by Tonya Wells
As the nation struggles with race relations, Southeast has been quietly working on the issue for the past year.
When 18-year-old unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, something shifted. The past year has been marked by renewed conversations about race, protests and, in some cases, violence. With all the conversations surrounding the events of Ferguson and those that have followed, one thing was certain in the struggle: the need for honest dialogue about race relations.
BEGINNING THE CONVERSATION
One hundred and thirty miles south of Ferguson, that struggle continues. In a stuffy conference room on Southeast’s campus, 30 or so people cram into a room. They edge behind the tables single file to find a place to sit, greeting one another as they pass. The meeting is of the President’s Task Force on Diversity Education, a group set up a year ago to tackle diversity issues on Southeast Missouri State University’s campus following the events in Ferguson. The 34-person task force is comprised of students, faculty and staff of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. It was begun to answer concerns brought forward by students about diversity issues on campus and to ensure enough was being done in those areas across campus. If your imagination conjures a bureaucratic committee making motions and sharing institutional “pats on the back,” you’d be wrong. For the next two and half hours, students, faculty and staff discuss issues in a breathtakingly honest fashion. As a nation, we struggle with what to say about racism, with some even questioning just how much it still exists. In the University Center Redhawk Room, no one tip-toes, no one acts coy, no one beats around the bush.
The Task Force is 10 months old. A group still in its infancy, yet maturation is a must. The group was formed with a one-year timeline to create recommendations for the University community for real change regarding diversity and inclusion education. With two months left on the clock, there’s no time for processes. The meeting is cordial but probably unlike the other meetings that have been held in this room throughout the day. The participants always know where each other stand.
“We said at that first meeting,” says Dr. Morris Jenkins, dean of the College of Health and Human Services and co-chair of the committee, “that we are going to offend. I’m going to say something that offends you. You’re going to say something that offends me. Do it respectfully. Do it honestly.”
He laughs at the thought. But Jenkins probably laughs more than most would when discussing race relations. He’s had a lifetime of experience with the topic, and at this point, he’s decided he knows what it takes to get things done. A bio that reads like four lifetimes, or at least one heck of a Lifetime movie, Jenkins grew up in a working class family in Detroit. He says he was a first generation high school graduate with parents obsessed with making sure he didn’t stop there. He’s thankful for that, because he says where he lived, your only choice was which gang to join. He says, at that time, most of what he knew of white people was gleaned from Ozzie & Harriet. He recounts how fortunate he was not to ever get into serious trouble but says he has plenty of regrets. Jenkins says he went on to flunk out of Michigan State, finding the Army and later the Marines, which brought higher education into a much more pleasing light. Returning to college, he did so this time in his parents’ native South Carolina. He graduated and headed to Florida for law school. A part-time teaching gig while he practiced law, gave him the “bug” for teaching. He went to Boston for graduate school.
A lover of education, and a testament to the difference it can make in life, Jenkins’ main focus on the diversity task force is enhancements to the curriculum.
“We have to strategically look at everything we’re doing to give maximum exposure to these issues in all our majors and programs,” Jenkins says. “It’s not only important from a moral standpoint but an economic standpoint. If you want to make money, you have to learn to deal with everyone.”
Jenkins’ co-chair, Dr. Debbie Below, vice president of enrollment management and student success, and also dean of students, shares his feelings about the benefits a diverse education brings to the global workplace. A precursory evaluation might have you think that’s the last similarity between Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Below.
Below grew up far from Detroit, both literally and figuratively, in a working class family in Washington, Missouri. Like some Southeast students, she attended a predominantly white school, with college providing her first multicultural classroom experience. Also a first generation student, Below says she thrived in a diverse environment and that’s something she’s proud Southeast offers to its students. She came to Southeast to major in public relations and minor in marketing. After graduating, she joined Southeast as an admissions counselor before taking a position as director of admissions for Jefferson College. She later returned to Southeast for a third time, this time as the University’s director of admissions. And here, you see the most noticeable similarity between the co-chairs. Like Jenkins, her love for the school is unmatched only by her dedication to all of its students.
“If I can see a passion for succeeding in our students,” she says, “that’s really what I care about. They have each made a significant investment to be here, and they all deserve the same opportunities. We have a responsibility to listen to our students.”
And, that’s just what Below did last year as events in Ferguson unfolded and the pain and grief reached the campus.
When the first round of unrest occurred after the shooting, Southeast offered students who lived in Ferguson the opportunity to move back to campus a week early for the fall 2014 semester. When protests along with looting and the burning of businesses in Ferguson occurred after the Grand Jury decision just before Thanksgiving in 2014, Southeast offered students from Ferguson the option of staying at the University over the holiday weekend.
