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Students, alumnus discuss student activism to conclude ‘Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary’ lecture series

| Monday, May 10, 2021

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted four students and one alumnus Friday afternoon in the final panel of its “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lecture series.

Junior Miranda Cuozzo, seniors Matthew Aubourg and Frankie Tran and recent graduate Malik Zaire joined the live Zoom session to share their histories and perspectives of student activism at Notre Dame. Senior Mikyala Vaughn, unable to join the live discussion, participated in a prerecorded interview.

Aidan O'Malley | The Observer
Friday’s “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabularypanel discussion marked the final lecture in the series.

Cuozzo, an architecture major and Africana Studies minor, is the vice president of the Notre Dame chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students. She is also a founding member of Frontline, a multicultural student advocacy group dedicated to generating discussions of inequality on campus.

Before coming to Notre Dame, Cuozzo said she conceived of racism as a historical and individual phenomenon, but upon her arrival, she began to understand its greater systemic roots. 

“I started to realize that the way I grew up was not the way that everybody else grew up,” Cuozzo said. “When I came here and started meeting people who had pools in their houses and regularly went to different countries for vacation, I was able to identify these differences and start to understand that there’s a systemic reason why our experiences are so different.”

Cuozzo’s work on racial justice began in the classroom with “Realities of Race,” a one-credit seminar she took through the Center for Social Concerns in the spring of 2019. The seminar included an immersion component in Chicago and St. Louis, where Cuozzo interacted with local minority communities and learned more about systemic racism.

The seminar also served as the inspiration for Frontline.

“All of the students in [the seminar] kind of realized that these conversations were important, and we didn’t want them to stop when we got back to campus,” Cuozzo said. “But we also recognized that those of us who elected to take this seminar did that for a reason, and we couldn’t just be having these conversations among ourselves. We needed to broaden it out to the rest of the Notre Dame community.” 

Since its founding, Frontline has worked to bring cultural clubs together and promote communication between them. Frontline also organizes “Let’s Talk About Race,” an annual event hosted as part of Notre Dame’s Walk the Walk Week

Senior Matthew Aubourg, who studies environmental science and sustainability, was also a student in “Realities of Race.” But his most recent work in the fight for racial justice came later — after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Aubourg said that in the summer of 2020, Black student leaders across Notre Dame mobilized to bring issues of racial justice to campus.

“A bunch of us got in a big group chat and put together a statement,” Aubourg said.

Their statement led to meetings with University administrators, such as vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffman Harding and Provost Marie Lynn Miranda, to address their concerns. 

One such concern was campus police.

“I was racially profiled as a freshman on campus,” Aubourg said. “I was asked if I was a student — I was just on a walk. They asked to see my ID and all these things, and later I found out that that’s not allowed. That’s not supposed to happen, but it happened to me.”

Three years later, Aubourg worked with Keri Kei Shibata, the chief of the Notre Dame Police Department, to create spaces on campus to reflect on police brutality.

Senior Frankie Tran, a science preprofessional and psychology major, serves as the vice chair of Diversity Council and a senior fellow for Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS). With MSPS, Tran helped create the “MiNDful” workshop, a training session in which students learn to identify microaggressions and how to intervene when they spot them on campus. 

His main goal as Diversity Council vice chair, Tran said, was for the organization to be officially recognized in the Student Union Board by Notre Dame student government, which it accomplished this academic year.

“That ensures much more legitimacy and longevity to our work on campus,” Tran said. “Change is slow. But it’s reassuring that there are steps in place, and that Notre Dame is aware of its actions and its potential.”

Malik Zaire, a Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) major and peace studies minor who graduated in 2017, played quarterback for the Fighting Irish in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. As a student athlete, Zaire said he was principally focused on his sport.

“Playing football, it wasn’t quite the same experience my other Black classmates had,” Zaire said. “My identity was the athlete, but I’m a Black person first, so not being as in tune into that group — it was a disservice. I’m the quarterback of the school, so not being in tune with the group that I identify with is a problem.”

This problem became clear when the season was over, Zaire said.

“Being done with football, you realize, ‘Okay, I’m just a Black man out here,’” he said. “It really happens fast.”

Zaire has since spoken to incoming students of color about navigating a predominantly white institution (PWI) like Notre Dame.

“Everybody’s in the same fishbowl,” Zaire said. “But when you get out of there, you’re in the giant pool of everything, and learning where you can move at Notre Dame can help you a lot moving in the same path.”

Senior Mikyala Vaughn, a studio art and psychology major, is also a student athlete playing for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. This year, Vaughn said, was the first in which the team was allowed to kneel during the national anthem.

“When we had a conversation about it,” Vaughn said in a prerecorded interview, “We were thinking, ‘Okay, well, if everyone’s not going to kneel then we shouldn’t kneel at all.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, that’s not really the point of this.’ It’s important to show where we stand. And I think that that’s something that’s very powerful.”

The discussion ended with suggestions on how students can better serve as allies on campus.

“When we’re putting on events,” Miranda Cuozzo said, “We are reaching out for all of you to come. We want you there, so when you see flyers and stuff on campus, swinging by those events — showing that you care and that you are standing with us — would be something that would really help change everything.”

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