by Gabriella DePinho , Editor-in-Chief
The summer months saw a number of grassroots activist movements from Black Lives Matter to voter registration movements like no other, even amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, and that activism even touched Manhattan College’s community. That wave of enthusiasm around a number of social justice initiatives was particularly passionate this summer, but that passion has not left the Jasper community.
Instead, Jaspers have put their heads down and together, gotten to work.
One body that has been actively working and meeting has been The Diversity Council, which was first announced to the college community in June. According to Sheetale Kale, the college’s chief Title IX coordinator and director of equity and diversity, who is also member of the council’s steering committee, the Diversity Council had already been in the works for quite some time, from as early as late 2019 or early 2020.
“We had all these grand plans to attend all these equity in education conferences, which of course got sidetracked by the pandemic, and then George Floyd was killed and it became, I don’t want to say an institutional priority because it was and always should have been an institutional priority, but it became fast tracked as an institutional priority,” Kale said.
The council, which planned for a fall announcement, instead got to work much earlier. The Diversity Council is focused on equity, diversity and inclusion across a number of identities but its primary focus at the moment is racial equity and justice.
Now, the council has five working groups to address multiple facets of equity work, which all have staff faculty representatives on all of them. The subcommittees are looking at ways to make curriculum more inclusive, increased recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty or staff, addressing campus climate, increasing community engagement with Bronx partners and diversifying donors so the college does not rely on a few wealthy alumni. All subcommittees, with the exception of the committee looking at staffing policies, have student representatives on them.
“I know there have been rumblings of whether or not the work we’re doing is performative or whether or not we’re representative enough of the student voice and both of those things are things that I take very seriously and I am doing my best to make sure that we are doing neither of those things,” Kale said.
As of right now, the working groups and subcommittees are creating lists of recommendations for the college in the relevant areas of their work and are making plans for future semesters. Kale describes the process as taking a “scalpel” to each process and policy in the college and slowly moving the needle in a more inclusive, diverse and equitable direction.
DeVaughn Harris, a junior and student government’s vice president of residential affairs, is one of the students on the council. He is the chair of the Student Life subcommittee and used his role as an opportunity to bring more students into the conversation.
“One of the first things for me was getting representation, so I brought up the idea of compiling a board of students to serve on the student life subcommittee so I thought we need more people on here because my experience alone doesn’t do much for the conversations the Diversity Council is planning on having,” Harris said. “I can only bring a limited amount of experience to the conversation and I didn’t feel right with it just being me so I put together a pretty diverse subcommittee. My goal going in was to get a representative from each known, diverse community on campus so different experiences can be brought to the conversation.”
In both a council and student government role, he even served as a moderator for the Aramark panel that happened earlier this fall. Harris is grateful to have had that conversation, and others, about Aramark and other student concerns, but recognizes that it can be frustrating.
“The frustrating part comes in where you have all these conversations but nothing really follows from them so it’s like well what are we having these conversations for?” he said. “So I’m trying my best to work to make sure people are not only heard but listened to and it’s been kind of frustrating from the beginning but the working groups that we’re in, we’re definitely making headway.”
Some of what the Diversity Council is trying to do is to listen to, collaborate with and incorporate the goals of other activists on campus.
Kale has said the college has been in conversation with local artists about more representative art on campus, including a possibility of a Black excellence mural, which stemmed from a list of demands the BSU released over the summer.
The list of demands not only included a Black excellence mural, but also a space on campus, a $10,000 quarterly budget, mentoring programs for first-year Black students, more Black students hired for on-campus work positions, prioritizing conversations of diversity and equity at orientation, academic networking for students of color, an increase in African American faculty at the college, regular meetings between students of color and administrators, and an action plan to address on campus hate and discrimination.
The Quadrangle initially reported on the list of demands being released and sources confirmed that “some of the demands have been met” but none were specified at the time of reporting.
In a recent email correspondence with Ashley Baptiste, the BSU’s vice president, wrote “We are currently in the works of obtaining a physical space on campus, where students will be able to visit and eventually where meetings will be conducted. Having a space is essential for the club and its future on campus.” If Baptiste means the space will solely be BSU’s space, then the club’s first demand of having their own, marked campus space will be met.