“It was so emotional for my friends and me,” says Kimisha Robinson, a senior public relations student from Ferguson. “I was just wishing I could do … something.” Robinson is biracial. When describing her family, she mentions black, white, Creole, Irish, Native American. She grew up in Ferguson and says her grandparents lived 100 feet from where Mike Brown was shot. That proximity makes the events more sensitive.
“That was my neighborhood.”
As Robinson remembers the evening of the Grand Jury decision and what took place in her home, you see a steely determination set across her jawline. The expression proves the adage about the stages of grief: at some point it turns to anger. But Robinson is adamant that that wasn’t her goal.
“I didn’t want to bring anger,” she says. “There was plenty of anger at home. We were here, and I wanted us to be able to channel whatever we were feeling. I started posting on social media, tagged students I knew, and announced a peaceful protest.”
Robinson never mentions the protests without saying peaceful. When questioned, she says it was important to her that the students she was inviting didn’t get the wrong idea. The demonstration was to be cathartic, healing, with a focus on police brutality, particularly of young black males.
More than 50 students showed up for the initial protest, and Robinson got her wish. They chanted, they prayed, and they wanted to continue to shed light on the problem. Additional protests were scheduled, but those weren’t the only results.
“There were a lot of negative comments from the community,” she says. “There were racist comments on Yik Yak [a social media platform that allows people to comment anonymously within a certain geographic range, in many cases, a university]. There were negative comments on the local newspaper website. I felt like maybe people had always been thinking that, and a peaceful protest brought it out.”
“There were 33 thumbs up,” says Kevin Windham, a senior corporate communication student from St. Louis who became involved with the Southeast protests initially because Michael Brown, Sr., is a family friend.
When Windham says he still has a print out of the comments from Yik Yak, you can tell they made an impact. Both Robinson and Windham say they weren’t surprised by the comments, but their expressions reveal the sting that invariably came from classmates and community members espousing racial comments. Enter Below, who approached students during the protests to find out what they wanted the University to know about what they were doing or what the University could do for them.
“I remember a student said ‘don’t feel sorry for me,’” Below says. “That’s what they asked for, don’t pity me.”
The students were interested in learning about protecting their rights as they protested. Below asked if they would like to meet with the University’s Department of Public Safety (DPS). She says she was happy to help and also to provide some additional safety measures for students in light of what was happening with protests around the nation.
“That meeting with DPS went so well, and students shared that they have always had good relations with our campus police,” she says. “We helped organize another meeting with the students and Student Government. The result was one and a half hours of dialogue that was the most authentic I’ve ever seen students have. There was lots of talking with each other about improving the relationship between African-American students and the rest of the student body.”
UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER
Below says while the students did reflect on the positive experiences they had at Southeast, it was apparent there was room for improvement. Because students had brought the issues to the administration’s attention, she says, the University wanted to help address problems where they existed and work so all students experienced a more inclusive environment. The President’s Task Force on Diversity Education was born, and students, faculty and staff were invited to participate. Ferguson and related events brought the Task Force to life, and much of the discussion has revolved around race relations, but the group’s over-arching task is to increase inclusion and dedicate time to a variety of student populations with student members representing a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures.
Wise beyond his years, Windham feels it’s imperative that some form of diversity or inclusion training be offered regardless what field a student is pursuing.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he says. “If you don’t know what you’re doing right or wrong, you can’t adjust.”
That statement reveals that sometimes offense does occur without intent, and Windham believes like everything else in life, education is the answer. He says he was never really an activist. He went to the first protest because of his connection to the Brown family and he wanted to be a constructive voice. Since then, he’s become a vocal member of the Task Force, been elected a student government senator and secretary of the Black Student Union.
Windham is unapologetic in his views, but to anyone who has a conversation with him about said views, he makes an impression. Enthusiasm oozes from him regardless of whether he’s discussing white flight, the Task Force or his latest school assignment. He gives everything, literally, everything he’s got. And, while that much passion might lend itself to burn out, his level-headedness usually wins out. He says he’s not used to the slow pace of a university when it comes to change. To this 22-year old, problem determined meet solution identified seems simple enough. But he knows, process and procedure take time. He’s adapting his eager mentality but is no less determined.
“I’m so fired up, and we’re a task force. We should be doing tasks,” he says. “We have had a lot of productive conversations and ideas though. And, it’s important to do it right.”
Windham says he feels obligated to be a voice. After being upset by the initial online backlash the protests on campus brought, he says the University came to the students with an open mind to institute change and better race relations.
“I just decided I’m going to be part of it to make something happen. It took me looking within myself to do something. It makes me happy. Definitely more can be done, and we will do it.”
It was students like Windham who made the greatest impression on Department of Criminal Justice Chair Dr. Jeremy Ball. Ball has only been at Southeast since August and is the Task Force’s newest member having only attended a few meetings thus far.
