Letter: UMass Board of Trustees should fund more restorative campus resources

With money to spend, the University should add resourceful spaces like a food cabinet

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Kira Johnson / Daily Collegian

By Letter Contributor

Over the past months, students have been congregating at the new Student Union, with room to accommodate RSOs, a media center and a black box theatre. Notably missing are gathering places for students of color, reliable access to nutritious food and space for an equitable justice process. Demands for much-needed campus resources go unanswered while already-existing ones are on the brink of shutting out those who rely on them.

On September 1, there came potentially good news: Robert Manning, chair of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees, and his wife Donna donated $50 million to the UMass system. While $15 million are earmarked for the UMass Boston Nursing Program, it is unclear where the rest will go.

The UMass administration has the opportunity to “Be Revolutionary” and take the first step in resolving systemic issues that disproportionately affect students of color and low-income students. If a portion of this donation is allocated to cultural centers, a food pantry or a restorative justice program, the lives of countless students would be improved.

Since their inception in 1971, the cultural centers have been a haven for students of color. Last summer, the UMass Racial Justice Coalition sent demands to the administration, including the restoration of “cuts…made to the cultural centers’ funding over the past 10 years.” The centers’ annual budget is $25,000, and no adjustments have been made since the demands were administered.

Zach Steward, co-founder of the RJC and a junior African American studies and legal studies major, said, “There’s a need for [students of color] to come together without feeling judged, watched, [or] like we have to put on versions of ourselves that hide who we really are.” He said funding would go to updating the centers to feel like “not just rooms and spaces,” but somewhere “you step in and… it’s like you’re at home.” With the recent spate of racist incidents on campus, the need for these spaces is more pertinent than ever.

Nearly 25 percent of all undergraduate students have struggled with food insecurity. The campus food pantry, shuttered since March 2020, has no plan for administrative funding despite the necessity of its existence. The pantry has canned goods remaining from when campus was shut down, but no ability to distribute them. It was endorsed by the Student Government Association in March 2021 with an annual budget of $51,000 and has yet to receive a response from the administration.

Every other UMass campus has a food pantry or meal distribution program for those who may not otherwise have access. If we are truly “revolutionary,” why is the flagship university not providing adequate food security programs when all of the others can do so?

The Restorative Justice Campaign is seeking support to create an Racial Justice Center on campus, which would provide a restorative approach to on-campus conflicts with ties to local courts. Rather than carry out the punishments designated by UMass, a trained facilitator would “[address] the needs of those harmed” and focus on accountability and an agreed-upon resolution of harm, laid out here in the 2021 RJ Initiative Proposal.

Both those who carried out harm and those affected will get a fair say in the justice process; The former will aid in remedying their actions and ensuring similar incidents do not reoccur. Central to RJ’s philosophy is asking, “What can be done to rebuild trust so that we feel confident about this student’s membership in our community?” Around $100,000 of annual funding would go towards staff dedicated to carrying out the RJ process and establishing a campus built on healing.

Students should have a seat at the table in determining where donations go, not just because we have the knowledge of what we need, but because the Wellman Document — the Board of Trustees’ guidance on decision-making within the University — guarantees it.

The policy of listening to students on issues that affect us is a core imperative of UMass’ leadership, which the Wellman Document makes clear: “Students will have primary responsibility for services and activities which are designed primarily to serve students.” Our voices are not to be overlooked, as we are the ones benefiting from choices made by the Board.

Those pushing for the resources necessary to ensure marginalized students succeed have solutions to be considered when financial decisions are being made. UMass has stated the Mannings’ donation will go to “increasing access and opportunity across the five-campus university system.” The board should honor their word and allow those working tirelessly to ensure their peers can be their best selves to lead them.

Maggie Peterson

Center for Education Policy & Advocacy