As the winter term settles in, Editor-in-Chief Erin Wade and I interviewed Chief Diversity Officer Gretchel Hathaway and Director of Multicultural Affairs Jason Benitez to discuss the impact of Blackout Week, which occurred late last term.
Hathaway loved the student-driven initiative to generate conversation and help the campus community better understand the problems faced by students of color. “The week can be deemed a huge success because it made people have those conversations that can be very uncomfortable,” she stated.
Benitez shared similar thoughts, saying, “Blackout Week attempted to generate conversations while carving out an area for cross-cultural connections to occur.”
Both were very happy to see that awareness of the movement reached outside the population of the campus that usually takes an interest in issues faced by students of color. Hathaway said she saw a diverse group of students, faculty and staff wear black to show their support. Benitez added that the discussion-based events, which were led by students, had diverse crowds as well.
It became apparent early on that both were happy to see students on campus taking action and attempting to help generate a more welcoming environment on campus for all students.
“These are educational activists reaching on a global, national and local scale,” Hathaway said, “and continuing to have conversations is the important part.”
Both Benitez and Hathaway see a desire among students to discourse on issues that affect their communities. Benitez said that campus climate surveys are conducted annually to assess students’ opinions on cross-cultural issues, and the administration always finds that students want more opportunities to engage with others on these types of issues.
Hathaway said that Union’s administration offers many opportunities for students to address and learn more about diversity, citing several examples, including “I”dentity Dialogues, Dinner and Discussion Around Diversity, Out For Coffee and the Presidential Forum on Diversity.
“I”dentity Dialogues are “a series of safe space conversations led by Union students discussing multiple aspects of identity,” according to the weekly email sent out to the campus community. The event is held every Tuesday during common lunch in Reamer 305.
Dinner and Discussion Around Diversity is held every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in Sorum House.
Student Allies hosts Out For Coffee every Sunday at 3 p.m. at Iris House to discuss questions concerning gender and sexual orientation.
Students can also attend speakers for the Presidential Forum on Diversity, which brings leading figures in the fight for equality to the campus. The most recent speaker was John Quinones of ABC News.
Both Hathaway and Benitez agreed that while the administration plays a large role in generating equality, the true responsibility falls on the shoulders of the students.
Hathaway said that the race of a student should not predicate whether or not they want to engage in conversations about equality, emphasizing, “all students should want to engage in these types of events and conversations.”
Benitez echoed this feeling and said that though it may be uncomfortable for some students to talk about these issues, “Being put in these uncomfortable positions is the only way real change can occur.” He continued, “The students must take responsibility for what is happening on campus, because it is their friends and peers who are the ones being affected by it.”
Both encouraged students to be actively engaged in conversations on race, gender and other areas of discrimination. “It can be uncomfortable,” Benitez said, “but all of these events are very open and are always a welcoming space.”
He then said that other organizations, like fraternities and sororities, often team up with organizations like Student Allies or Interfaith Youth Core to host these types of events to help broaden the groups of people discussing these issues.
It was clear that both individuals believed the Union community would be better off if more students stepped outside of their comfort zones and not only asked the tough questions, but sought answers.
Blackout Week was a week of protest held last term by students of color that addressed issues of discrimination at Union. This included a campaign to end hair touching without consent and bringing awareness of the fact that many students of color are asked if the “go here” or are asked to present their IDs at fraternity parties while white students are allowed in without question. To demonstrate their participation in or support of the protest, students, faculty and staff wore all-black clothing.