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‘We are ripe for change’: College leaders invite community of color into conversation, commit to antiracist action under new president

| Monday, July 6, 2020

On June 1, exactly one week after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Saint Mary’s President Katie Conboy assumed office. That same day, Conboy and her cabinet released a statement addressing the deaths of Floyd and other men and women of color, as well as the subsequent spread of outrage and global protest. The president reaffirmed the College’s commitment to overcoming racism and other forms of prejudice, and called the community to come to prayer as well as action.

In the days following this statement, Saint Mary’s alumnae assembled to create a list of demands for the president and the board of trustees, with the goal of inciting explicit antiracist action from College leaders. This document outlined 12 items intended to dismantle racist infrastructure and help community members “unlearn and upheave racism and specifically anti-blackness.”

Upon receiving this petition, Conboy and the board of trustees released an open letter to the community and pledged to act upon the requests made by the alumnae and their supporters. This response included the promised implementation of 13 commitments, including the creation of a scholarship offered exclusively to Black students, the integration of antiracism programming into the first-year Welcome Weekend, increased funding for campus clubs and organizations that promote diversity and the completion of an annual “Diversity Report.”

In addition, the College committed to improved physical and mental health services for students of color and LGBTQ+ students, more representation of diversity in College marketing and prompt investigation of racial bias or hate on campus.

Conboy said the College is more than capable of acting upon these items immediately, and will further pursue improvements as the year progresses.

“Why wouldn’t we be trying to do the things that are very actionable, and some of which are not going to cost us a lot except in effort?” Conboy said.

The president also invited members of the Saint Mary’s community into six separate conversations to take place on Zoom over one week. Three of these discussions were open to the entire College, and the remaining calls were designated for faculty and staff of color, alumnae of color and current students of color. The Zoom discussions were hosted by the president and director of inclusion and equity Redgina Hill.

“These were painful conversations,” Conboy said. “We knew that they would be. And part of what was most painful for me was that we had people who had been [at Saint Mary’s] in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on the call, saying they’d had the same experiences that students who graduated just this past year have had. What have we not been doing? What have we not paid enough attention to?”

Conboy said she has received letters from people working within the College community who are outraged by the fact that anyone would claim the presence of racism at Saint Mary’s. This understanding is rooted in white privilege, she added.

“I need them to hear the stories of students — just listening to one or two of them, they would have to step back and have some pause about that attitude,” Conboy said. “White people have the privilege of thinking of themselves as outside of race. We don’t think of ourselves as racialized, we think of people who are not white as having a race.”

By perceiving themselves in this way, white people also exclude themselves from addressing racism, she said. Referencing the work of Eula Biss, an author and Northwestern University professor who has written extensively on race, Conboy explained how the root meaning of the word “privilege” is “private law.”

“So if you have a private law that says that you don’t experience racism, you don’t see it and it’s not anywhere around you,” she said. “The only way to keep your privilege is that somebody else doesn’t have it.”

Hill said the installation of a new president provided the perfect opportunity to explore and improve upon the experience of people of color at Saint Mary’s, and global circumstances made this exploration even more imperative.

“What is going on in society spills on over to our campus community,” Hill said. “And so personally, as a Black woman in the community, I was hurting. I was in pain. I knew I wasn’t the only one that was hurting and in pain and because this is my role, I felt a responsibility to check on our community, not only to see how we were doing, but also how has this moment charged us to move toward action.”

Anisah Elsayed-Awad, who graduated in May and participated in a call with other College alumnae, described the experience of people of color at Saint Mary’s as “invisible” and “almost secondary.”

“Something I talked about in the call is that professors and even the Sophia program are not meeting students where they’re at,” Elsayed-Awad said. “I had to sit in classrooms and listen to girls having to work through very basic empathy principles. That’s very triggering.”

Elsayed-Awad and other alumnae shared stories from their time at Saint Mary’s, recounting a shared experience of microaggressions on campus followed by little response from the College. This was a universal experience for both recent and older graduates, Elsayed-Awad said.

“They had done everything that they needed to do, and then there was just silence from Saint Mary’s,” she said about the alumnae. “It was really hard for me to hear that. I’m a brand new alumna, and I’m super sad about my how my Saint Mary’s career ended and really excited to jump into the position of being an alumna, but I will say that I have had qualms about trying to tell girls of color to go to Saint Mary’s.”

Much is promised to Saint Mary’s students, Elsayed-Awad said, including diversity, community and resources; however, these offerings are not always fully extended to students of color.

