A town hall meeting to discuss racial violence and injustice was organized on June 18 by Wilkes University’s Multicultural Student Coalition and the Office of Diversity Affairs in what will be the first in a series of initiatives to raise awareness and educate the campus community. The meeting, which was attended by more than 40 students, faculty and administrators, was convened on Zoom. Held in response to recent incidents such as the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, the event also provided a forum to begin a dialogue about race on campus.
The event was hosted by Brianna Rowland, senior musical theatre major and president of the Multicultural Student Coalition, Erica Acosta, associate director of diversity affairs, and Troy Lynn Lewis PharmD ’17, assistant professor in the Nesbitt School of Pharmacy. In her opening remarks, Acosta urged participants to listen respectfully and actively and to commit to learning, not debating, about the issues. Rowland outlined that the objectives of the discussion would include acknowledging public reaction to national events as well as addressing ways the Wilkes community can collectively support Black students on campus.
The participating students talked about the challenges of being a Black student on a predominately white campus and about finding their place in the Wilkes community. They agreed that the Office of Diversity Initiatives had supplied the key support in making them feel at home at Wilkes.
The students also shared personal stories about occasions when they experienced microaggressions. Microaggressions are the verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups. “I experienced microaggressive situations that made me want to transfer,” Rowland said of her first semester at Wilkes. That was before she found the Office of Diversity Initiatives, which provided the welcoming atmosphere she sought. “Now I love my University,” she said.
Because the Office of Diversity Initiatives is important in helping students of color feel more welcome and comfortable at Wilkes, the group discussed ways of connecting them with the office earlier in their time on campus. Acosta said she would be developing new outreach initiatives to connect with students and said personal outreach has been a key part of making those connections.
In the question-and-answer portion of the town hall, senior neuroscience and psychology major Morgan Burton noted that the University’s Public Safety Department recently transitioned to become a police department. She asked if there have been any discussions with the department about police brutality and what protocols will be followed to avoid such incidents. Acosta noted that she already has been contacted by Christopher Jagoe, chief of the Wilkes University Police Department, about meeting and beginning a dialogue with students of color.
Burton, who has been an e-Mentor and resident assistant, said that her campus involvement enabled her to navigate the University with more ease than might be available to students who are not in leadership roles. Asked what are the best ways members of the campus community can show support for Black students at this time, Burton said that expressing compassion and understanding is key. She noted that hiring a person of color for university counseling services would be helpful.
Other information shared in the town hall included:
- Acosta and Rowland will meet with academic colleges and schools to share information and educate about issues related to racial injustice, microaggressions and ways to better support students of color on campus.
- Educational resources about racial injustice and related issues are being compiled and will be offered under a tab on the Office of Diversity Issues web page.
- Title IX coordinator Samantha Hart is in the process of updating the University’s policies and procedures related to non-discrimination processes and is streamlining them for students, faculty and staff.
- A question from a representative of The Beacon, asking how the paper can best amplify Black voices on campus, prompted students at the town hall to urge them and the general campus community to attend music, theatre and dance performances presented by students of color. Earlier in the town hall, nursing major Diana Johnsonhad noted that members of the Wilkes African Cultural Association (WACA) had been largely ignored when they performed a dance as part of an event on campus. Johnson also noted that the University supports the association with resources, just as it does other student clubs and organizations.
Participants told attendees that one of the most important things that they can do to reduce racial injustice is to take personal responsibility to educate themselves and speak out against it when they encounter it.
Blake Mackesy, an associate professor in the doctor of education program, agreed. In offering her comments in the chat during the town hall, said,” It is critical that (white) faculty and staff take steps to learn and educate ourselves about racism, power, and privilege and our role in those dynamics. The burden cannot fall to our students of color or historically marginalized groups to explain it. That is exhausting. That is our responsibility and not theirs to know more and do more. We need to engage in these difficult, courageous, and critical conversations as a community. That is one way that we can get better as a community.”
Speakers at the town hall agreed that it is the responsibility of white people to learn more and educate themselves about racism and make both personal and systemic changes. Student Morgan Burton said, “Don’t expect to be spoon fed. Black people aren’t spoon fed. Take it upon yourself and educate yourself.”
Acosta expressed optimism that the recent movement for racial justice in society will continue at Wilkes. “Hopefully having this momentum will lead us to have more systemic change on campus.” University President Cant affirmed his commitment, saying, “Hopefully we’re at the moment in society that is a tipping point, when as a society we get to re-think who we are. The University really wants to be part of that process. The ultimate goal is that all people can fully realize their potential.”
As the town hall concluded, Troy Lynn Lewis said, “This is not just a moment: This is a movement. Everyone on this call is accountable.”