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‘Stand Against Racism’ event promotes discussion around race, activism on college campuses

(Sam Anderson/Daily Collegian)

(Sam Anderson/Daily Collegian)

The Racial Justice Coalition of the University of Massachusetts hosted an all-day event titled “Stand Against Racism” to discuss anti-racism and anti-white supremacy student activism on college campuses.

Beginning with a march for racial justice, attendees gathered at the Student Union and walked together to the Commonwealth Honors College events hall for a panel of student activists from University of Missouri’s #ConcernedStudent1950, Amherst College and UMass.

The panel focused on campus climates regarding anti-black racism, and featured students’ personal experiences with systemic racism, their activism and advice for white allies.

“We shut down the school, or at least part of it,” said DeShaunya Ware, a social work and black studies student from Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri. “After the football players went on strike, they tried to force the football players to play, but they couldn’t do that.”

“I mean, the football field is the new plantation field, the new sales block,” she said to an audience that snapped in approval.

UMass BDIC student Zulay Holland moderated the panel of seven. She asked panel members about topics ranging from their personal experiences with racism to individual strategies in promoting and engaging in activism on college campus.

Ware and Marshall Allen, Missouri students and leaders of #ConcernedStudent1950, talked in-depth about their experiences at the university in the aftermath of black teenager Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Allen, a political science and black studies double major, described the campus climate at Missouri as “tough,” explaining separate instances of anti-black protests. These included cotton balls thrown around the grounds as well as swastikas and racial slurs written on doors and in student areas.

Allen noted that the prevalence of media on campus following the actions of CS1950 helped to highlight and uncover racism that had been previously avoided by the campus community and administration.

Ware, a St. Louis native, talked in-depth about the proximity of Ferguson to the Missouri campus and the effect that those protests had on the general campus community.

“Coming from St. Louis as well, which is 15 minutes from Ferguson, I was close to the whole event,” Ware said, later adding her own experiences with the protests in Ferguson. “I was in the tear gas, I remember having an asthma attack and fearing for my life.”

Ware noted MU for Mike Brown, an activist group at Missouri, as being one of the first organizations that really worked to address the climate of racism at the school. Crediting the group as being part of the force that birthed the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement, Ware described the development of activism that not only sought to bring consciousness to their white classmates but also disrupt campus activity to start conversation.

“We started with die-ins, hoping that through us laying for minutes at a time would allow white students to better understand the issue of police brutality as it related to us,” Ware said.

“You have to imagine the pain that we feel,” Ware added, referencing the groups expectations of white students on campus, “but when that wasn’t working we knew we had to be more disruptive.”

Amherst College activists Lerato Teffo and Isabella Berkley focused primarily on the Amherst Uprising, a sit-in held at the Frost Library last semester that prompted a number of changes at the college regarding racism and diversity.

Teffo, an organizer of the sit-in, described feelings of frustration and alienation with campus climate and administrative support as being the primary motivation for the event.

“It started at midnight with a frustrated conversation,” Teffo said. “And it resulted in a Facebook event and us sending emails to administrators informing them of what we were going to do.”

The response to the event was surprising to Teffo and her fellow activists, as what was expected to be a display of public frustration led to a three-day sit-in at the library that resulted in a multitude of changes at the college.

Panel member Ellanjé Ferguson, a UMass senior studying journalism and communications, recently published a story in the Amherst Wire titled Whiteout, about black students’ experiences at UMass. The story, which has been shared 3,700 times on Facebook since publication in late February, has been assigned as reading by African-American studies classes at UMass, and earned Ferguson invitations to speak to multiple classes.

“It’s amazing to know that my work is getting read like that,” said Ferguson in response to an audience question about times she has been asked to do emotional labor for free. “And also, pay me. I haven’t seen a cent from that.”

Zareb Noel, a UMass mechanical engineering student, spoke to his own experiences of a less-than-diverse school staff.

“There needs to be an increase in faculty of color. In the engineering department, there is one professor of color,” Noel said.

All of the panel members agreed upon the greater goal of their individual and conjoined activism as being liberation through increases in diversity, inclusion and tolerance. In order to achieve this, many on the panel discussed the need to not only increase the consciousness of their white peers, but also to validate the experiences that students of color have on college campuses.

After the panel, the event divided into two affinity groups, one for people of color and the other for white people.

“Last semester we had a forum to discuss this, to find out what the students wanted,” Wilma Crespo, associate director of student development at the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, said. “What they wanted was to engage with people of similar lived experiences around these issues.”

Organizers requested that the content of the breakout meetings stay confidential and unreported.

After nearly two hours of discussion, behind schedule, the two groups reunited to watch Shaha, UMass’ social justice theater group, perform three skits on the themes of diversity and multiculturalism.

“It always goes over the allotted time,” said Gaelle Rigaud, a sophomore student of English and African-American Studies. “You can’t just talk about white supremacy in two hours.”

Lia Gips is a staff member at the DailyCollegian and can be reached at lgips@umass.edu, and followed @liagips. Dan Mahoney contributed to this report and can be reached at dpmahoney@umass.edu.

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