‘Student Blackout’ draws University response

By Daniel Mahoney

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Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian

(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

More than 100 University of Massachusetts students staged a walkout of classes at 11:45 Wednesday morning as a sign of solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri and to protest a lack of diversity on the Amherst campus.

The walkout, which coincided with a national #StudentBlackout movement against racial injustice, began at the Commonwealth Honors College residential area and concluded at the Whitmore Administration building when organizers entered the building to demand a meeting with the UMass Provost Katherine Newman. The Black Student Union announced via its Twitter account later that day that they had secured an “answering session” with the provost, her cabinet and Vice Chancellor of University Relations John Kennedy at noon on Sunday in the Malcolm X Center.

Supporters formed a single file line in front of Whitmore, placing their hands on the person’s shoulders in front of them, and walked into the building and up to the Chancellor’s office. Students requested answers upon entering the office’s foyer, citing a lack of a response from administration in connection to concerns raised at previous Campus Listening Sessions.

Shortly after, Kennedy arrived to speak to students, where a tranquil dialogue that lasted nearly an hour took place.

Stacy Tchouanguem, who took the lead in speaking to Kennedy along with Zareb Noel, said little progress has been made since she arrived on campus four years ago and demanded an immediate outline of steps the University has taken to increase diversity and transparency between administration and minorities on campus.

An email was sent out to students from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy less than an hour after the walkout concluded, and detailed the actions taken by the Diversity Strategic Planning Committee since it was formed in the spring.

Students at various campuses around the country have taken part in similar “Student Blackout” events, including recent walkouts at New York University and Southern Methodist University.

The rally began at the center of the Commonwealth Honors College area with organizers and honors students commenting on the severe lack of diversity and racial sensitivity within the honors college. Many of the organizers, who themselves are honors students, were vocal about their feelings of isolation while living in the area.

Noel spoke of his time living in both Oak and Birch Halls. He recounted a story of being called a racial slur by another student while onlookers laughed.

“CHC has an issue with diversity,” Noel said. He continued by saying that less than 25 of the 500 students living in Oak and Sycamore – the two freshman dorms in the honors college – are black.

“Where are my black scholars?” another protester said.

The walkout, which took place outside of Roots Café, featured other speakers who shared stories of racial inequality and a lack of diversity on campus. The issue of racism on the campus was framed as stemming from the lack of diversity.

After speakers had a chance to share their experiences, the organizers of the event began to change locations. The crowd, which was comprised of students of many races, joined in chants of “If we don’t get no justice, we don’t get no peace,” and other calls for action.

The group walked through the Honors College, as students watched intently from their windows. From there, Tchouanguem, a policy advocator for Student Bridges, led the group with a megaphone in hand toward the  W.E.B. DuBois Library. The group gathered in the lobby and marched through the ground floor repeating their calls for action.

The walkout continued to the Student Union Building and the Campus Center before making its final stop at the Whitmore Administration Building, home of the Chancellor’s office.

In his email, Subbaswamy thanked those who walked throughout campus.

“It was troubling and disheartening to hear our students tell their stories of a campus experience shaped by racism and bias, often resulting in feelings of loneliness and isolation. I want to thank those undergraduate and graduate students, and others, who trustingly shared their experiences on Friday and who continue to challenge this university to do better, as was done at today’s Class Walkout,” the email read.

The Chancellor also admitted the University has fallen behind in certain areas and issued two immediate plans of action. The first was the immediate allocation of funds to both graduate and undergraduate student government organizations to allow for funding of organizations that promote diversity, while the second implemented an initiative as part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Diversity Strategic Plan, to monitor the progress of diversity efforts undertaken by UMass.

Dan Mahoney can be reached at [email protected]