Dade came before 320 people from the Western Community to share a framed photo of the nine people who were murdered due to hate crimes this June in Charleston, South Carolina. She said she carries it as a reminder that her fear is real.

This fear and other issues surrounding campus climate were brought to light at a town hall meeting responding to racially charged threats against students of color on Monday, Nov. 30.  

A string with notes of encouragement was hung outside of Miller Hall. The line had extra clothes pins for people to leave their own notes of support throughout the day.  // Photo by Christina Becker
A string with notes of encouragement was hung outside of Miller Hall. The line had extra clothes pins for people to leave their own notes of support throughout the day. // Photo by Christina Becker

The event at the Viking Union centered on systemic racism in Western’s processes. Dade, the Associate Dean of Woodring Education and emcee of the event, said the hope was to allow Western community members a chance to be courageous and vulnerable.

President Bruce Shepard opened the event, hosted by the President’s Taskforce on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. The taskforce is comprised of faculty and staff who work closely with campus climate issues.

Shepard began by expressing the concern for the safety of Associated Students President Belina Seare. Online forum posts depicted racially-charged threats against her following a previous article about the Viking mascot that appeared in The Western Front.

During the question-and-answer period, ESC club leader Lulu Sapigao was the first student to speak after the panel.

“I frankly don’t feel safe here,” Sapigao said. “I’m upset that we’re told to use the buddy system and that’s the only way that we can ‘maybe’ have safety.”

Senior Holly Berg said she has become more aware and felt uncomfortable after the events that occurred.

Western is an open-minded and liberal school, and she was both surprised and saddened to hear this situation was occurring on campus, Berg said.

Shepard said it is the most ordinary members of the Western community that commit racial violence. He said many of them would defend their behavior by saying it was a joke.

“There is nothing funny here. These are forms of violence,” Shepard said.

Larry Estrada, professor of Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of American Cultural Studies, said racism is a cancer to a community. He fears the community has become complacent in their efforts to combat racism.

On behalf of Seare and other concerned students a statement was published by the Latino Advocacy Group.  Vernon Damani Johnson, professor of Political Science and mentor to Seare, read the statement aloud at the town meeting.  

The statement detailed recent events through the student lens, such as how Western administration did not ask KIRO News to correct their misrepresentation of the mascot story coverage.

The students also explained how they felt they were routinely denied request of immediate personal security by the university police and administration, according to the statement.

In a campus-wide email update, Shepard addressed this issue, saying he offered Seare 24/7 police protection as well to relocate her to a local motel. However, Seare could not be reached.

“This is a question of intent versus impact. If your intent is to provide safety for your students but your students do not feel safe, then your tactics are failing,” Johnson read. “Our safety looks different than yours.”

Students from Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF), The Inn and the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry and Western Christian Faculty gathered in Red Square, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 10 a.m. to sing and pray about the hate speech that appeared on social media last night. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath
Students from Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF), The Inn and the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry and Western Christian Faculty gathered in Red Square, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 10 a.m. to sing and pray about the hate speech that appeared on social media last night. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath

The statement ended with asking for administration to not make decisions without student voice and input.

“In your classrooms, in your task forces, in your meetings about student safety on campus, remember: nothing about us, without us,” Johnson read.

In response to the panel discussion, junior Erica Ewell shared her thoughts about her experiences with a lack of diversity within the classroom.

“You sit in a [400 seat] lecture hall and you can count the number of non-white people in the room,” Ewell said. “And I kinda can’t help but do it.”

Additional events such as listening sessions, equity workshops, discussion groups and additional community events for specific and blended groups will follow in the following weeks. Dade said the hope is to get an honest understanding of Western’s needs.
These events will persist in the quarters to come, Dade said. A racism threat assessment will be created as well. Questions, comments and concerns can be dropped off at Miller Hall 250A, Dade’s office.

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