This is an essay about breaking past barriers toward transformation and renewal. Yet, it is impossible to break down barriers without acknowledging a level of discomfort. The hashtags “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#AntiBlackISU” (ABISU) are terms we have grown accustomed to seeing and hearing. Yet, these phrases continue to stir controversy, even in 2021, which says a great deal about the challenges still faced in this country. Many of us remain concerned about the future and I will admit that as one of only two Black faculty members in the School of Communication, at times I feel out of place and uncomfortable. Yet, the work must continue, and I know my presence here represents the many paths paved before me and I welcome the hard and, at times, painful work that is necessary to transform Illinois State University. – Dr. Byron Craig
The face of student activism in 2019-2020
In the past decade, the U.S. has witnessed a “renaissance of student activism” (See for example, a study published The Atlantic, “Renaissance of Student Activism,” 2015). While protests on college and university campuses have targeted such issues as gun control and campus safety, women’s rights, sexual assault, protests against wars, and tuition increase, perhaps the most ongoing protests have been over issues of racial bias and inequality.
On the campus of Illinois State University, the Black Homecoming Committee (BHC), a registered student organization that works alongside the Black Student Union, played an important role in the activism this campus witnessed beginning in fall of 2019. The BHC was formed to provide Black students on campus an opportunity to experience the joys of homecoming and fellowship with those who look like them without the pressure of fitting in at a predominantly white institution, known in higher education as “PWIs.” Across the U.S., Black homecomings and the committees that form them pay homage to Black cultural influences—including our music, our foods, our clothing, our dancing styles, our art and media styles, and our history in the U.S.
In the fall of 2019, the long-awaited Black homecoming concert—the central activity of Black Homecoming—was cancelled following a series of events which were later acknowledged by campus leaders as a missed opportunity to learn from and embrace the creative efforts and ingenuity of Black Homecoming student leaders. Student organizers viewed the cancellation of the Homecoming concert as a tipping point to the many issues they had experienced as students at ISU.
“Students began to speak out on all of the instances of implicit bias and microaggressions they were experiencing,” said student and ABISU member Ashley Dumas. She recalls one example of these microaggressions being made to feel as if wearing her braids to a science lab was problematic. Like many other Black students, leaders from Black Homecoming felt that the compounded strains of systemic racism mirrored the oppression Black people were experiencing all over the country, and it was taking its toll. So, the students organized, held protests, and created a comprehensive list of demands. With a creative use of social media and a well-organized communication platform, the University community—and the community at large—took notice. After the protests in the fall of 2019, Black students presented their list of demands and asked ISU administration to recognize their concerns and make a commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution. As a result of the students’ efforts, meetings ensued in the fall of 2019—dialogue to gather input, address demands, and show progress.
Hosted by University President Larry Dietz, the meetings continued through this spring, with student leaders Isaac Hollis ’20, Black Homecoming Committee Chair Ashley Dumas, Student Government Association (SGA) officer Kiana McClellan, Genesis Robinson, Black Student Union President Alexa Epps, former SGA President Samiat Solebo, current SGA President Lauren Harris, and Student Trustee Jada Turner. University leaders who committed to meeting two to three times per semester with the students included President Dr. Larry Dietz, Interim Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Doris Houston, then-Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Dr. Jan Murphy, current Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Dr. Aondover Tarhule, Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Levester Johnson, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Dr. John Davenport, and Director of the Multicultural Center Dr. Christa Platt. The final meeting for the semester took place April 13, 2021. Although the founding leaders of ABISU are set to graduate in May, the hard, difficult, and painful work continues, as it must.
The controversy resting in painful work
Like the traditions of Gullah cooking and cuisine, people who remain aware of their heritage and where it comes from are grappling to recount and reinscribe our history and place in this country. That includes Black students, Black staff, and Black faculty on college campuses. In part, we are all, or at least we should be, reckoning with our long and painful history of racism and inequity. Part of that history takes place on university campuses. While work is ongoing, like any hard work, it is taxing and inherently creates some division.
Nevertheless, ISU, like many universities and other institutions in the U.S., has begun to reconcile with our nation’s history of racism. More specifically, this University is beginning to have the difficult conversations about race that can be political lightning rods in our current era.
Centers, programs, departments, schools, units, and divisions at Illinois State University continue to reckon with racial justice, racial equity, diversity, and inclusion with intersecting identities of gender, sexuality, faith, ability difference, immigration status, and ethnicity. Many are at the beginning stages, others further along. We draft statements of solidarity and statements of anti-racism, examine teaching practices, and explore opportunity gaps faced by marginalized students, faculty, and staff. Across the campus, concerned students, staff, and faculty are stepping up to do more—more of the work that is necessary to ensure we are a campus that relishes speaking up and out against inequality in the United States. These calls to action have at times ruffled feathers and at times been have fully embraced as changes come to America and to this campus.
