It took the removal of a Black sorority from a homecoming video on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus to wake up administration and incite change for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students.
In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student homecoming committee produced a video to boost morale surrounding the homecoming game and events leading up to it. The theme of the video was “Home is where WI are” but due to the lack of diversity, it was clear that this was not a “home” for BIPOC students.
“It kind of just felt like a slap in the face because this is how I feel every day being on this campus and being Black on this campus, so it was really disappointing,” Payton Wade, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and former university Communications Coordinator said.
Students of color took to social media in an uproar to express how they were fed up with the university. This situation was a culmination of years and generations of a variety of racist incidents such as a fan at a football game dressed in an Obama costume with a noose around their neck. As a result, the Student Inclusion Coalition (SIC), was formed. SIC created a list of five demands they wanted the university to address and organized protests to draw attention.
The removal of BIPOC students in the Homecoming video began to make national headlines and was picked up by news outlets such as The New York Times. This forced the university to take action and the work toward change began.
“They wanted to make sure they got on top of the narrative,” Wade said. “The story ended up stretching so wide that they really didn’t feel like they had a choice but to listen to us,” and so the work began.
What follows are SIC’s five demands and what kind of response the university gave.
- Publicly recognize the sacrifice of past students of color in addressing systemic racism and oppression on campus.
In order to address this demand, The College of Letters and Science publicly honored the activism of the students from the 1969 Black Student Strike. The 1969 strike resulted in the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies.
Additionally, there have now been awards and a scholarship created to honor and commemorate the efforts of the 1969 activists. One of the awards was the Student Activism Award which was awarded in 2021 to the UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition.
- Recognize the educational value of marginalized identity-based student affinity groups in supporting student engagement, belonging and retention and implement a permanent funding structure for student organizations that primarily serve and include predominantly marginalized groups, with funding allocated through the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs or Deputy Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion.
In order to address this demand, The Multicultural Student Center was awarded an additional $50,000 to use toward cultural heritage month celebrations and to give away as part of the Multicultural Council Grant, a grant offered to different multicultural student organizations to put on programming and events.
“Money is always the root of many issues, so being able to fight for funding and equality and equity when it comes to the money that different orgs get I think that’s a very important one,” Wade said.
Claudia Guzmán is the Assistant Dean and Director of the MSC. In this role she leads the team responsible for managing the cultural centers and works to ensure that students of color feel included on the UW-Madison campus.
When the $50,000 was given to the MSC, it was used in a variety of ways such as supporting programming and speakers for Heritage Months and many other events.
“We created the new Services and Logistics Grant to support virtual community building efforts within multicultural student organizations,” Guzmán said. “[It] also supported the annual Multicultural Graduation and Leadership Awards ceremony and for the first time ever, we were able to include a keynote speaker, Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, which made the online program more engaging and inspiring for our graduating seniors.”
- Improve the support system for marginalized students on campus.
The results from this demand are a personal favorite to many of the founders of SIC as it sat near and dear to their hearts, the majority belonging to fraternities and sororities that are part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). To address this demand, UW-Madison will now have a campus landmark to honor the historically Black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities that are members of the NPHC.
Members of the various organizations worked hand in hand to raise the funds for the Divine Nine Plaza. Ultimately, they raised over $275,000 and the plaza is set to be officially unveiled Saturday, May 7, 2022 at 11 a.m. followed by a celebration that is open to the public at 12 p.m. The plaza will be located in the Vilas Green at 333 East Campus Mall.
Former president of the Epsilon Delta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and former president of SIC Kingsley-Reigne Pissang felt that the Divine Nine Plaza creates more representation for diversity on the UW-Madison campus.
“Now we got a monument and of course, it’s the most tangible and you can see it and essentially, Black folks, me and my friends raising hell are the reason why there’s about to be a plaza celebrating us, right out in front of the J-School,” Pissang said.
In a university press release, one of the founding members of SIC and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Israel Oby said many students of color on UW-Madison’s campus feel a lack of belonging.
“This project will be a daily reminder for every student of color that walks past the plaza that they not only belong on this campus but are honored and acknowledged by the University,” Oby said.
- Restructure the homecoming committee to ensure broader and more authentic engagement for marginalized groups on campus.
In order to address this demand, a group of diverse students came together to consult with the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s homecoming committee in 2020 and years following. This group met with Sarah Schutt, Director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, on a regular basis and as this committee was integrated into the homecoming structure for future years, it moved away from falling under the Wisconsin Alumni Association. As of spring 2021 it falls under Student Affairs.
Heidi Lang is the Associate Director for Social Education at the Wisconsin Union. In her position, she worked with other advising staff and students to ensure that the homecoming committee creates a week of events that is “authentic, open, and reflective of our diverse community.”
“This has been done through continually educating new homecoming committee members and officers about the homecoming committee video made in 2019 and the conversations and commitments that ensued,” Lang said. “Last year, 2021, was the first full year the Wisconsin Union fully supported the homecoming committee.”
The Union created an open application process for students interested in joining the committee and they reached out to the offices that serve underrepresented populations inviting them to join the homecoming committee.
Currently, Lang has worked to create policies and practices that codify a commitment of ensuring the committee is composed of diverse voices that all students and alumni feel proud to support.
- Create a coordinated infrastructure to respond to acts of structural oppression.
In response to this demand, Student Affairs created the new department called the Office of Inclusion Education which was created to “elevate and prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion for all students at UW,” and to make sure that all students feel comfortable and a sense of belonging on UW-Madison’s campus.
Under this new office, the program “Our Wisconsin” was expanded. “Our Wisconsin” is an inclusion education program that facilitates and discusses topics such as diversity, social justice, inclusion and life at UW-Madison. There is an online portion module hosted by EverFi that is now a requirement for all new undergraduate and transfer students.
“Our Wisconsin” is a three-hour workshop that includes structured and constructive dialogue, activities and time for reflection with the ultimate goal of improving UW-Madison’s campus climate. The ultimate goal of “Our Wisconsin” was to help students gain a broader awareness of diversity on campus.
According to its webpage, students should have gained a greater appreciation and understanding for how individual actions and systems impact individuals’ experiences as well as a greater sense of connection with the campus community.
When reflecting on the 2019 year and the demands placed on UW-Madison by SIC, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs – Identity and Inclusion Gabe Javier realizes that while all the demands have been completed, there is still work that can be done.
“Work inspired by the Student Inclusion Coalition has largely been completed or continues to move forward in conversations and planning across Student Affairs and with our campus partners,” Javier said. “We look forward to reviewing results of the recent campus climate survey to work on important institutional changes.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor reiterated the positive work that has been done and emphasized her pride looking back at the collaboration, but says that it is about more than just completing the demands.
“While we worked hard together to create a more inclusive climate at UW, meeting all of the demands is part of the ongoing process,” Reesor said. “It was also about building relationships, helping student leaders accomplish their goals and supporting their well-being.”