“Girls at Saint Mary’s consistently excel at what they’re doing, but girls who are undocumented, girls that are brown, girls that are queer and people that are not even identifying as women have to fight so much harder to get a fraction of those opportunities,” she said. “Should I even be telling girls to go to Saint Mary’s? Can I promise them the things that they deserve?”

The biggest divergence between the experience of white students and students of color at Saint Mary’s can be found in the way both groups consider their own education, Elsayed-Awad said.

“I was going into my classes so frustrated because a lot of girls don’t take their education as seriously as women of color do because they don’t see it as a step into the world,” she said. “They don’t see it as a step into opportunity. It’s just something to check off or something you need to do; it’s not something that’s going to change your entire life, which for many girls of color at Saint Mary’s, that’s absolutely what it is. It’s like opening the gates.”

This different level of commitment to education as an opportunity, as well as the responsibility to educate other women on topics of race “can be felt in everything,” Elsayed-Awad said. The expectation that she and other students of color must inform white allies on issues of race creates an additional emotional drain.

Despite the ever-present disparity, Elsayed-Awad said she sees many paths to closing the gap between the experiences of white students and students of color, and shared these ideas in the call with the president.

She suggested that clubs and groups promoting diversity — such as Student Diversity Board, La Fuerza and the Black Student Association — deserve increased funding and support. Elsayed-Awad also proposed funding set aside to help students in need buy their Saint Mary’s rings and tickets to Notre Dame football games, two privileges often associated with the traditional College experience.

In the call with other current students of color, senior Jackie Rojas listened to her peers share stories about feeling “unwelcome, unheard and disadvantaged” in the classroom, as well as other aspects of attending a predominantly white institution.

Rojas described the experience of students of color at Saint Mary’s as disappointing and challenging in some instances and fulfilling in others.

“Many students of color have had experiences with faculty, staff and students that are simply unacceptable,” she said in an email. “We expect an equal level of dignity and respect that many times falls short. I have personally had a really good experience at Saint Mary’s, but I know that it could have been and can be extraordinary.”

It is the knowledge that this experience is capable of improving joined with love for the College that brought these students together on the call with Conboy and Hill, Rojas said.

“Many of us at the meeting were there because despite the challenges we face as students of color at Saint Mary’s, we still love our College and are willing to fight until the end to form it into the welcoming and supportive community it is meant to be for us and for future generations,” she said.

One approach to a more inclusive experience would be a diversified faculty and staff, Rojas said, in addition to accelerated recruitment for more students of color.

“I believe that representation is powerful,” she said. “I think my experience would have been better if there were simply more people like me at Saint Mary’s.”

Rojas said she feels hopeful that Saint Mary’s will respond to the call for improved race relations on campus with substantial change, but noted the need for commitment and perseverance from the entire community.

“As a current student, I am hopeful that with the present awakening rippling through our country and community, the experience at Saint Mary’s will progressively become better,” she said. “I believe that this awareness will allow me to feel and see improvements by graduation.”

In the Zoom conversations with these groups, Conboy and Hill committed to the continued pursuit of an improved campus experience for all, especially students of color. They addressed calls for structural change, Elsayed-Awad said, as well as the need to rewrite the culture within the predominantly white tri-campus community.

“The work is possible,” Elsayed-Awad said. “Saint Mary’s girls are highly intelligent, everyone at Notre Dame has the resources and the energy — they just need the focus, the determination and the desire to have the conversation about how we all have hurt each other. But the issue is that it’s a lot of energy, it’s a lot of vulnerability. But I do think that we’re ready. No one likes feeling how we’ve all been feeling lately. But women of color have been feeling like this forever and to realize that, really sit in that and empathize can allow all of us to move forward.”

It’s especially difficult to embark upon cultural work, Conboy said, which makes it even more important to first build a foundation of common understanding. This is why the president and other College leaders have been circulating and reflecting upon antiracist curriculum over the previous weeks, and plan to integrate similar lessons into the Saint Mary’s programming.

“I don’t think this is going to be easy,” she said. “And so that’s why we have to take small steps, first.”

 With a newly inaugurated president, Saint Mary’s is ripe for change, Hill said.

“We have a president, a leader that is willing to back the work that I am tasked to do,” she said. “I did not choose to come to Saint Mary’s to do minimal change and minimal work. I just hope that the message is that we’re ready. And we hear the cries of our community that they don’t want talk, they want action and we’re ready to give them action. We’re ready to prove to them that they can trust us and we’re going to move swiftly to make some changes.”

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