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Leaders address racial discrimination

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, May 1, 2012

After testimonies at a March 5 town hall meeting called to address instances of racial discrimination revealed a widespread problem of racial discrimination on campus, community leaders are working to foster an environment that better embodies the ideal outlined in Notre Dame’s “Spirit of Inclusion” statement.

The statement asserts the University welcomes “all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality, for example, precisely because of Christ’s calling to treat others as we desire to be treated.”

Senior Brittany Suggs, former chair of the Black Student Association, said everyone at Notre Dame needs to take responsibility for the well-being of the entire community.  

“These problems are not just one group’s problems … and as a member of the Notre Dame family, it is your duty to be informed and to take up this cause,” Suggs said.  “We want a place that can feel like home for everyone … If we are a family, it is important to also be attentive to the needs of all of the other members of our family.”

Suggs said “Call to Action” committees formed to address racial discrimination, and those groups synthesized the concerns voiced at the town hall meeting into a plan of action.

“We are working on a response that aligns with many of the plans … that come from what the student body and greater Notre Dame community presented at the town hall meeting,” she said.

Suggs said the committees considered stories of struggle voiced by the students at the town hall meeting to form an overarching plan of action meant to correct a campus culture in which discrimination can persist.

“We shared the stories that were presented during the town hall meeting … Then we also shared the more general suggestions from the town hall meeting,” Suggs said. “What we did from there was discussed more in-depth how to create responses to these two sets of information and worked with these different departments.”

Two preliminary results of the committees’ work have been heartening, Suggs said.

“Immediately after the town hall meeting, there was an increase in reporting [instances of discrimination] and an increase in faculty members being available to assist students with reporting,” Suggs said. “Another reaction has been the [increased] vigor that people have for the issue … keeping the discussion very much alive.”

Student government leaders have participated in the committees attempting to address discrimination at Notre Dame and have taken initiatives to complement the conclusions drawn in those committees, student body president Brett Rocheleau said.

“Student government has been heavily involved with each of the committees, and Student Senate just passed a resolution the other day that basically said we are looking for a University task force to go through and review the systems of how training is done … looking back on what’s going on and taking a second look at how we can improve the processes that could be a part of this inclusion,” he said.

Student body president emeritus Pat McCormick said he is working alongside Rocheleau to develop a presentation for the upcoming Board of Trustees meeting that will focus on ways to build an inclusive community.

“Our hope is to offer a forward-looking view as to how we might build a more inclusive community on campus with a wide variety of campus stakeholders that is truly consistent with the mission of the University of Notre Dame,” McCormick said.  

Rocheleau said while acknowledging the long-term vision necessarily defines these efforts, student government hopes to begin to implement programs that will change the atmosphere before the next school year.

“We are going to hit the ground running in the fall when everyone is back on campus, whether it is new faculty diversity training or new events during Freshman Orientation,” Rocheleau said. “We are trying to make everyone more informed on diversity issues on campus and trying to expand the resources already offered at Notre Dame … making sure when we get to campus this issue remains relevant until it gets solved and there is a culture of inclusion.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle said his office has a similarly long-term vision for implementing programs to change the campus atmosphere, but it also seeks to create short-term progress.

“We want to make sure that there’s a real awareness and sensitivity to things that might be part of our tradition that are unwittingly off-putting to parts of our community,” Doyle said. “We are taking a look [at programs in place] and saying, ‘Are there things that we can do better for our rectors, our assistant rectors, our RAs … our Freshman Orientation staff?'”

Doyle said his office will emphasize training residence halls’ Freshman Orientation staffs in racial sensitivity.

“We are trying to make sure that each dorm understands how important it is to extend hospitality and welcome not just students of color, but also to international students, students who might be gay, lesbian or questioning and students who might be disabled,” he said.

The University will also focus on ensuring that hiring practices build this sense of community, Doyle said.

“In our own hiring, [we will be] making sure that we have much more diverse pools of applicants, and for all of our applicants trying to ask better questions about their cultural competency, preparedness to work in a diverse setting, and readiness to … teach and lead,” Doyle said.

Doyle said although this process will not yield quick results, the unique climate currently at Notre Dame enables the community to become one that is truly catholic, not just Catholic.

“There’s no one thing that will fix the culture or will fix operations,” he said. “It’s going to take trust, mutual good will, and some risks on everyone’s part – but I think what we have realized is that the risks are well worth the reward. We want to be Catholic and catholic, meaning that we are a Roman Catholic university and a catholic community … an environment on campus that is welcoming and hospitable to everyone in a deep and abiding way.”