We are in the midst of a moment of transformation—stretching, expanding, growing, breaking free. In order for there to be real justice, the barriers of inequity, diversity, and inclusion must be broken down. To be able to envision and imagine what renewal could look like, we must understand the consequences, including trauma, of injustice. As we work, we must continually ask ourselves, “What does it look like to commit ourselves and this campus to renewal?”
Diversity, inclusivity, justice, and equity work as it pertains to anti-Black racism is steeped in the idea that Black lives have to be valued and are important. There must be a belief that the world for all minoritized students, staff, and faculty—here and at other universities—can be transformative. In order to see true transformation, we need to look at the structural and systemic changes needed for renewal.
The years 2019, 2020 and 2021 have been—to say the least—difficult. Yet, they also provided a pathway for new initiatives moving in the direction of greater diversity, inclusion, and equity.
I admire the work of Dr. Tatiana McInnis, a scholar now at Texas Christian University. She talks about the need for naming the problems in order to tackle them, using words such as “systemic white domination, anti-Blackness, misogyny, or any group-specific violence,” rather than aspirational words such as diversity. Institutions often balk at naming, as it is seen as an implication of the “the mistakes or misdoings of the institution.” Yet without naming systematic problems, accountability is limited for those who perpetuate an historically flawed system. It is what James Thomas call the “paradox” of diversity work in his book Diversity Regimes.
Meeting demands and then moving forward
We have seen ISU make strides in its goal to make ISU a better place for minoritized students, staff, and faculty. The latest version of the Comprehensive Plan to Promote Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism, which was developed in response to student leaders from ABISU, lays out ongoing efforts to address demands of ABISU and several student and faculty/staff groups on campus.
While the term “demands” may seem unsettling to some, it is important to understand that the term “demands” is not new to the idea of eradicating racism. Since the Civil Rights Movements throughout the 1900s, those on the frontline of fighting for equity and justice have used the term to import on this nation the urgency for swift changes in American politics, policies, and laws.
In a diversity training report for Everfi, writers Jesse Bridges and Rob Buelow advise five steps to demonstrating diversity, inclusion, and equity commitment. These steps include going beyond diversity and equity commitment statements, measuring the initiatives “to ensure equitable faculty and staff representation,” and ensuring the university reaches out to its larger community to build an infrastructure for minoritized students, staff, and faculty.
Similarly, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training Group urges institutions such as ISU to do the work at all levels to accomplish three primary objectives:
- “Analyze what systemic racism is and how it operates institutionally and culturally using a shared analysis”
- “Develop and internalize a shared language for talking effectively about systemic racism, and how it operates in society, and within the organization”
- “Develop a critical framework for examining culture and values and moving toward antiracist transformation.”
Crossroads’ model, from Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training – Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, was integral in the early stages of the work at ISU spearheaded by ABISU, leading the charge for administrators to become educated in anti-racism before any true change could be realized.
As we move forward, it is my hope ISU brings to the table the voices of more students, staff, and faculty who are stakeholders for diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives. As a Black and queer, slightly older, slightly rounder person, I want to be at that table, especially since everything happening at that table affects how I survive on this campus. But it is my sincere hope that as we prepare to return to campus in the fall, we can come back prepared to learn, to better understand how inequity continues to exist and spread across our nation. And, as importantly, we must better grasp the role the University plays in producing citizens who understand the need for better citizenship, for more diversity and inclusion that is informed primarily by equity.
We must come back stronger than ever, strong and prepared to protect our intersecting communities. We must commit to fighting discrimination in all of its ugly forms, including doing work to ensure our Black young men and women do not experience unfair profiling here or in our community. We will continue to demand systemic changes that lead to authentic equity at ISU. From the classroom, to the residence halls, to the President’s office, I believe all of us can and should have seats at the table. This movement toward transformation and renewal was energized with some brave students and ABISU—this time. Look into the past to understand that a history of protests and rebellion is always at the heart of how change is made. It is up to all of us to make sure equality and equity come and stay at ISU. We must make the decision to either stand still or move forward. If we can move forward, then, perhaps it can be time for renewal.
Contributions from Ashley Dumas, Lauren Harris, Isaac Hollis, Rachel Hatch, and Dr. Doris Houston