quote:Students Speak On Campus Racism
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 2 Denver Weekly News
BOULDER, CO - A town hall meeting was held Jan. 25 at the University of Colorado (CU) to address the racial hostility some students encounter as part of their campus experience. At the forum, more than one individual noted that similar discussions have occurred many times before with limited results which may have been the reason only a few students chose to attend the meeting to voice their concerns. The panel consisted of CU President Hank Brown; former Denver mayor Wellington Webb; Senator Peter Groff; CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano, and Pastor Paul Burleson, head of the Greater Metropolitan Denver Ministerial Alliance. Burleson and Webb are members of the Blue Ribbon Commission called for by Brown to foster diversity improvement at the school.
Fourth year student Curtis Love also gave other reasons for the low student turnout including a need to attend homework or previously scheduled classes. Last year, the 21-year-old was instrumental in establishing the first ever NAACP chapter at CU and at the forum he once again stepped to the forefront to address the "issue of hate" faced by students, who he said had little support. He also told the panel that it was the responsibility of CU administrators to enforce policies against discrimination. He was moved to speak because few of the near 100 people in attendance were students.
"Looking at the makeup of the room, there was no student representation," he said in an interview after addressing the panel. "I felt obligated to speak up because nobody else was going to."
He fell just short of saying Black students were "tired" of the issue but suggested the futility of the effort when some on the panel opened the meeting by saying the same types of forums and commissions were set up decades ago to deal with the same problems, yet little had changed.
"This university was established in 1876 but for you to now notice that some policies are not being enforced - what have you been doing all these years?" he asked, before explaining that many of the new policies and initiatives addressing racial intolerance were fought for over the past four years that he has been on campus and as a student leader, he was one of those on the front lines.
More Student Complaints
Sophomore Obi Onyeali alleged that some instructors suffered from a lack of sensitivity and cited a case where a professor stood silently by while a White student repeatedly called a Black classmate "the N-word" during a class. When the targeted student eventually responded with physical contact, campus police were called to the scene.
Joe Roy, CU Chief of Police, was on hand to share a more detailed outcome of the incident. He said that both students were charged, one with use of fighting words and disorderly conduct for the name calling and provoking violence, and the other with assault, for punching and causing injury.
In response to his comments, Mebraht Gebre-Michael, one of the forum moderators, felt the need to steer the conversation back to a key point.
"The fact is that the N-word was being used and individuals in the classroom, as well as the professors, did [nothing] to intervene before it arose to a physical assault," she said.
Others, like graduate student Detre Godinez, 28, were also concerned about such an example of teacher insensitivity and said diversity training was needed for some. In contrast, she made mention of other instructors once active in the fight against discrimination on campus, who were ordered to distance themselves from that cause and from being involved in the community. "I can't believe it," she said.
Although no professors came forward to speak of their own experiences, freshman Tayo Adeeko, 18, made it clear that Black staff members like her father, Leke Adeeko, an English professor, received some of the same biased treatment students like her complained about. She told the panel that she worried when a racist flyer was put on the door of her father's office. She also worried when her mother discouraged her from seeking a student government seat in order to avoid death threats. What worried her most, however, was that White students questioned the need for a Black Student Alliance (BSA) not recognizing that they had a large and established alliance of their own. "[It is] called the University of Colorado-Boulder," she said to much applause.
The International Affairs major went on to stress how important it was for her to see other Blacks in key positions at the university. Her confidence and reassurance about the school increased when she saw people who looked like her in positions as Resident Advisor and head of the Student Body, and also upon seeing that there was a BSA, she said she knew she could stay at CU and do well. "I believe that continuing to see [Black] students in positions of leadership will thrive the community," she summarized.
Outside Concern Too Little, Too Late?
Jarvis Fuller, 21, one of those leaders, was the final student speaker and the Vice President of the BSA was not shy about expressing his opinion of the meeting. "This forum is pointless," he said. "We as students have done all the work, now it seems it is time for [others] to come in and reap the benefits and say they are the ones causing the changes."
He specifically addressed Webb and the number of times over recent years he had sought the former mayor's assistance, hoping his influence would make a difference. The Sociology/Theater major said he never received a response and was puzzled by Webb's late involvement. "I want to know what is different. Why are you here now?" he asked.
Webb replied that his understanding was that his attendance was requested last year at an event (which never took place) featuring activist Al Sharpton as the keynote speaker, then he also recalled there was talk of him coming to certain student government activities. He then explained that some, whose schedules are not as busy as they were last year, are now able to devote more attention to the issues at CU. He also voiced high hopes that CU's president would bring about institutional change at the school.
Brown later said the forum increased his awareness of the hurt students feel when "ugly incidences" take place, and gave him an affirmation that the university has the potential to be the "finest spot on the earth" because of the inspiration, excellence and talent found in the student body. Despite that, he added that the school would never achieve that status until love and respect became the standards of behavior. "We clearly have our work cut out and have a long way to go," he said in closing. "Let's rededicate all of ourselves to progress."
Although CU has a poor reputation as a racially insensitive campus, Black students continue selecting it as their choice for higher education. Fuller and Love stated that financial considerations played a role in their decisions but Love added that even though his first choice was to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., or another Black college, family concerns and wanting to be near his loved ones were major factors in his choice to stay in Colorado.
Fuller's parents, although now supportive of his role on campus, initially advised him against the Boulder school but surprisingly he is proud of the education he is receiving, notwithstanding the difficulties he has faced.
"I'm actually grateful to CU ... it's made me who I am," he said, explaining his campus experiences have turned him into a student leader and more of a politician or lawyer than the entertainer he desires to be one day. His advice to other Black students who are debating whether to attend is to come only if they are strong, know they belong and deserve the best education. Otherwise, those who get "torn down quickly" might want to make another choice even though the eventual good of attending could outweigh the bad.
"You are going to face racial issues anywhere you go [so] why not get an education you deserve while you are going through it?"
- Adeeba Folami -