Voices for Change: Talk about it

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By: Cody Boteler, Senior Editor and Carley Milligan, Editor-in-Chief

To join the ongoing conversation about racial issues on campus, in Baltimore and around the country, The Towerlight reached out to a number of Towson students who are already involved in those issues to help explore the complexity of them.

The majority of students interviewed expressed concerns about the disparity between what the University is doing to improve race and diversity relations on campus, and what students say they have actually experienced as a result.

Many of those students spoke about some of the same issues and shared the same concerns.

This is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather a sampling of things that are happening on campus. We’re limited by space and time. We know that the issues we’re bringing up, and the students we talked to, are all deserving of much more column space than we are able to give.

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Vanessa Agbar is attorney general in the Student Government Association and former president of the African Diaspora Club. She’s also a first-generation American – her parents are from Nigeria.
Last year, when Agbar was still president of ADC, she went to an SGA meeting where the senate was voting on allocating funds for an ADC event. She said that, while she was there, it felt like the SGA was “interrogating” their cultural event.

“That’s [the senate’s] job, in a sense, to make sure it goes along with the financial policy, but the way it was done, it didn’t feel inclusive,” Agbar said.

One of the reasons that she got involved with SGA was to try and keep that kind of situation from happening to other students, she said.

“I wanted to make a more inclusive environment for Towson students,” Agbar said.

Agbar has suggested adding to Towson’s curriculum to help make required courses at the University more inclusive.

“I feel like there should be a core that deals with race issues,” she said. “Something to enlighten students. What you don’t know can hurt you, regardless of what ethnicity you are.”

All students must complete the 14-category core curriculum at TU in order to graduate.

Cores 10-14 are designated as “perspectives” courses. They are “Metropolitan Perspectives,” “The United States as a Nation,” “Global Perspectives,” “Diversity & Difference,” and “Ethical Issues and Perspectives.”

A student could make it through cores 10-14 without taking a course about racial diversity. As the core curriculum stands, a student could complete the entire core curriculum, and in many cases their entire degree, without taking a course that discusses racial topics.

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Fresia Blanco is a sophomore immigrant from El Salvador and vice president of Towson’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Blanco immigrated to the United States when she was three years old, and was able to gain citizenship relatively easily because her mother already had citizenship. Her time in the States has not all been easy, however.

“My dad was arrested when I was seven and deported,” Blanco said. “He’s been gone for like 12 years. Immigration is definitely something that’s impacted my life.”

On campus, Blanco sees a lot of “cliquey” behavior in classes.

“In every class I don’t really feel like I have that one person I can talk to unless it’s someone of color, and that’s kind of sad,” Blanco said.

To start bridging those culture gaps, Blanco said, people just need to start talking.

“Just getting the conversation going, that’s what we want to do with awareness,” Blanco said. “Just talk to people, because it could make that big of a difference.”

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Photo by Patrick Burke.
Photo by Patrick Burke.

John Gillespie is a social justice activist who has become heavily involved in working with the Center for Student Diversity, his professors, friends and colleagues to better understand problems surrounding race and diversity at Towson.

In April, he worked to organize a protest the week following the death of Freddie Gray where hundreds, possibly thousands, of students from local schools marched from Penn Station to Baltimore City Hall.

This semester and throughout the summer, however, Gillespie said that he has put much of his energy into reading, studying and educating himself about the complexities of diversity and social justice in order to better understand how he wants to further his activism, through what he calls “radical love.”

He hopes to spread this love in educational settings, such as last semester’s teach-ins, because he feels this is one of the best ways to work with and talk to students, regardless of their race.

Because he grew up in Cecil County, which according to census data was 89.3 percent white in 2014, Gillespie said that he has had more experience approaching the conversation of diversity and racism with white individuals.

Gillespie said that one of the problems with Towson is that it is “the kind of racism that won’t admit that it’s racist.”

“Racism without racists is so much more difficult because it’s just like you have to dig deep and show that what you are doing is causing harm to someone,” he said.

Once he recalled, when he was in a room full of white Towson students, they replaced the n-word in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” with his first name while singing the song as a group.

“They said, ‘I ain’t sayin she a gold digger, she aint messin’ with no broke John,’ and that became the chorus of the song,” Gillespie said. “I grew up in a pretty racist place, and that was one of the most direct senses of racism I ever faced. But the difference is once again in Cecil County they knew they were being racist, but here they had no recollection of the fact that that was racist.”

Gillespie said that one way to bridge the social gap between students of color and white students on campus is to involve the Interfraternity Council, where he feels a majority of white students with power to influence others are.

“The best way to draw white crowds is you involve IFC fraternities in it and you tell them, ‘you are gonna get CAP if you come,’” Gillespie said.

CAP, or the Chapter Assessment Program, is the tool the University uses to assess each chapter’s participation and performance in personal, campus and community involvement.

Gillespie feels that there should be a way to enforce that the fraternities and sororities are staying for the entirety of these diversity events and truly engaging in them.

The student interest in these conversations will only start when professors attend cultural competency workshops, he said.

