In a long-awaited and altogether tense meeting Wednesday night, the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Coalition has reached an agreement to meet with Chancellor Rebecca Blank at least twice a semester, with expectations to consult with other university administrators in between these meetings, in order to make progress on their demands.
Representatives from the Asian American Student Union, Filipinx American Student Association and the Teaching Assistants’ Association joined the BIPOC Coalition for the video call. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor and Interim Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Cheryl Gittens were also present.
BIPOC Coalition is a student group formed this summer in the wake of protests against police violence and racism in Madison. They are looking to streamline actionable initiatives for their demands, including improving support systems and resources for marginalized students at UW-Madison and a “Moral Restart” to campus operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We don’t pretend to speak on behalf of every BIPOC student on campus, we can only say that those that have agreed to work with us are interested in this,” BIPOC Coalition member Tarah Stangler said while introducing the meeting.
The BIPOC Coalition did a brief overview of the history of racism and xenophobia on campus, beginning with the historic 1969 Black Student Strike, one of the largest anti-racist demonstrations in the history of the university, to the present reality of police violence and the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black and Latinx communities.
Their main goal for the meeting was to outline a meeting schedule with Chancellor Blank directly, not to justify each of their listed demands.
“Part of this idea of scheduled monthly meetings is to ensure that there’s a level of accountability for the actions that are going forward,” Stangler said.
Coalition members said they want this process to move faster because when members of activist groups eventually graduate or burnout, their progress on demands is suspended. Blank urged BIPOC Coalition to work through the people in administration who directly deal with these issues, but the coalition members found that when dealing with admin they were “shuffled and complacent.”
However, Blank disagreed about the efficacy of meeting with her each month, as she said not even Associated Students of Madison or the university leadership team meet with her that often. She encouraged BIPOC Coalition members to speak to her team because she said they speak for her.
“I am not the one who makes final decisions on a number of issues, and I have a staff of vice chancellors who are in charge of different areas,” Blank said.
She outlined that some of the ongoing issues her staff was working on include the retention of diverse faculty members, raising scholarship funding, diversity and inclusion training and completing spaces for different cultural groups in the Red Gym.
BIPOC Coalition members called attention to Blank’s recent comment about the ongoing racial justice movement.
“You say that there’s three crises on campus, one including a social movement,” BIPOC Coalition member Juliana Bennett said. “So if the social movement has been happening for years, is a problem on campus, it needs your direct attention.”
Blank questioned whether BIPOC Coalition had sought the appropriate administrators and departments to voice their concerns, such as contacting UHS Director Sarah Nolan over concerns about the lack of mental health services for students of color in crisis. Blank advised BIPOC Coalition to set priorities for the issues they would like to address.
While Blank had to leave the call earlier, Gittens and Reesor stayed on the call with members of the BIPOC Coalition. They made no additional decisions. However, Gittens and members of the BIPOC Coalition disagreed over the merit of increasing the rate of students of color on campus.
Throughout the meeting, the coalition remained staunch about coordinating meetings with Chancellor Blank despite the pushback.
“We need action and we needed to get it in 1969,” Stangler said. “It’s 2020 now, we can’t keep waiting for this.”
Photo courtesy of Joshua Mitchell.