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We won’t tolerate it’

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about the Call to Action movement and the experiences of minority students within the Notre Dame campus community. 

One year ago today, members of the Notre Dame community gathered in a town hall meeting to discuss incidents of racial discrimination experienced by the Black Students Association (BSA) and the African Students Association (ASA) and to develop a plan to move forward. 

Students learned from a Feb. 24, 2012 email that during the span of one week, fried chicken parts were placed in both organizations’ mailboxes in the LaFortune Student Center. Members of the community shared similar stories of racial tension and exclusion at the town hall meeting March 4, 2012, which made it apparent that the harassment directed towards the BSA and ASA were symptomatic of a larger problem.

Emerald Woodberry, current president of the BSA, said the intense emotion shared at the first town hall meeting indicated minority students had kept a lot of their thoughts bottled up.

“The first [town hall meeting] took people by surprise – no one knew what was coming,” Woodberry said.  “That’s what I’m worried about, the fact that students were living with this emotion, holding onto it and not sharing it with anyone. … I’m worried about that and the implications that has on a student and their experience at Notre Dame.”

Another town hall meeting will take place March 26. But Woodberry said the steps student leaders have already taken have begun to develop support frameworks and help minority students navigate life at Notre Dame.

“I think it’s our responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen again, that we have platforms for students to come and talk and express these things and know that something will come of [their story],” Woodberry said. 

‘The voice to make a difference’

Students themselves have the power to demand that better support frameworks are created, ASA president Chinelo Onyeador said.

“Without the students, nothing would have happened,” Onyeador said.  “We can do anything we want it we really want it – we really do have the voice to make a difference on campus.  I think students have so much power, that’s the bottom line.”

The movement began with one person: former BSA president Brittany Suggs, Woodberry said. 

“Initially when the [items were placed in the BSA and ASA mailboxes], both clubs’ officers reported the incidents to Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and there was an official report filed,” Woodberry said. “Shortly thereafter [the Feb. 24, 2012] email came out [from then vice president of student affairs Fr. Tom Doyle and vice president and associate provost Don Pope-Davis] with Brittany’s name signed [as well].

“That was huge.  It basically said we won’t tolerate it, this happened but it won’t end here.  We’re going to keep pushing and keep fighting.  We sat down [and] literally brainstormed what we can do, how we can get students involved and where this is going to go.”

That initial meeting prompted the groups and the other collaborators to arrange the town hall meeting, Woodberry said.

“If things like this happened at other times we need to know about [those incidents] – that’s not going to cut it, that’s not going to work for us.”

Shaping a movement

By collaborating with the administration, student leaders within the BSA and ASA united to formally create the Call to Action movement, Onyeador said. 

“The BSA and ASA were the groups targeted so we became spearheads of the group,” Onyeador said. “Now we’ve gotten the Diversity Council involved, members of other minority groups have participated in the communities, some of the students who teach the Contemporary Topics class – it’s a really diverse group of students, that’s definitely diversified a lot more than last year.”

Several administrators have been instrumental in the movement, but none more so than Iris Outlaw, director of multicultural student programs and services, and assistant vice president of student affairs Dr. David Moss, Woodberry said. 

“Both Ms. Iris and [Moss] really helped us to focus in on all of the things we need to do without being overbearing,” Woodberry said. “We took all the things that we got from the town hall meeting, and started to collaborate with student government and different offices on campus to see what we can do. … As things fell into place, we had committees in place that were planning things, then coming back and reporting to us.”

The efficient collaboration between student and administrative leaders and immediate commitment by the administrators to the students’ goals allowed the movement to successfully pursue its initiatives, Woodberry said.

“I’m not sure how things have happened in the past, but I’m not sure there has ever been such a strong coalition between students and administrators where students have led the way,” Woodberry said.

After beginning their terms as this year’s leaders from the BSA and ASA, Onyeador said they spent a semester learning the progress Suggs had made during the 2011-12 school year.

“There was a lot that Brittany did by herself, [so] Emerald and I spent the first two [or] three months of figuring out all she did,” Onyeador said.  “The first months of school were basically transition months, after that we looked at what we had and where we had to go from there.”

Student government Diversity Council liaison Ernst Cleofe said student government partnered with Call to Action committee members as the movement set its agenda. He participates on the movement’s steering committee with Outlaw, Moss, Woodberry and Onyeador, Cleofe said. 

