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The importance of a collective voice

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

For four years, I voluntarily lived on Notre Dame’s campus, serving as a member of hall staff my senior year. I can confidently say that the decision to require three years of on-campus housing will be a dangerous addition to the pressing, systemic issues that Notre Dame’s housing system has; I have seen them affect the lives of my peers, lived through them myself and even tried my hand at fixing them, but by the end of it all, I found myself exhausted, disillusioned and severely disappointed. This choice to change Notre Dame’s policies will ultimately have a larger impact on the marginalized populations of our campus by forcing them to be tied to a system that can be destructive and harmful. I fear what the Notre Dame campus will look like years in the future should this plan be implemented.

I was able to live on campus because of a combination of scholarships, student loans and the generosity of my parents, and I do not take this good fortune lightly. On the other hand, if a student does not have access to these same opportunities, it is egregious to subject them to a substantial amount of debt just to live on campus. Quite frankly, the main thing that on-campus life has to offer that off campus does not is proximity, but I do not believe that the leisurely walk from North Quad to O’Shaugnessy is worth having to be subjected to the issues that the larger Notre Dame community proliferates.

For example, it is frightening that this University can accept the cognitive dissonance of being devoted to the dignity of the human person while continually silencing the voices of sexual assault victims. It is concerning to see that Notre Dame will claim “a spirit of inclusion … in which none are strangers and all may flourish,” while simultaneously condemning transgender students seeking an education. It is aggravating to see this University toss up photos of Dr. King and Fr. Hesburgh like pennies into a wishing well of white tears instead of actually listening to the voices of black and brown students when they say, “this school does not support me and my humanity.”

I could tell you about the exact personal stories from my life and the lives of so many of my peers who are marginalized in some way — how we have faced violence, discrimination and ignorance, from fellow students, staff and administration, how there were moments when this campus made me want to scream with rage because I could see how much it worked against my very existence — but we have been telling and telling for years. Still, nothing and no one changes. Lived experiences are quickly dismissed with apathy instead of acknowledged as a piece of a larger systemic issue, and today I simply do not feel like baring my scars for the community that contributed to them. Instead, let us focus on the issues as a whole.

See, I could list more examples, like how ridiculous it is to require more people to live on campus before first making sure that all residences on campus are handicap accessible. I could discuss how the exaggerated dedication to heteronormativity within our campus blatantly excludes the lives of LGBTQ students, or how the system of single-sex housing creates unbalanced power dynamics and puts women at risk, but I firmly believe that those who do not see or understand these and other issues simply are not paying attention and have no real intention of fulfilling our campus’s central declaration, “Venite Ad Me Omnes — come to me, all of you.”

More importantly, if you do see these issues and have no intention of doing anything about them, if you have some inkling that maybe this isn’t a great idea but it’s “not my place to say,” then I severely question any claim of allyship or a so-called dedication to everyone’s right to life; the marginalized students of our campus are alive and well, and yet their voices are simply being ignored. Blatant dismissal from moderate bystanders and individuals is just as harmful as the work of the oppressors themselves.

Let me make one thing abundantly clear: Notre Dame is a strong academic institution and I am incredibly grateful for the education I received here. The exposure to brilliant professors, the opportunities for advanced, individualized study, research and international experiences are unmatched by many other schools.

Thus, the suggestion that marginalized groups should, “just go to school somewhere else” ignores the fact that we live in a society in which education is highly valued and Notre Dame has claimed that it will make this accessible to people from every walk of life.

Further, it is no secret that marginalized groups suffer at top schools across the country. This is an issue that speaks to the problems in U.S. society more than to one individual place. Regardless, the proliferation of injustice nationwide is no excuse for creating harmful, dogmatic policies — just because the United States is a country poisoned with injustice does not mean that we should give up on trying to do something about it within our community.

I became an RA my senior year because I felt that, as a black woman, I might be able to make some small amount of difference within my dorm. I could see that Notre Dame had no intention of changing anytime soon, but I wanted to at least create a space in which all felt they could come and be whole. I believe this goal, while never truly enough, was reasonable. I encourage others who are considering it to be steadfast in their pursuits.

I loved my hall staff and am grateful for the things that I learned during that experience. My frustration with the housing system does not ignore the many unacknowledged individuals who work tirelessly within the regulations to make our campus more equitable and livable for all. To those who have worked to bring more diversity and inclusion into the student experience at Notre Dame, thank you.

But just having marginalized people amongst the ranks of campus leaders is not enough if the administration is not willing to do something about the systemic problems that exist. Over time, this decision can and will deter thousands of bright students from realizing their potential at this University, until this school becomes even whiter and richer than it already is.

I cannot truly say that I care about the needs of marginalized groups if I am not willing to speak and act when they are threatened. Every single person from students, staff, faculty, musicians, athletes, hall staff, grad students, campus leaders and administrators has a voice. Regardless of who we are, we each have a stake in the future of this community and it is our responsibility to act. The collective voice of those who are willing to stand for what is right cannot and should not be ignored.

Michelle Mann
class of 2017
Oct. 2

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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