She did not provide The Quadrangle with specific updates on the status of the demands that have been or are in the process of being met, just that “as a club we are on the right track to achieving some of our goals” but “there still is work to be done, especially with the assistance and accountability from the administration.”
Baptiste did hint that updates would be shared soon, writing, “stay tuned for BSU programming that addresses these questions in a more appropriate arena.”
In general, beyond the demands, the BSU has been active creating community for Black students and raising awareness about relevant issues.
“This semester we have held virtual meetings and events ranging in different topics,” Baptiste wrote. “We have had a few laid back events such as movie and game nights, but we have also had discussion-based events such as our Black Love talk and our upcoming event with the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center.”
Another campus activist initiative was the “Statement Against Institutional Racism at Manhattan College” which was initially penned and co-signed by David Witzling, the program director for the critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) and an associate professor of English, and 13 other faculty. This statement was spread by faculty and alumni over the summer months as well and Witzling, who now serves on a Diversity Council subcommittee has found that the council has taken some of the stated goals of the statement into consideration.
“I would say the area where we’re starting to make progress is in affecting the curriculum,” Witzling said. “There is widespread awareness among the faculty of the whole college that students can go through their four year program without enough exposure to ideas and knowledge that would help them understand racial injustice and combat racial injustice, so there is a desire to see where more coursework on the lives and histories of BIPOC communities can be fit in. The conversations are at least happening.”
Though not every goal from the statement may be realized, Witzling felt writing and spreading the statement was important.
“We thought it was important to stand in solidarity with students on campus who are protesting the racial injustice that’s damaging people’s lives right now and with the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that were doing the same so that was the initial impetus to put out the statement,” Witzling said. “Creating a sense of inclusivity for all students is certainly important and valuable but we wanted to make a strong statement that a commitment to racial justice is different from that and it’s something the campus needs to do right now.”
In addition to the CRES statement, some students and alumni penned resolutions that were seeking support from alumni, faculty, staff and current students alike.
A resolution “On The Renaming of the Raymond W. Kelly ‘63 Student Commons Building” co-authored by Ireland Twiggs ‘21, Rabea Ali ’20 ’22, Daniel Aguirre ‘19 ‘20 and Liam Moran ‘20 has received signatures from 696 individuals — including students, alumni and faculty — and 42 campus groups. The resolution insists that the building should be renamed because as the 41st Commissioner of the New York Police Department, Kelly escalated stop and frisk, which was proven to be a racially biased, unconstitutional policy and that as a Lasallian institution, the college should change the name because of a needful “commitment to nurturing the need for a recognition of human dignity in our community and to create a safe space for all.”
An instagram page @mc_renamecommons popped up, with its first post on Sept. 3, to inform followers about the reasoning behind the desire to rename the building, as well as host easy access to the resolution link.
The name of the building was also originally protested by students at the time the building was being constructed and opened to the public by students who were opposed to his actions against Muslims in New York City.
Co-author Ali, who is also a graduate assistant for the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center, told The Quadrangle that the group is “enlisting a larger group to better represent these cohorts [various supporting groups] in the work forward” and is grateful for the initial support.
“We are currently pivoting towards a more two-fold model to represent alumni and students in taking the matter forward with the administration, while recognizing that there are more fights to be had and work to be done,” Ali wrote. “The resolution was a first step of many and we intend to see it through its proper channels while also recognizing that other channels may serve us better.”
Additionally, Kerry Cavanagh ‘20 and Brandon Martinez ‘20 co-authored a resolution to end Manhattan College’s new, 20-year contract with Aramark Corporation, citing concerns of ethics, quality of service, fairness to staff, and other such issues. This resolution garnered 617 signatures from students, alumni, staff and non-Manhattan College community members.
The Quadrangle did not receive a response to multiple requests for comment from Cavanagh and Martinez and was therefore unable to verify the current status of the resolution.
While different members of the college community are working on their initiatives, whether individually or coming together to combine, the most important thing is that those passionate for change don’t stop working for it.
“I think students have been really proactive and I appreciate — being a student and a student leader — seeing my peers have that zeal for mobilizing,” Harris said. “It’s really cool to see.”