Opinion: Six lessons from last week’s diversity meetings

There were some great strides made, and some great mistakes as well.

Illustration+by+Michelle+Rodriguez

Illustration by Michelle Rodriguez

Corey Rose, Contributing Writer

Over the past week, the Division of Student Affairs hosted a series of “discussions to provide a foundation from which we can build the next steps of a better experience for our current and future FAU students,” according to an email sent out on July 7 to members of Owl Central.

The forums come on the heels of calls for accountability and the dismantling of white supremacy and systemic racism across predominantly white institutions across the country. 

The forums were aimed at student leaders and separated by race, to gauge specific information from each racial group. The event was marketed as a conversation with Interim VP for Student Affairs Dr. Larry Faerman, Interim Dean of Students Audrey Pusey, and Associate VP of Student Outreach & Diversity Dr. Andrea Guzman Oliver, and moderated by Director for Administration in the Office of the Vice President, Matthew Hinds. 

Students across different ethnic groups addressed a variety of concerns – calling out the lack of Black faculty, the behavior of donors such as Marleen Forkas towards Black students, and requesting a physical space on campus for Black students to convene, similar to the Hillel Center for Jewish students, or the LGBT+ Resource Center. There were some great strides made, and some great mistakes as well. 

1. Different groups experience race differently – so the questions shouldn’t be the same

Questions from Faerman like, “What does diversity mean to you?” and “In what ways do you feel like FAU is or is not an inclusive environment?” garnered a variety of different answers across the forums, ranging from complete and utter silence to lively discussions about whether or not the student body feels FAU lives up to its catchphrase of being one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the nation. 

Moving forward, if the groups are going to be separated by race, questions should be fine-tuned to ask about the specific experience within that group. Ask specifically about resources that are needed, ask about how we see ourselves in relation to our peers and within FAU as a whole, ask what you can do to make us feel comfortable, sharing specific experiences, and once those needs are addressed, we can get to the “listening session.”

2. White Student Organization Leaders – where y’all at?

Wednesday’s Webex call was a space for white students to come and talk about their experience with race on campus. It would have been a great opportunity to educate some of our white student leaders about the struggles students of color face within and outside their student organizations, had they decided to show up.

Throughout the meeting, it became painfully obvious that the white student leaders who were invited failed to attend in the same numbers as the Black and Latino student leaders in the days prior. If they were there, they were willfully and intentionally silent for the duration of the call, even after being directly asked multiple times to speak.

Despite having majority-white membership and leadership, none of the presidents or outreach chairs for organizations in the Interfraternity Council or the College Panhellenic Association spoke at the meeting. None of the sports clubs, academic councils, nor any of the three branches of student government had any white students speak on their behalf. 

So that begs the question, where were y’all? Was there another event that directly conflicted with the dates and times that were publicized days prior to the start of the first forum? Did all of you have Wi-Fi issues or trouble logging in? Was there a privacy setting that only let students of color into the room? 

The depth of FAU’s race problem starts right there. Many of our white peers don’t see their complacency in systems of oppression as a problem; they can ignore an invitation to a conversation about race because they benefit from the way the system is already run.

If you’re a white student who’s looking to start some change within your own organization, ask if anyone from your organization’s leadership went to the forums. If the answer is no, ask why not?

3. Moderator vs Mediator

The moderation for these forums was ineffective at best, and harmful at its worst. The role of a moderator in these meetings is to guide the conversation, ensure that both groups are being heard, and secure the safety of whatever marginalized group is being brought into the room.

The administration is asking students to re-open trauma and explain why it was an issue; the function of a moderator in this context is similar to a mediator; to help alleviate some of that stress from students by being able to highlight where the institutional failure is. 

When there’s prolonged silence, or when miscommunication occurs, the moderator steps in and adds their own insight, based on their lived experience and professional training.

Hinds moderated the forums, with little to add but the occasional inquiry if anyone wanted to break the two-minute gaps of silence.

When met with requests for a Black moderator, Interim Dean of Students Audrey Pusey pointed out that “providing platforms for people to continue their allyship, for individuals like myself, is extremely important.”

This is why we need a Black moderator. There’s nobody in the room who has the power to tell the Dean of Students that our perception of safety is essential to our participation and more important than any opportunity for her to be an ally. There’s nobody to tell the Interim VP that you can hold a session where leaders take criticism and still include a Black moderator to support the ideas being shared from a standpoint of advocacy and lived experience.

4. Silence sends a message

There’s no one answer to why silence tended to be the loudest participant in the forums on Wednesday and Thursday. 

Whether it was student frustration at the structure of the forum, disdain for the simplicity of the questions themselves, unwillingness to speak on behalf of an entire group, fear of retribution, or spotty internet connections, it was a clear message that something needs to change before these conversations continue so we are ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to have their voice heard and their needs met.

5. Administration wants to fix the problem

Every day this week, Faerman and Oliver logged into the Webex calls and stayed on until the end (despite Thursday’s meeting ending 30 minutes early, after 30 minutes of silence). They faced student concerns and navigated answering them the best way they knew how.

Anybody who can sit on a Webex call for an hour and a half for four days straight and get virtually dragged by students over long-standing issues with the University without logging off in frustration is at least willing to start doing the work to create a more inclusive environment. 

The systems of racism and oppression that built this country, and in turn, the university system, were not built overnight. Therefore, the work that needs to be done to dismantle those systems won’t be achieved overnight, either. As students, we can continue to hold our professors, department chairs, deans, and administrators accountable while also recognizing that they themselves are fighting for change in a system of institutions that were built by men who owned slaves and operated by their sons.

6. Administration needs to listen

On Monday, just after concerns for a Black moderator were rejected in favor of having consistency across the panels, Black students raised concerns about the panel reserved for white student organization leaders.

Neuroscience and Behavior major Naheelah Wallace raised a concern that “The [organizations] who need to be there, won’t be there.” She delved into her experience attending an event on cultural appropriation last fall, hosted by the Center for IDEAS+. 

“The people that showed up were Black and Latinx,” she said.

At that point, the administration should have doubled outreach efforts and sent a second email about the forum to encourage participation, and that student should have received some kind of acknowledgement of that part of her question. Neither happened.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, where the administration spent most of the forum encouraging the few white student leaders who were allegedly on the call to speak up.

Consider it a lesson learned.

Recommendations moving forward

For the administration: Be open to criticism, suggestions, and ideas in these meetings. Identify and affirm the concerns of students, and make sure that you are addressing every part of a question or comment before moving on. 

Be honest in your capabilities; if you can’t do something, be ready to explain why not. Hold your peers accountable, and be ready to adapt to the needs of the students in real-time. Read the room.

If the topics stray from the agenda, that’s okay. You have opened a platform for marginalized students to voice concerns, so let them do that in the most comfortable way possible for them. Don’t just call it a safe space, build the safe space.

For students: Take care of yourselves. Hold each other accountable. If your org’s president hasn’t said a word about Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, or these forums, ask why not, and follow it up by starting those conversations yourself.

A change is gonna come…eventually.

Corey Rose is a contributing writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @CoreyARose.