Community takes a stand against race-bias acts

December 12, 2016

Close to 150 Saint Michael’s College students, supported by many faculty and staff, made their voices heard Friday afternoon, Dec. 9, as they took a stand against recent reports of hateful and racially charged speech, writings and drawings around campus.

Starting at Alliot’s side steps at about 2:30 p.m., the group marched, carried signs and chanted slogans through the Townhouses, around center-campus, then through the corridors of the main classroom building St. Edmund’s Hall, before crossing Route 15 to the Pomerleau Alumni Center, where they formed a quiet and respectful double-line through which faculty and administrators passed in route to a regular 3:30 p.m. Faculty Assembly meeting. Several faculty voiced support for the demonstrators’ cause and thanked them for taking action to define the type of community they want to live in.

“We tell the students this is their community and today they claimed it,” said Moise St. Louis, director of the Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services (CMAS). “I think overall they are holding us accountable to the sort of community that we say we want.” While some of the more active CMAS leaders initiated the demonstration, a large number of students beyond that core group joined in.

At the Pomerleau door, student leaders talked with faculty members and President Jack Neuhauser, who came out to engage about issues that concerned them – notably, a perception that the administration has been slow in responding to concerns on the basic safety of targeted students. They shared a list of demands: forming a bias response team, placing cameras on the floors of every residence, placing emergency lights outside residence halls, having faculty do unconscious-bias awareness training, increasing diversity within faculty and staff, along with more student diversity and incorporating diversity awareness into curriculum. “This is what safety in our community looks like,” one leader said.

Chants during the march included “Whose community? Our community! “We are marching for our brothers and sisters,” St. Mike’s do you hear us?” and “St. Mike’s who’s listening?” Signs included “Hate Speech is not Safe Speech, “Black lives matter” and “Black history is U.S. History.”

Local media gave extensive coverage to the action, including Local ABC/Fox 22/44, WPTZ NBC 5, and the Burlington Free Press. Among points that President Neuhauser made to student leaders directly outside Pomerleau, and also in media interviews before that, was the need to simply acknowledge that despite the College’s  abiding interest in and longstanding claims to inclusivity and sensitivity, Saint Michael’s is not immune to the hate and insensitivity being seen across the U.S. post-election.

Recent campus incidents that led to the protests, he told a reporter, included “defacing of posters, writing on walls, [students] shouting and yelling things.” One protesting student said some people also are being targeted online by people who are not even part of the community. Neuhauser stressed to students that the College takes threats and hate-crimes seriously, “though we can’t always be very public in the actions we take because we have to protect the privacy of other students as well.” However, that does not equate with inaction, he suggested.

He told students that change going forward should start with open dialogue with and among students who feel targeted. “We have to find a way to restore that – it’s broken in the country, but I think colleges should be able to lead this discussion, and I hope we can,” he said in an interview with Channel 22/44.

David Mindich of the media studies, journalism and digital arts (MJD) faculty went down the lines of assembled students on his way to the faculty meeting and thanked them personally. He told some of them that his mother fled Nazi-occupied France in 1941 and thanked them for standing up to hate and bigotry. One student he spoke with said she joined the march “because the safety of other people on campus is really important, and as a member of the LGBT community I understand being targeted.  I want to show them I’m here for them.”

Trish Siplon of the political science faculty and a longtime political activist on many causes, said, “It’s doing exactly what activism is supposed to do – acting as a catalyst to really move things along.” She said she feels the College still needs to address having an insufficiently diverse faculty, student body or curriculum.

Patti Delaney of the anthropology faculty said, “I’m incredibly proud of the students. I think the way they came together in a spirit of cooperation and respect and love for one another is showing that this is what our community should be – an inclusive and welcoming place. I feel many of us on the faculty are hoping to continue to support them and their demands and work together to come up with solutions that can be beneficial for our whole community.”

Traci Griffith of the MJD faculty said, “It’s amazing — in the time that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Students really rose to the occasion, and they got a lot of student support from people even outside of the CMAS office, who are basically here saying ‘you’re part of our community, you’re welcome in our community.” While Griffith noted that during the march, some students were holding Trump signs in the townhouses, “It’s all part of free speech and we understand that — but it’s also about making sure people feel welcome in their own community. They really spoke out.”

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