Give diversity organizations the support they deserve

Memorial Hall is home to many of Lawrence's diversity organizations. Photo by Rongyan Song.

The opinions expressed in The Lawrentian are those of the students, faculty and community members who wrote them. The Lawrentian does not endorse any opinions piece except for the staff editorial, which represents a majority of the editorial board. The Lawrentian welcomes everyone to submit their own opinions. For the full editorial policy and parameters for submitting articles, please refer to the about section.

Lawrence University needs to provide more administrative support for its diversity organizations if it wants to continue branding itself as an inclusive campus. For years, Lawrentians from marginalized backgrounds have borne the responsibility of organizing the school’s diversity programming without proper compensation or assistance from paid staff, and diversity organization leaders are fed up. 

When I first arrived at Lawrence last year, the members of Pan-Asian Organization (PAO) welcomed me into their community and supported me as I adjusted to my new environment. As a biracial, Asian-presenting woman who didn’t grow up in an Asian community, I was so excited to find a group of people who shared some of my experiences and knew how to navigate the Lawrence campus culture. Their kindness and understanding played an integral role in my decision not to transfer out of Lawrence during my freshman year. When I learned that PAO needed to fill several board positions for the next year, I eagerly volunteered because I wanted to take a more active role in this organization that had done so much for me. 

Joining PAO has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I’m extremely proud of the work my fellow board members have put into this community. Our five-member board delegates tasks efficiently and ensures that no single member is overburdened. I am honored to serve my community through PAO, and this op-ed is not a rant about diversity organizations. However, diversity organizations require a great amount of unpaid labor that often goes unrecognized, and I want to advocate for the resources and respect we deserve. 

Marginalized students automatically enter Lawrence at a disadvantage due to the unequal power structures that have existed in the United States since long before Lawrence was even founded. They’re frequently subjected to culture shock and microaggressions – not only from the Lawrence community, but from the city of Appleton itself. When they enter diversity spaces, they often find the support they need, but it comes at a cost. Members must dedicate their precious time to organizing events so the organization can continue its work. Since systemic oppression keeps many marginalized students in poverty, they do not always have the privilege to devote their time to volunteer work rather than paid labor, but if the members don’t volunteer, the organization will crumble. Therefore, marginalized students bear a double burden: they are often the students most in need of assistance, but they are expected to provide the most assistance. 

Furthermore, Lawrence frequently claims credit for marginalized students’ work in order to present the university as an inclusive space. For example, the Lawrence homepage features a brilliant photo of Cabaret, the annual cultural festival organized by student volunteers from Lawrence International, and most of the photos on Lawrence’s homepage feature students of color. This tokenization helps Lawrence appear committed to diversity and inclusion while ignoring the systemic problems that affect marginalized students. 

I will give credit where credit is due; I want to acknowledge the paid staff members who have helped us along the way. PAO’s faculty advisor, Linda Morgan-Clement, has always supported us with patience, strength, and grace. The staff at the Diversity and Intercultural Center – Jessica Quintana and Asher McMullin – have also dedicated their lives to fostering a community for marginalized students. In addition, Dr. Brittany Bell always advocated for diversity organizations as Director of the Diversity and Intercultural Center, though her promotion to Dean of Students has left the office vacant. Dr. Eric Mayes serves as Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, while recent Lawrence graduate Nora Robinson was hired as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellow and Helen Boyd Kramer stepped into the role of Affinity Group Coordinator. 

However, half a dozen people cannot unravel a centuries-old legacy of systemic oppression by themselves, even if they are highly qualified and passionate about their work. Although people of color do hold prominent administrative roles, their appointments do not magically obliterate all forms of discrimination that marginalized students face. Representation matters and leaders of color should be recognized for their successes, but leaders of color cannot do their best work when they do not receive enough support. Many diversity leaders are underpaid and undervalued, leading to a high staff turnover rate and multiple critical vacancies. If we want to eliminate barriers for marginalized students, we need to radically restructure our university, and we cannot start this revolution without a large team and adequate resources. 

Memorial Hall is home to many of Lawrence’s diversity organizations. Photo by Rongyan Song.

To put it simply, we need the Lawrence administration to take a more active role in diversity and inclusion. While there are dozens of areas for improvement, I think Lawrence needs to start with three specific goals. First of all, we need a large diversity-orientated staff that is adequately compensated for the important work they do. Second, we need these leaders to work alongside student organization leaders on diversity events so students don’t have to bear the burden alone. Third, we need an efficient system to handle bias reports in a timely manner and end policies that fail to accommodate marginalized students. 

I do believe that Lawrence is moving in the right direction when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and I do not want to diminish the progress that people of color have made here. However, I’ve also noticed that Lawrence relies heavily on surface-level representation and empty statements rather than firm action. We read land acknowledgments at campus events, but do we give Indigenous students the community, resources, and protections they need to thrive? We put up signs in the bathrooms saying “trans people are welcome here”, but do we have a campuswide system to ensure that trans and nonbinary students do not get outed, misgendered and deadnamed? Small gestures of inclusion can contribute to a more welcoming campus culture, but only if they reflect the larger efforts behind the scenes.