“I think it needs to be something that is implemented in our institution from the educational, professorial level, where we are teaching students about this in class, but also the professors have to be knowledgeable on the topic as well,” Gillespie said.

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Korey Johnson won a national debate title and led thousands of students through the streets of Baltimore all before her senior year of college. She’s actively involved in issues of racial justice on campus and in the surrounding community.

One problem that Johnson sees on campus is a lack of nonwhite faculty, in particular, nonwhite tenured professors.

Johnson said she remembers being incredibly excited to take a class in the Honors College called “From Hip-Hop to Barack: 21st Century African-American Literature.” The class was taught by Tara Bynum and it was the first time Johnson saw an honors class focusing on racial issues.

Bynum was a member of the English department before she left after being denied tenure.

“She really meant a lot to the Black student body,” Johnson said. “To see her not get tenure hit a lot of us, because professors don’t return when they don’t get tenure.”

Johnson said that the current process for getting tenure is like “a popularity contest” and she is currently working to research the topic and try to reform the process.

For students of color, the problems with having exclusively, or almost exclusively, white faculty can be based in academics or personal comfort.

Johnson explained that entering classrooms filled with white students and white professors day after day can become uncomfortable. Blanco said that she doesn’t always feel comfortable approaching a white professor to discuss her grades.

Gillespie said that he’s had to make academic sacrifices because of the lack of professors of color on campus.

“Even the professors that I do plan on doing independent research projects with I love, but I know for a fact that they would not do the content justice the same way a Black professor would.”

In Fall 2014, of the 595 tenured or tenure track professors at Towson, 456 identified as white, 27 as African-American or black, 16 as Hispanic or Latino, 10 as “unknown” and two as “two or more races,” according to a document from the Office of Institutional Research.

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David Ward is the co-chair of the Council of Diverse Student Organizations and has played an active role in the CSD and other multicultural clubs at Towson for the past two years. He’s also a white man.

Ward has also begun taking part in occasional self-motivated “experiments” in which he and a friend take turns approaching white students to explain to them, using an identical script, why it is important they educate themselves about racial issues.

They have found that when his friend, a black man, approaches students, he is met with resistance. Ward is generally received with a more open response.

“It’s really annoying because I guess people see him as the angry black man and it’s like, he’s saying the same stuff that I’m saying,” Ward said.

Ward used white anti-racism activist Tim Wise, who visited Towson on Sept. 23, as an example of this approach to reach white individuals.

“[It] is a shame that is has to be this way, but some white people just won’t listen to a black person talk about the same stuff,” Ward said.

These experiences have lead Ward to contemplate what his role, and the roles of other white anti-racism activists, can be in the growing national conversation about race and social justice.

He has found that knowing when to play his part, echoing the voices of the leaders and people who have actually experienced racism rather than just witnessed it, and oftentimes being a silent ally willing to help in any way needed, are the best ways to do so.

Ward said he encourages white students to listen to the leaders of the movements, to venture away from the comfort of friend groups, connect with a new and diverse group of people and explore different opinions in order to seek the bigger truth.

Ward said that an individual’s future in America is often determined simply by the life they are born into, and that oftentimes, those living in poverty are unable to improve the quality of their lives because of the inescapable system put in place by white, educated, wealthy people.

“Someone like me, or someone like these frat boys, we don’t have to think about that if we don’t want to,” Ward said. “We can live our whole life and we don’t have to think about anything like that, and it’s just a damn shame that these little kids are born into it. That’s all it is, I was just born in a different shade.”

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Bilphena Yahwon has had several years of experience working with a wide array of Towson’s multicultural groups and the CSD, and has held a position on the CDSO.

She’s also written and self-published a book about her social justice work and her life as a refugee who came to America from Liberia with her family in 2001, called “teaching gold-mah how to heal herself.”

Because of the role she has taken on campus as a social justice activist, Yahwon said she has received public hate from Towson students, in particular on the popular social media app YikYak. At times, she has feared leaving her room and traveling campus alone.

“I’ve been doing this for five years now and it’s exhausting doing social justice work at Towson,” Yahwon said. “Your spirit gets broken so many times. I’ve had students call me out by name, I’ve had videos of me posted on white supremacy websites, I’ve had people send me pictures of skulls and KKKs in my email.”

Like Gillespie, Yahwon feels that a change in student’s understanding and acceptance of other races and cultures can only start in the classrooms, which in turn can only be implemented by the University. This, she said, is how students will start to see a change on campus and act on that it in their own lives in response.

“If professors aren’t being forced to take cultural competency workshops why would they care? Students are getting stuck because they are force fed this very fantasy and whimsical idea of what diversity is. They hear it, they hear it, they hear it, but they are not necessarily eating it up and digesting it,” Yahwon said.

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This is a sampling of things that are happening on and around this campus, not a comprehensive survey.

Every student that The Towerlight interviewed said that one of the ways to start addressing issues of racial inequality was to talk about them, and to talk openly without fear.

The Towerlight will continue to participate in the conversation by keeping you up-to-date on events that are happening and by investigating topics, like tenureship, that are connected to issues of racial equality.

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