“Our students are strong,” he says of his first meeting. “They don’t hold anything back. To be outspoken in that setting and speak professionally and honestly your viewpoint to faculty and administrators is impressive.”
Ball says he can understand the students getting defeated with the slow pace of bureaucracy, but he sees no evidence of that happening with the Task Force.
“They’re around the table. They’re continuing that dialogue. And, it’s the University’s responsibility to fight for students who are around that table and for the students who are not around that table. You have to allow a voice of critique to be successful and what better place for honest critique than a university?”
Ball says any incentive to conversation is a right first step. He grew up in Indiana, and went to a school made up of 40 percent African-American students. Ball says race hadn’t entered the picture when it came to his black friends until they came to his house for a party.
“I never thought about it, how they might feel. I was surprised when they were uneasy.”
Ball says he sees that with races all the time. “They miss each other,” he says, moving his hands towards each other parallel. He says because of their different backgrounds and experiences, dialogue doesn’t always resonate between the races. There are different communications styles between all people. He says it is the University’s responsibility to change its communication style to help students learn better.
“And, we have to teach students to communicate when we see them missing each other. We should all try to understand each other.”
That’s a tough task when there are segments of the population who feel they aren’t racist and don’t understand how it then becomes their responsibility when they bear no direct blame.
“I would explain it this way,” says Ball. “When you see a person with a walker entering a building, why should you go out of your way to hold the door for them? Race isn’t a disability, but you have not lived their life. You don’t know what that’s like, so why wouldn’t you put forth effort?”
Realizing that students each bring different experiences with them and that those differences matter in how they learn has also been a focus of the Task Force. In addition to curriculum changes, the Task Force has discussed diversity training, making faculty aware of the changing populations they are teaching; the need for more diverse faculty; assisting students, especially first-generation students, with internships; ensuring that process and procedures make sense for all students; and more inclusion and equality overall on campus and with alumni.
With the Task Force winding down its role, both Below and Jenkins foresee a group carrying forth the recommendations to ensure action. That work could perhaps be guided by the University’s coordinator of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Sonia Rucker. Rucker was hired in April 2015 to serve as Title IX coordinator and to supervise and develop strategies to enhance cultural diversity, tolerance, affirmative action and equal opportunity at Southeast.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
No organization wants to admit it has a race problem, but clearly racism still exists in the United States. Below says as the country grows a little weary of having the conversation, she wants people to know the University is tackling it.
“I hope people understand that talking about diversity is preparing 12,000 students to live and work in a global society. If we weren’t having these difficult conversations, we’d be doing a disservice to our students. That would have been a sad, missed opportunity.”
As for the students, they want people to understand. What exactly they want people to understand may be the toughest thing imaginable. Because until you have those experiences, you can’t really imagine them. Until you have been called a racial slur, you can’t know what that feels like.
Windham says until you have been cuffed for a routine traffic stop while your plates are run through the system by officers, you can’t understand how that makes you feel as a law-abiding citizen.
Robinson relays it this way. A white student in a classroom filled with predominantly African-American students would feel out of place. Yet, that’s something she deals with in basically every class she has. And more heartbreakingly, she says justice feels far off.
“I’m still waiting for just one officer to be convicted,” she says finally breaking. Trying to explain racism to someone who has never experienced it is frustrating. The tears well up, but she refuses to acquiesce. “I feel angry. Sad. Helpless.”
It’s in that helplessness that she finds the strength to continue work with the Task Force. No stranger to hard work, Robinson has worked three jobs, including full time at a local advertising agency, to put herself through school and earn a degree in public relations. She says she hasn’t been discouraged for one moment since the group was formed.
“Southeast is a good place for me. If white students said they were treated unfairly, I would want to know why. I would want to work to make it better. I want people to have a change of mind and heart while they’re here.”
Ball and Jenkins both say there are plenty of workshops and lectures designed to help students put themselves in each other’s shoes. Both have used them in class and hope for the opportunity to do so with a wider University focus.
“You know, I can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman,” Jenkins says. “But I have hope in people coming together. Surprisingly, students are closer than the old folks. I’m not that concerned about students being accepting of different cultures. They are on their way.”
“The students who are conscious of these issues and helping to make change really give me hope,” says Robinson.
Windham also feels optimistic as the Task Force works on final recommendations.
“Hope. I have hope. And, I’m personally invested in the overall effort,” he says. “If what I’m doing now, helps my little brother out in 18 years when he’s in college, it’ll be great. I’ll be absolutely happy. I feel a sense of pride in that.”
Taking Action and Listening
Following the Ferguson protests on campus in 2014, students led an initiative with faculty and staff to discuss diversity and inclusion at Southeast.
Task Force Members
Faculty and Staff
Task Force Members
Debbie Below, co-chair
Morris Jenkins, co-chair
Task Force Members
December 15, 2015
December 15, 2015
December 11, 2015