Creating concrete campus change

At a loss for words during a community forum, David Perez, ’19, said he is unsure how to address issues of racism and diversity in the Meadville and Allegheny communities but knows the “big picture” has to be taken into account in order to create real, concrete change.

“Because what’s done is done,” Perez said. “So, I’m at a loss for words because I don’t know what we can do. I’m just a student.”

Following the arrest of an Allegheny student accused of allegedly assaulting a man in Julian’s Bar and Grill, Dean for Institutional Diversity Kristin Dukes and Dean of Students April Thompson hosted a community forum Friday, April 12, in the Henderson Campus Center.

“You’re not just a student,” Dukes said, responding to Perez.

While Dukes and Thompson said they did not want to dictate the conversation, they asked for student suggestions on how to best move forward as a campus community.

“What we can talk about, what we can control is how we as a community respond and what we do on this campus, and that’s what I want to be the foundation of this conversation,” Dukes said.

After last semester’s series of student-led protests, students who attended the forum expressed their desires to see campus-wide change. Instead of talking about problems, they suggested Allegheny administrators work with them to create policies that better protect students and bring awareness to issues of racism in the Allegheny and Meadville communities.

Brian Hill, ’19, asked Dukes and Thompson if they would read a document, created by students, with an outline for action.

“Oh, it will be read,” Dukes replied.

Karol Vargas, ’19, suggested Allegheny, Dukes and Thompson look to other educational institutions for guidance and examples of concrete policies instead of waiting for situations to happen that lead to community conversations.

“Is it going to take a situation every time that we’re going to have to have this talk?” Vargas asked. “Are we going to have to wait for a situation to happen, and then realize we need to fix it?”

Vargas called attention to representation, suggesting the college appoint someone whose job is to work with and represent students.

Building on the idea of representation of people of color on Allegheny’s campus, Dwaine Barber, ’20, asked Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, and Ahmon Powell, admissions counselor and coordinator of multicultural recruitment, for their thoughts on the situation surrounding the student’s arrest.

There are things Allegheny can and is trying to do better, according to LeSane; however, he stressed the importance of the process necessary for implementing real change.

A 2018 graduate of Cazenovia College, in New York, Powell said he can sympathize with the student but expanded the issue at hand to a worldwide problem.

“Rome wasn’t built in one day,” Powell said. “There’s a process to everything, so the stuff that we have in place now, just because it’s going on at Allegheny, it’s going on at a bunch of different colleges. I just graduated college, and I went through the same thing, so I feel for him. I sympathize with him. Like I said, it takes time.”

LeSane mentioned the importance of diversity and said the college needs more diversity.

If Allegheny had more diversity in its Office of Public Safety, LeSane said the situation may have been handled differently.

Silas Garrison, ’20, said he sees Dukes constantly working to remedy racial issues on Allegheny’s campus, but he said he would like to see more faces of black men helping to work through the issues as well.

“I didn’t even know we had black men on this campus for a minute,” Garrison said. “So, when I see Dr. Dukes up here, and she has to put on all the bulk of this, but it’s happened to a black man, and then I have to hear my friends saying that they don’t feel like they’re represented, especially as black men, I think that has to be accounted too … the bottom line is it hurts, and I think you have to recognize that.”

More than anything, Garrison said there is value in coming together as brothers and being able to see a face that looks similar to his while working through these issues.

Associate Director of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Social Justice Center Angelica Perez-Johnston spoke to Powell’s passion and care for students. After a phone conversation early Friday morning between Perez-Johnston and Powell, Perez-Johnston said Powell canceled a trip to Pittsburgh for work  to come back to campus and participate in the discussion and action plan.

“I’m available,” Powell said, saying that he can be found around campus in the IDEAS Center or often playing basketball with a few men in the room.

LeSane said he can be seen at admitted student events, but his role at the college requires him to focus on increasing diversity at the student level and also requires him to travel to help in the recruiting process.

Moving away from diversity, Francisco Guzman, ’19, Men of Color Advancement Association president, suggested a meeting be held between Allegheny College and the Meadville Police Department to increase awareness about racial bias through education and awareness.

“I know that in law enforcement, laws are laws, and stuff happens, but if the right person makes a phone call, a lot can change,” Guzman said. “If we could get some type of meeting, I know I graduate in less than a month now, but after what’s happened … I really feel I need to have that before I graduate.”

