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One Year Later: BSU Open Letter Follow-Up

Last year, the Black Student Union presented a list of demands to the Emmanuel College administration. Though committees have been established in the past year, not much–if anything–has been addressed.

“The topics of cultural competency, diversity, and inclusivity in the student body, faculty, and staff are nothing new to Emmanuel administration,” Ashlee Jeannot, ’16, the president of the BSU, told The Hub. “These issues have been raised by students who have graduated long before us and that is where my hesitation comes from. What made Emmanuel stop fighting for this or answering the demands years prior? Why are we still asking for the same thing?”

On December 8 of last year, members of Emmanuel’s Black Student Union came together with students across the Colleges of the Fenway in peaceful protest to speak out against racism and respond to the death of Eric Garner and many others that occurred throughout 2014. On this same day, the BSU also presented an open letter to Emmanuel Administration demanding changes in the way EC has addressed racial representation and diversity on campus.

With the anniversary of the protest on the horizon, The Hub decided to do a follow-up on how administration has addressed these changes.

Some of the changes the BSU demanded included cultural competency training for students, faculty, and staff; a Multicultural and Diversity Relations Development administrative office; funding for those programs, and as a “clear and concise plan of action” from the administration. The BSU noted in the letter they expected a response from administration by January 14.  Sister Janet addressed the letter via community portal announcement on January 13.  In this announcement, Sister Janet wrote that she decided to expand the President’s Panel to form a new President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusivity, made up of faculty, students, staff, and administration.

This new commission would supervise Emmanuel’s efforts to create a more open, diverse community, which includes establishing a campus wide Cultural Competency Training Program for students, faculty, staff, and administration, creating a Student Advisory Committee of Multicultural Programs, and planning lectures and campus dialogues on race, developing funding plans to continue the Through the Wire lecture series, and provide increased support for students of color through reconfigured or expanded services.

In February of 2015, Dr. Patricia Rissmeyer, Vice President of Student Affairs, sent out an email to the Emmanuel community inviting students to be nominated for the Student Advisory Committee on Multicultural Programs (SACMP) to strengthen diversity programming on campus, under the direction of Jeffrey Smith Jr. Director of Multicultural Programs in collaboration with staff from Human Resources. Fifteen students of varied age and ethnicity–including former BSU president Adebukola Ajao ’16 and current BSU president Jeannot–were ultimately selected by a panel that included Sister Janet, Dr. Rissmeyer, Carolyn Caveny, and Bill Leonard, Dean of Arts and Sciences. The President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusivity (PCDI) for 2015 included three students, three professors, members of staff and administration including Dr. Rissmeyer, Jeff Smith, and Dean Leonard, Dean of Arts and Sciences.

The full list of SACMP and PCDI members from last spring semester can be read on the Diversity and Inclusivity webpage found on the Emmanuel website. The webpage that has not been updated since May of 2015 and provides no links to outside resources for students of color.

Joined by Dean Leonard, and Jeffrey Smith, Dr. Rissmeyer sat down with The Hub for an interview last week where she noted that the SACMP has never met with the PDCI.

The first meeting of the PDCI  for this semester was Thursday October 29. The group had previously identified three potential outside cultural competency trainers and narrowed it down to one trainer during this meeting. Emmanuel hopes to acquire this trainer for second semester with the help of Erin Farmer Noonan, director of Human Resources.  Dr. Rissmeyer hopes the PDCI will have at least three more meetings throughout the semester.

“We’ve used the open letter to guide conversation, develop strategies to address the letter and deal with diversity across campus,” says Dr. Rissmeyer.  “We’ve got a long to-do list. We’re taking it very seriously and working on it through the President’s Commission, advisory committee and our own offices to address the issues.”

“The letter was a vehicle for students to express opinions, and we listen to what students have to say,” said Dean Leonard.

When asked if there is a lack of desire to understand and support students of color on campus from other students, faculty, or administration, Dr. Rissmeyer disagreed.

“Students and faculty turn out for the Hakim lecture series and there is a high level of participation and interest from students. There is an interest in learning from other cultures,” says Dr. Rissmeyer.

Jeff Smith says, “Staff and faculty are committed, but students of color complain about lack of support from white students.”

Smith discussed some of multicultural events that have been offered between spring semester and the current semester, which have included last semester’s Hakim lecture series featuring Dr. Peggy McIntosh who spoke about white privilege,  an OSAMP Google hangout over the summer which discussed Sandra Bland, the Charleston church shootings, transgender issues and also marriage equality.

“We also had the highest attended NIA retreat for students of color to date with 24 students , which is an increase for this existing event,” said Smith.  “I wish we had more attendance for other multicultural events but I’m happy with this year. I’m always happy to have more students discussing social justice.”

Dr. Rissmeyer notes increased support to Smith and his office, citing the new summer hire of a professional on-call to assist Smith in the office of Multicultural Programs.

According to Smith, “Kenneth Obiora is a graduate assistant and holds a Masters in social work. He assists with program planning and implementation, and expands our connection with social media to make stronger connections with all Emmanuel students, especially students of color. He acknowledges and agrees that more staff of color on campus is important.”

Dean Leonard feels the letter has sparked conversation in the classroom. “The conversations and dialogue have had an effect on making faculty more deliberate in what they discuss,” said Leonard.

Dean Leonard also mentioned a COF Faculty Teaching and Learning conference taking place November 12-13 at Simmons, called Critical Conversations on Campus. This conference is meant to provide faculty with tools to facilitate conversation in the classroom, and focuses on discussing race in predominantly white classrooms, among other topics that were chosen based upon discussions raised last year. Dean Leonard did not elaborate on which Emmanuel professors, if any, will be in attendance.  

When asked if it is necessary for administration to help all students to develop a critical racial consciousness, all three interviewees were in agreement.

 “As an institution of higher learning and of the Sisters of Notre Dame, it is important to help develop a critical consciousness,” said Dean Leonard.

“There may be discomfort for white students but students can benefit. At the edge of discomfort is growth,” says Dr. Rissmeyer.

Committees have been formed but lack of timely, tangible progress has several members of the BSU less than thrilled including former president, Adebukola Ajao.

“The administration’s response was bland and calculated. There was no real passion in their response. It was a soulless response, more aggravatingly, a response that was not backed up by real action.  The administration dilutes our voices by responding to us but not really responding to us,” she says.

Ajao also adds she is a member of the SACMP and the committee met three times spring semester but has not yet met this fall. “This group was meant to appease us and not fix the problems in the letter,” she says.

BSU member Shumon Jenkins ‘18 says he’s seen little to no change at all when it comes to the BSU open letter.  “Last year I feel the BSU did more and this year they seem more controlled,” said Jenkins.

BSU President Ashley Jeannot is hesitant about the effectiveness of the committees thus far. “This will be my first semester on the President’s Commission, and I’ll be honest I am very weary of what to expect,” says Jeannot.

Jeannot is also not satisfied with the administration’s response to the letter. “Emmanuel College has the opportunity to do something great.  If we as a Catholic institution founded off of social justice could unite as a community to implement discussion of race, white privilege, diversity and cultural competency in our curriculum–we can move to being progressive, we can move to inspire our students, other colleges and future alumni,” said Jeannot.

Jeannot believes a temporary band-aid is being put on a severe wound.

“When asking faculty and staff it’s the same old response, ‘it takes time for change,'” said Jeannot. “How much time does an institution founded in 1919 need to realize that there are flaws and change is needed and was needed years ago?”

Posted by on November 5, 2015. Filed under Around Campus,Clubs & Organizations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.