02 May 2014

Becoming Less Inclusive - The Case of the 2nd Floor

I was recently made aware of the article, "Protesters at U ribbon-cutting could face discipline."

For those who aren't familiar with this situation, the University of Minnesota has pseudo-cultural centers that are run by student groups (I say psuedo because they pale in comparision to facilities such as the Black Cultural Center at Purdue). These cultural centers are present on the second floor of the Coffman Memorial Union. They touch a variety of marginalized groups, including some marginalized on the basis of their race, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. This floor used to consist of gorgeous murals which were very important to some of these groups. They were made by and for the groups that they represented. The floor had character. Aspects of the floor were getting old though.

The university renovated the floor, and completely misled the student groups. The murals were destroyed, robbing groups of images that were meaninful for those communities. These murals were one of the priorities of the student groups, yet that was disregarded. Many promises were made and then not kept. The facilities are quite lacking (for example there is nothing available besides ordinary sinks in the restrooms for those who need to ritually wash for prayer, there is only one gender-neutral restroom stall, a privacy curtain was not made for the Queer Student Cultural Center, etc). The facility is also completely white-washed. White walls, white boards, white rooms, white everything. A comment the students are mocking repeatedly is when they were told this space is "the Taj Mahal." No, you destroyed their stuff, failed to materialize on promised facilities, and white-washed a space for diversity and inclusion. I'm not the most knowledgable on this subject, but there was plenty of ink spilled over the needs and wants throughout the entire process. None of this has ever been a mystery.

Students have been particularly sensitive to these issues as the university's climate on diversity and inclusion has been worsening. The university may have been state-of-the-art for diversity and inclusion in the 90s, but it is no longer up-to-date. Students feel like all the university does is check boxes to get a good rating, but that it doesn't ever actually fulfill its inclusion goals. Students feel very disillusioned with the university. If you want an example, look at the single-use restroom issue. This has come up with mutliple commissions, discussed as important with groups such as the Student Affairs Student Advisory Committee to the Vice Provost of Student Affairs, had department heads request updates, and yet nothing. Yes, the university is slightly tweaking how it does names and genders, but even that has fallen short of student needs.

It is in this climate that students decided to protest the ribbon-cutting for the second floor renovations. Their only form of civil disobidence was their presence and their voice. But that was too much for the university. They now have to go after these students. Currently it is under the guise of an "investigation." The mere launching of this investigation is stifling, let alone what may happen from it. Each step of the process will further disillusion and further damage the campus climates for the students. In fact, this investigation has created such an rucus for those concerned with diversity and inclusion that they have drafted a form email. I don't know how loud the students were or what they said, but frankly it doesn't matter. Their trust is being betrayed.

I think I'm pretty typically considered the diplomatic type on the diplomat-firebrand continuum. I feel education is one of my best tools for impacting social change, I work on consensus building, I often use questions to try to get things done. I may talk very impassioned in-house, but I more nudge conversations and use targetted questions when on a committee or board. That said you push even someone pretty entrenched in diplomacy far enough and they will become a firebrand. Many of us also recognize the need for firebrands. We can have good cop - bad cop routines, one can bring about visibility while the other then educates once visible. Firebrands are often better at serving as sheilds for those who need protected from hate, while diplomats are more likely to get something on paper. We need both. That said, when backed into a corner we can all become firebrands.

The university is going about in a way that is going to make things worse. I sent Dr. Danita Brown Young an email (as a Purdue alum and a graduate student who is suppose to voice concerns on the Student Affairs Student Advisory Committee) an email about this issue. I briefly mention some of the problems with the second floor renovation, but the real crux of my email concerned why the students are acting the way they are, and methods to use that will both not futher damage campus climate yet encourage students to seek redress for grievances in diplomatic ways. Of course the form email response I got mentioned none of that. It obviously didn't address my concerns since it focused on those concerned with "free speech" and how this is about "behavior and actions." The letter was, to be blunt, a farce.

While it is nowhere near that far, I want to remind people what happens when you really back students into a corner. What happens when you push them as far as you go. I want to remind them of Purdue's, "A fire next time."

We make progress brick by brick. Please, don't betray the trust of the students. Please, don't make them even more scared. Please, don't let this campus climate continue to degrade.

The university needs to, at bare minimum, issue an apology to the students and find some way to rectify the wrong done with the second floor (say, asking the students for suggestions on artists to contract for new murals, fixing some of the facility problems, and of course addressing the myriad diversity and inclusion concerns). The university MUST admit it is in the wrong. The university also MUST begin to make progress again on diversity and inclusion issues. It must stop the backslide and move forward.

EDIT: A list of demands by the group "Whose Diversity" can be found here, and you can endorse those demands here.

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