A student asked Dukes and Thompson if college staff, faculty and public safety officers go through any sort of bias training as part of their employment at Allegheny.

“We do it on a regular basis,” Perez-Johnston said, after a student said she seemed “agitated” and asked if she had something to contribute to the conversation.

Perez-Johnston apologized for seeming agitated, assuring students it was not geared towards them.

“It’s been a very long day,” Perez-Johnston said. “… I have now been supporting my students since 8 o’clock last night. I’ve had students on the phone all evening. I’ve been in student meetings all day. All I do here is care about students, so it gets to be a little bit frustrating for me, and I apologize that I am breaking down, and I apologize that you’re seeing me in a vulnerable position. I am very sorry.”

Perez-Johnston said that as a woman of color, she also struggles with the same issues students described during the forum, adding she has had to defend herself on campus “more times” than she chooses to “or would like to.”

“I’m just as angry and frustrated as students are right now, and I’m just trying to make things better,” Perez-Johnston said.

LeSane interjected and said he thought it was good for students to see college employees in vulnerable and frustrated states because it shows they care.

“They’re trying to get through to you that we do care and are not sure why you’re not seeing that,” LeSane said.

Recognizing that nobody — students or employees — wanted to be sitting in a meeting about racial issues at 5 p.m. on a Friday, LeSane said the forum was a reflection of just how much Allegheny employees care about students’ well-being and safety.

Dukes redirected the conversation back to employee bias training. While every new employee is required to go through orientation and take online modules, Dukes said it is going to take time to reach all employees in an effective manner.

“I would love to make (bias training) mandatory,” Dukes said. “But I also understand in doing that, you get people in the room that are blocked off — not interested, don’t think it’s about them in the long run. I don’t want that. I want people to come ready to hear and work and learn and be good and be the best they can for our community as a whole.”

Part of the college’s initiative to address issues of bias is carried out through the incident reporting process. Dukes said when a student files a bias report, she immediately receives an email. The student will then be contacted within 24 hours by either Dukes, Thompson or Associate Dean justin adkins to talk about the issue — if that is what the student wants.

“It’s not that we are leaving these things unaddressed; it’s just the understanding that this is a process,” Dukes said. “We’ve got people that are in very different places in their understanding of how important diversity, equity and access are, and we’re trying to figure out all the different venues and all the different ways we can meet those people where they are.”

Dukes highlighted programs and outlets to help address campus issues. For the first time this past semester, the IDEAS Center offered training for employees — specifically white employees — to learn how to be better allies to minorities. Dukes said the program is set to continue next year.

Students had the opportunity to voice concerns and opinions on campus climate in the annual campus climate survey. Dukes said there were four open meetings that were publicized on MyAllegheny, telling students they could review the data collected in the survey. Over the course of the four scheduled meetings, Dukes said one student came.

To further illustrate her point, Dukes told attendees she left a tenured position to work on a year-to-year contract because she cares about her work at Allegheny.

“It hurts me,” Dukes said. “When I’m out there, people don’t know that I’m an administrator. I’m just another black woman, and they treat me as such. But I care enough about this institution and this community to get up every day and still do this. I just need you to know that this is not a show for me. This is deep.”

Addressing the issue of white privilege, adkins spoke to the work being done by white Allegheny employees who are working to get implicit bias training specifically for the Meadville Police Department, among other initiatives.

“That work is happening, and is it happening enough? — hell no,” adkins said. “As a white guy that’s a director of a diversity office, no. There are not enough white people doing the work, and white people, we’re the ones being assholes.”

However, adkins assured students that work is being done to address these issues both on and off Allegheny’s campus. He added that attitudes of racism do take a toll on staff and faculty of color.

“I know that it’s hard to see in the moment — the ship is turning a bit here,” Thompson said. “I’ve only been here six months. The incidents that I know of in my experience are way too many … we’re not there. We’re not near where we need to be, but we get a little closer. From the conversations I’m seeing, the senior level administration at this institution is starting to actually ask and look towards bigger groups of people for guidance.”

Students at the meeting said they were going to hold administrators to their assurances and promises, and that they are going to pay attention to changes made on Allegheny’s campus.

“This is a process, this is the beginning,” Dukes said. “We will meet again.”

The campus community received an email at 8:35 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, with details about the April 12 forum and additional action steps. The next forum will take place from noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 22, in the campus center, room 301/302 and will serve as a conversation to discuss proposed action plans.