Lift Every Voice

By Jordan Gaines 

February 2015

Forty-four years after the 1971 release of Volume 1, Number 1of THE BLACK VOICE, Black students are still showing their dissatisfaction with UW-Madison’s failure to reform it’s hostile racial climate with demonstrations like last year’s march and College library die-in.

Buzz words like “diversity” and “inclusivity” have been circulated by University administration in order to maintain assurance that a change is coming, but with current campus life bearing uncanny resemblance to campus 4 decades ago, that change is a long time coming.

These are the sentiments of UW-Madison alumna and Madison native, Adey Assefa. Assefa is also the current Assistant Director and Academic Advisor for the Office of Multicultural Art Initiatives at UW-Madison. “I know from the experiences I experienced growing up here as well as being a student here and where I’m at now, working with students, specifically Black students, not much has change,” said Assefa.

Incidents like the one Janetta Hill, a freshman at the University, experienced when she was called a “nigger bitch” while walking down State Street this past summer are still prevalent in Black students’ lives.

Instead, Assefa has observed a change in the Black student population’s response to such a stagnant environment. Every aspect of Black student life is engaging in the discourse surrounding the displacement of Black students and all resources are being utilized to address the issue.

Many current students agree that the Black student community is collectively more active, visible, and apt to bring about more change than has been seen in recent years. The problem, though, is that the onus falls primarily on the shoulders of students.

Administrative responses have come in the form of diversity forums and Dean Lori Berquam making appearances at multicultural events and spaces. The Diversity Framework, entitled Forward Together, coming out of the office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate, hopes to provide institutional results to the issues of campus racial climate The framework is currently aiming to address six priority areas of campus improvement for students of color including undergraduate curriculum, retention and research, and access and recruitment. The first draft of the framework’s initiatives is set to be released Sunday, March 1st.

In the meantime, students may use the Dean of Student Office’s incident of bias reporting system to report instances of bias and hate demonstrated within the realms of the campus community. Incidents can be reported online under the Dean of Students office or in person at various campus offices including the Multicultural Student Center and the LGBT Campus Center both located in the Red Gym. Students who have reported incidents have seen swift and just consequences for their offenders.

Still, Assefa points out, there is little room for reporting acts that are well intended or that may not have a singular, known, or direct offender.

Still most students of color agree, overall, that little is done institutionally to ensure their safety and comfort. The only glimmer of hope resides in a small pocket of campus entities. Spaces like the office of African American Student Academic Services, the Multicultural Student Center, or the major scholarship communities for people of color, PEOPLE, Posse, and First Wave.

Sophomore Deshawn McKinney, a principal organizer in the December die-in and protest, points out that Black students not enrolled in a scholarship community or those who live in the Lakeshore dormitories and lack access to “centrally located” safe spaces are further underserved and their resources even more minimalized. He adds that even campus services such as University Heath Services aren’t always able to sufficiently serve students of color due to an inability or unwillingness to recognize the unique experiences of Black students and the unique needs those experiences create.

Consequently, most of the efforts to create, sustain, and expand safe spaces comes from the Black student population. Student organizations geared towards serving Black students facilitate most of the community gatherings and what little centralization the community has. Still the reach of these organizations is limited due to what McKinney acknowledges as a need to survive.

2012 alumnus and current graduate student Walter Williams recognizes that a lack of financial support from the university challenges the sustainability and survival of student organizations.

When asked what ways can this climate be remedied Black students and staff make a large inclination towards diversifying the campus faculty. Assefa believes, “there needs to be a commitment to diversifying the faculty and staff on campus so that students can see people in professional roles that look like them and be taught by faculty that look like them, especially when it comes to area and subjects that are about their identity.”

Hill agrees, expressing her own confusion over the absence of faculty working in programs and departments that align with their racial and ethnic identity. “It just doesn’t make sense for the head of all of these departments to be mainly White people or White men, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not your experience,” she said.

“I want the best. UW-Madison is supposed to be the best and I want the most detailed work and you cannot give me that because that’s not your experience.”

The need for more faculty of color or at least faculty trained and committed to having a truly inclusive classroom climate can address issues of retention. Garrett Pauli, a sophomore, believes that if the university is going to use words like diversity and inclusivity and that kind of rhetoric then it should be excited about incorporating that into the university experience.”

The marches and protest, said McKinney, are only small parts in the grand scheme of advancement. “Its more than a movement. It should be a lifestyle because it’s literally a life style. It’s more than a moment”, said Hill.

In addition to the efforts of administration and students of color is the need to bring White students and allies into the conversation. Pauli, a white student, believes in being in constant communication with his white counterparts about race relations on campus and is using his artistic platform to address white privilege and white silence.

The active participation of the entire student body in the discourse around race and race relations on campus is integral to tangible improvement.

There is a vital need for what 2015 Black History Month keynote speaker Marc Lamont Hill calls deep listening, or the realization that everyone speaking at the same time does make a conversation. In order to truly advance, the faculty, staff, administration, and the student body in its entirety has to be willing to actively listen to the needs and realities of one another.

While the sound of current Black voices deeply resonates with those of the 1970s this is not to be confused with a 30-year-old echo. Despite the fundamental feel of same sh*t different day, there is a pressing need for holistic integration into the overall university mission and the ideologies that shape the Wisconsin Experience, while also ensuring that integration is not coupled with an expectation of assimilation. Instead it has become imperative that Black voices are recognized for their matchless sound and are given the space to harmonize with the larger campus without being drowned out in monolithic multiculturalism.

Jordan Gaines is the re-creator of THE BLACK VOICE. Jordan’s preferred pronouns are she, her, hers, and n*gga. As a journalist she intends to amplify marginalized voices in mainstream media to Meek Mills like volumes.

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