Despite the heavy clouds hanging over their heads, Western students, alumni, faculty and staff packed into the Performing Arts Center plaza to plant a maple tree in celebration of the beginning of the Multicultural Center construction on April 20.
Also in attendance were about 75 demonstrators, most of whom were Ethnic Student Center club members.
The demonstrators, dressed in black and representing almost all 17 clubs under the ESC umbrella, stood silently holding a banner reading, “We must remember hxstory” as tribal elders and former Western staff spoke.
Among them were AS President Simrun Chhabra and AS Vice President for Academic Affairs Hunter Eider.
According to members of the demonstration, the purpose was to make sure the efforts of students of color were not glossed over. The demonstrators were not there to condemn or show their support for the MCC, but rather to acknowledge that it was not a collaborative effort to get the project off the ground.
Former AS Vice President for Diversity Abby Ramos spoke at the ceremony.
“This project was not Western’s project, it was the ESC’s project,” Ramos said.
For demonstrators Daniella Navarro and Elizabeth Perez Garcia, the hard-won efforts of ESC students were not part of the narrative of the MCC.
“[Western’s] administration has taken advantage of student labor to make Western seem diverse,” Navarro said.
Former ESC Coordinator Nate Panelo echoed that sentiment in his groundbreaking speech.
“We are all hoping that [the MCC] isn’t just a publicity stunt or a place for campus tours to show to brown people to convince them there’s a place for them at this university,” he said.
To Panelo and all the student demonstrators, managing to secure this space was just the first step.
Perez Garcia said she hopes the MCC won’t be the end of Western’s efforts to make campus a more welcoming place to students with marginalized identities.
She said students of color are supposed to be happy that the ESC will grow – and they are. But the demonstrators believe Western is ignoring the history behind the MCC.
As early as 2005, students were attempting to get the ESC out of the 4th floor of the Viking Union through a plan known as “Project Ascend.” The proposal fizzled out and not much was done, Panelo said in his speech.
In 2015, there was a plan that would move the ESC up to the 5th floor, effectively doubling the space, Panelo said.
“If you’ve been to the ESC, you know that doubling it wouldn’t really do much. It would just be a consolation prize and maybe a publicity stunt so Western could say they helped students of color,” Panelo said.
He said the students refused to move the ESC, saying that there was not enough space on the 5th floor.
“[The students] came up with a letter telling administration to ‘go back to the drawing board and do better,’” Panelo said.
The MCC construction is the culmination of the efforts of the students of color who came before them, current AS Vice President for Diversity Erick Yanzon said.
Demonstrators and Yanzon alike are still wondering about the 40 percent of the MCC that will be designated for “multicultural services.”
Yanzon said the planning stages of the MCC could be more transparent and accessible for the students who lobbied for it.
Also demonstrating was former Vice President of Student Life Wayne Roque, holding a sign addressing the current Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services of Western reading “Melynda: what are you going to do to fix Eileen’s mess?”
In Rocque’s opinion, Eileen Coughlin, Western’s former Vice President, opposed necessary measures that would support minority students on campus.
“She had been pulling strings to make this process as hard as possible,” he said.
Rocque only hopes that Melynda Huskey, who was appointed as VP in 2017, can undo the harm he believes Coughlin has done.
Tribal elders in the Whatcom County community also voiced their support for the students of color on Western’s campus.
“Some of you have not felt welcome here. We had to create our own welcome,” Juanita Jefferson, Lummi elder and Fairhaven alumna, said in her groundbreaking speech.
Many speakers, including Ramos and Panelo, acknowledged they were speaking on land stolen from the native people of Whatcom County.
“How ironic that we are here yet again, impacting the lives of native people of this area, and yet the support for native students on this campus is not there,” Ramos said.
Throughout speeches from elders, former Western faculty and vice presidents, the ESC demonstrators showed their appreciation for the acknowledgement of their efforts through snaps that filled the otherwise silent PAC plaza.
Patrick Freeland, an academic support coordinator, was the master of ceremonies for the event.
“This single act cannot be a conclusion to this work; it is ongoing,” he said.