Ujamaa, Wesleyan’s Black Student Union, circulated a letter to the University administration with a list of demands for tangible actions towards anti-racist work and inclusion efforts on campus. The letter, released last Friday, Sept. 4th, spans 11 pages and articulates students’ concerns about the July 31 email that President Roth ’78 and Alison Williams ’81 sent out about anti-racism on campus, a list of demands of the administration, and a section contextualizing Ujamaa’s role on campus and urging the administration to do better for Black students.
The Ujamaa Manifesto Committee, which consists of Events Coordinator Arnaud Gerlus ’22, Communications Liaisons Alice Swan ’21 and Brianna Mebane ’22, and Social Justice Coordinators Jade Tate ’22 and Langston Morrison ’21, began drafting a version of the letter to the administration about three months ago. The committee members said that, after some feedback from students, they treated the drafting process as a collaborative effort, hosting a series of Zoom discussions with other students and Middletown residents.
“It was more so just talking about the issues, and talking about what we would like to address on behalf of the Black community at Wesleyan,” Morrison explained. “It wasn’t just amongst ourselves, we had a webinar and we held a town hall where we had the opportunity to discuss with Middletown residents, Wesleyan students and Wesleyan faculty, and a former Black Panther party member [Dr. George Walker]. It was an opportunity where we got to gather a lot of resources together and do something that might have positive change.”
Dara Swan ’21, the administrator of @blackatwesleyan_u —an Instagram page created to promote stories shared by Black students at the University — was also included in the process.
“I had a form in which I said if you have ideas for this list you can submit anonymously or you can just DM me. So I didn’t get that many submissions, I think I got a total of about 7-10 because a few people said the same things.” Dara Swan said.
This form prompted Dara Swan and Ujamaa to hold an additional Zoom meeting, inviting anyone who wanted to join and share their ideas.
In addition, the Student Athletes of Color Leadership Council President Babila Fomuteh ’21, was a cosigner and a vocal advocate for the letter.
“Wesleyan holds itself to such a high standard of being this very progressive university institution, and the same holds true for the students here, very forward-thinking,” Fomuteh said. “But I feel like there’s still such a lack of acknowledgment and a lack of accountability in that sense of hey, there’s so much work that needs to be done.”
Wesleyan’s male-identifying student of color affinity group Invisible Men also cosigned the letter.
Alice Swan explained that after their initial meetings, the Ujamaa Manifesto Committee decided that writing a letter to the administration would be the best way to articulate the demands and concerns of Black students.
Gerlus said that though Ujamaa’s decision to write the letter came, in some ways, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing violence against Black people, it addresses concerns about Black student life at the University that has always existed.
“I think that centrally, this letter came about with everything that happened in the summer,” Gerlus said. “But now, 10 years ago, five years ago, twenty years ago, Black people at Wesleyan have been undervalued and underrepresented. And maybe that has been an active continuation, maybe that has been inactive, it doesn’t really matter at this point, all of the points within this document are trying to affect that normalcy of ‘Let’s have like five Black people on our website. Job done.’ Meanwhile people are being called the n-word or physically accosted or verbally dealing with tons of microaggressions.”
The letter itself begins with a quote taken from the Fisk Hall Takeover of 1969 when Black students at Wesleyan crowded Fisk Hall to demand an increase in the number of Black students within the student body as well as the creation of a social support system for these same students.
“We seek to dramatically expose the university’s infidelity to its professed goals and to question the sincerity of its commitment to meaningful change,” reads the epigraph from the takeover. “We blaspheme and decry that education which is consonant with one cultural frame of reference to the exclusion of all others.”
Ujamaa members said that they were influenced by this historic event when writing their demands, and feel that many of the problems Black students faced in 1969 at Wesleyan, a predominantly white institution, still apply today.
“White supremacy that exists in education is not necessarily different from the white supremacy entrenched in the systems of racism that we see happening [right now],” Tate said. “I think it was important that we use that quote because it also talks to the hypocrisy of higher learning, and how it will also be, maybe not always be…an exclusive, privileged place that doesn’t guarantee accessibility and comfort to all students regardless of whether they get admitted or not.”
Tate also spoke to the timeliness of the letter in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We also wanted to take advantage of the fact that universities were coming out with their ‘How we’re gonna be anti-racist’ statements in response to all these ‘black at blank’ accounts that were coming out,” Tate said. “I feel like we took advantage of that by saying, no no, you’re not going to just implement what you think anti-racism at Wesleyan looks like, we’re gonna help you, so you can actually make Black students and Black members of the community feel good, comfortable…This national, and even international, push for systematic change facilitated the drive to demand change now.”
Alice Swan added that the COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified the need for the administration to support Black students on campus.
“Going into this really weird time with coronavirus and everything like that, we wanted to find new ways to support Black students,” Swan said. “I think the real goal of this was to just try and create tangible policy change in any way possible, and I think through this list of demands it sort of created an avenue so we can approach different aspects of student life during this time.”
Mebane also spoke to the importance of making sure that Black students are not overlooked during this time.
“Throughout history, there are so many excuses about why people cannot treat Black people with more support, and I don’t want a pandemic to be, one that is disproportionately affecting our communities, I don’t want that to be one that is used as an excuse to why you are going to continue to put us on the back burner,” Mebane said.
Since the letter began circulating through student and faculty circles last Friday, members of the Ujamaa Manifesto Committee said that the community response has been overwhelmingly positive. Alice Swan said that the writers and co-signers of the letter are hopeful that all the demands will be met, and would like to see tangible action on the part of the administration.
“I think what we want is for all the demands to be met, but it is unlikely that they all be met,” Swan said. “But I think an appropriate response would be writing sort of like a progress report or short blurb at least for all the demands listed, and sort of keeping us updated with what are the tangible action items that are taking place. Cause we’ve received some kind of short, like one-pager, but it is an 11-page document, so we definitely want them to go through the process of reflecting and actually making an effort to make these things happen.”
Ujamaa Manifesto Committee members also mentioned goals for keeping faculty accountable that were enumerated in the letter to the administration.
“We did note in one particular demand that there should be a joint faculty-student committee that deals with all types of concerns from students, but like I want whatever training that happens, I want it to be successful enough that that committee does not have to rely on just complaints and concerns from students,” Mebane said. “I want faculty members to be actively checking their colleagues on anything that they’ve done wrong… It needs to be a joint effort. Students can’t just continue to do everything and expect the administration to do everything based on what’s going on.”
Gerlus added that lasting change needs to be an ongoing and multi-level process, especially in terms of accountability for Public Safety, the University’s campus police.
“The administration also says they are going to implement anti-racist training for public safety,” Gerlus explained. “But it is important to know, like, what does that mean? Are they going to be assigned to read “How to be Anti-racist”? I don’t think that book is going to solve all of the issues of Wesleyan. I don’t think that readings and Tumblr posts are going to solve these issues. So, I just hope there is going to be clarity going forward as we meet with them about what these trainings and new orientation areas are going to be. Because it could be nothing and we want to avoid that.”
In the end, Ujamaa’s driving goal is to create long-lasting change within Wesleyan through ongoing discussions with the administration and keeping campus institutions accountable. But to do this, they are aware that this issue must be kept in the public eye in order to maintain focus.
“That’s just my main concern. That we do all this work and have all these people contributing and then nothing really gets changed,” Dara Swan said.
Morrison said that going forward, Ujamaa plans to continue pushing the administration to do better.
“We want change, and I think we want immediate positive change, swiftly. I think that can only happen if, like Alice said, there’s pressure being applied.”
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