On Halloween 2015—Saturday, Oct. 31—a group of approximately 20 Lawrence students of varying backgrounds knelt in protest against racism at a farmers market in downtown Appleton. That evening, at Sankofa House’s annual Halloween party, Residence Life Manager and junior Tierra Masupha encountered uninvited guests.
“Two students—I’m not sure if it was students or Appleton residents […] came in dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan […] wearing white sheets with some kind of emblem.” Masupha went on to describe how she asked them to remove the sheets, and when they did not comply, to leave.
When they left, Masupha began checking on Sankofa House’s residents. “Next thing I know, the fire alarm is being pulled,” said Masupha. “After that, our party ended […] I tried to give the best identification of the two individuals [to the fire department] that I could.”
Masupha, who is also the web coordinator for Multicultural Affairs at Lawrence, took her story to University President Mark Burstein’s office hours, where they decided together that a meeting with students of color on campus would be necessary as a first step in addressing concerns about life at Lawrence. “Because there isn’t a listserv of every student of color on campus, he relied on me to contact those people [… I] contacted all the leaders that I knew and told them to spread the news—I contacted as many people as I knew surrounding [those groups].”
“It doesn’t surprise me that we as a Lawrence community have some of the same struggles [that we as a nation do],” said President Burstein in an interview with The Lawrentian. “For me, what is a disappointment is that we’re not farther along.”
Burstein called for a dinner with a group of Lawrence students of color to learn about some of the issues that individual students were facing, which took place on Nov. 17.
“We [had] to have some form of structure to this meeting,” said Masupha. “We [decided] to schedule a meeting for students of color […] and asked people to submit some different concerns and demands that they [thought] would be beneficial to people of color on campus.” Masupha, along with several other student leaders, began drafting a document composed of two main sections to present to Burstein at the dinner meeting.
The first, and longer of the two, was a list of demands—things on campus and in the Lawrence community that needed to change in order for students of color to feel safe and accepted. The second part of the document was a list of names of faculty and staff members the composers felt should be investigated for instances of racism.
At the Nov. 17 meeting, students presented Burstein and Dean of Students Curt Lauderdale with some of their individual experiences with negativity towards people of color on campus and in Appleton. Burstein and Lauderdale were then presented with the completed list of demands and names.
While dialogue with students had been unfolding over the course of Fall Term, Burstein stressed that the administration was discussing many of the same issues amongst themselves. “What struck me about the demands was how much what the students were thinking about were along the same lines as what the faculty and administration were thinking about. For example, the students […] pointed out the need to […] hire someone who does this as their primary work. Many call this a diversity and inclusion officer. [… That demand was mirrored] in a proposal from the faculty Governance Committee from 2013.”
The next morning, the demands were emailed to students on the Lawrence University Community Council Committee On Diversity Affairs’ (CODA) listserv and shared publicly on CODA’s Facebook page. “Words cannot accurately describe the experience, emotions and solidarity that manifested throughout the night,” CODA said on their Face-book page, prefacing the list of demands and names. “We will be working with the students, staff and faculty of color to ensure these demands and concerns are met.”
The document generated over 70 direct Facebook comments, spanning a range of positive and negative reactions. Many of the negative comments were directed towards the inclusion of the list of names, which those who opposed it claimed harmed the careers of those named and distracted from the larger issue of racism on campus.
The demands themselves initially existed as a Google document open for editing by a select group of students. Senior Daniel Card was invited to contribute, but chose not to participate. “At first, when the document came out, I was pretty upset. The reason why is because it was mostly me focusing on the calling out of professors, one of which is my Posse mentor,” said Card.
However, Card later came to feel differently about the demands. “I stepped back and actually talked to members who were part of the creation of the document […] Upon talking to them, I started to understand that despite the fact that I do have my biases and I don’t see this professor in a certain way, this is what a particular set of group of people or one person has experienced, and by me speaking out against it [calling out the names], it kind of invalidates their experiences,” added Card.
“[Posting it on Facebook] wasn’t an attempt to jeopardize anyone. That was the quickest [way to reach] people of color on campus. A series of comments came back, and complaints, mostly towards the list of professors’ names,” said Masupha. CODA eventually removed the list of names from the Facebook post.
Burstein was off campus at the time that the document was posted online. However, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Dave Burrows and Vice President for Student Affairs Nancy Truesdell responded by issuing public statements via email. Burrows clarified that no investigations would be conducted against any of the named persons since the complaints had not been filed according to the university’s grievance procedures.
Burstein later said that the inclusion of the list of names in the document, rather than in a formally submitted grievance, highlighted a significant problem with the afore-mentioned procedures.
In the week following the meeting, many students, including Masupha, felt especially unsafe in the community due to threats made in the wake of the Facebook comments on the list of demands and threats on other forms of social media, such as Yik Yak. She also experienced someone slowing down their car as she walked from her dance final, “just to tell me to go, get out of Appleton—they said ‘go home you n—er.’ I was afraid.”
At the time, said Masupha, at least 20 students were spending their days in the Diversity Center, and at least 10 were sleeping there overnight, waiting to leave Appleton for winter break. “The Diversity Center was locked down for almost two weeks, the doors were covered with paper—students stayed here all night […] A lot of people didn’t even sleep because they were afraid […] A lot of people felt like there was a war going on upstairs.”
Shortly after the demands were released, faculty and staff of color published an open letter to students of color. The letter had been in the works approximately a week before the demands were released. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a direct response to the demands, but rather an effort to reach out and show solidarity for students of color.
Associate Dean of Students for Campus Programs Paris Wicker initially wrote the letter upon hearing students’ concerns regarding racism. After receiving comments from other Lawrence employees, Wicker invited colleagues of color to sign if they were in agreement.
“After talking with the students and just seeing a lot of the pain and the frustration and the loneliness that a lot of the students felt, [we] thought that it might be a way to show solidarity—to let them know that there are people that are working for and with them,” said Wicker.
Over the break, a committee met once a week and sometimes more often to strictly discuss the demands. Nonetheless, tensions remained high and were escalated when a racial slur was published in a photograph in Lawrence’s 2015 Annual Report.
Since the end of last term, the administration has been working on a plan involving measures to meet the demands and increase the safety and comfort of students of color on campus. Measures currently in the works include increasing the ethnic studies program—potentially including a major—hiring more faculty of color, ongoing diversity and inclusion training, increased Diversity Center resources and streamlining the university’s grievance procedure. The measures were detailed at an “Important Campus Community Gathering” on Thursday, Jan. 7 in the Somerset room of the Warch Campus Center.
Last week’s event was crowded throughout most of the three-hour time frame. While the event was successful, members of the administration have acknowledged that it is just one step in a sustained dialogue that needs to occur in order to create a diverse, inclusive and safe community.
According to Wicker, systematic changes in the university’s procedures need to be combined with changes at the small group level, for example within residence life and campus programming. Most importantly, individual reflection by all community members will be critical in making Lawrence a more inclusive community. “My goal and hope is that within those three levels—systematic, small group and individual—that we can start to see diversity and inclusion be really intentional, because it does take work,” said Wicker.