“I didn’t want to be the strongest voice in the room, but student government … wanted a role that is step by step in every single process in any capacity they needed,” Cleofe said. “We don’t want to be at the forefront because we don’t think that’s our place.  The Call to Action movement is a student-driven organization, and I think the way student government views it is that we’re here to help.”

Some of the most significant developments fostered by the movement will affect students from the first moment they step onto Notre Dame’s campus and begin residence life in the dorms through freshman orientation, Cleofe said. 

‘Just the place where I live’

Onyeador said minority students often struggle to find a “home under the dome” through on-campus dorm life. 

“I think that’s one of the things about dorm life – minority students don’t always feel it’s for them,” Onyeador said. “That’s why so many leave campus so soon – many minorities move off-campus after their freshman year – which is quite unusual for the typical Notre Dame student.

“I’m still on campus but that’s not my choice, that’s been my parent’s choice. Overall my dorm experience hasn’t been horrible, but it’s just the place where I live, it doesn’t feel like a community to me.”

This sense of exclusion for minority students often starts during freshman orientation, Onyeador said.

“A lot of students – not just minority students, majority students too – have complained about Frosh-O being really awkward and really uncomfortable, not that welcoming,” Onyeador said.  “I know they try to foster community … but it’s not comfortable for anyone, let alone the one Hispanic girl or the one black girl in the dorm.”

Onyeador said reworking freshman orientation training allowed this year’s program to run more smoothly.

“We’ve gotten a lot better feedback from the freshmen [than in years past],” Onyeador said. “A lot of the people who were on Frosh-O staffs said they were on their dorms’ Frosh-O staffs because they had had bad experiences and wanted to make it better for someone else.”

Efforts to improve dorm life for minority students affect more than just freshman orientation, Onyeador said.

“They are changing Resident Assistants’ (RA) training; that also started this past year,” Onyeador said.  “Last year, I had a really great RA, but I just feel like sometimes RAs feel uncomfortable because they don’t know how to interact with someone who is not the typical Notre Dame student – it’s not like they’re intentionally trying to leave anyone out, they’re just not used to it.”

Holding each other accountable

As the Call to Action movement continues, NDSP has also developed a more comprehensive reporting system for any type of harassment on campus, Woodberry said.

“We’ve also started creating a new website called report@nd, which is going to be launched in March,” Onyeador said. “On it you can report any incident of harassment – racial, sexual, sexual orientation, whatever it is. It’s a one-stop shop for reporting.”

Creating a venue so that students can more easily report harassment works hard in hand with efforts to strengthen the relationship between NDSP and the rest of the campus community, Onyeador said.

“Sometimes we forget that they are here to serve us and to help us but the relationships that students have with [the officers] are not always positive,” Onyeador said. “NDSP is trying to show us [what their role on campus actually is] – they have a pamphlet that they’re working on that explains our rights as students and their rights as a police department.

“We don’t know what we can do and what we can’t do – we don’t know our rights. This pamphlet is trying to do a better job of explaining that to students,” she said.

NDSP also instituted a new policy per the recommendation of the movement, which will require officers to offer business cards after every interaction with students, Onyeador said. 

“A lot of students have had issues with NDSP in the past, whether in questioning whether they are actually students here or accusing them of something, so we’re trying to hold these officers accountable,” Onyeador said.

Looking to lasting change

It’s been one year since the town hall meeting when the ball began rolling on these initiatives. Though the initiatives have already produced some tangible results, students will be the ones to affect lasting change in their perceptions of diversity, Cleofe said.

“It’s an overall change on the part of the student body that is really going to change the way diversity is treated on campus,” Cleofe said.

Cleofe said he hopes people remember the principles behind the idea of the Notre Dame “family.”

“Personally, it’s something I feel really strongly about – not just [in terms of] racial diversity, but people from all different backgrounds accepting each other and being a family, which is what Notre Dame is supposed to be all about,” he said.

Woodberry said the movement focuses on the needs of individual students by working to reach both majority and minority students and clearly express what constitutes unacceptable, discriminatory treatment. She said she hopes this continual conversation will help the Call to Action leaders to continue working on initiatives that will improve the ability of the Notre Dame community to welcome all of its members.

“That’s the worst thought ever that someone, somewhere on our campus doesn’t feel a part of this Notre Dame community – this Notre Dame family that we harp on all the time,” Woodberry said. “Talking to those marginalized students and taking their opinions seriously is the most important part of all of this. Even if it’s just one student that this reaches, that one student is really important.”