Saint Mary’s Engages In Difficult Dialogues

Brown Bag Talk

Campus climate concerns prompted scores of students to stage an all-day protest this past Thursday, May 5. Organized under the call of End the Silence, students presented a list of 10 demands to administrators. Among other things, the demands call for curriculum changes in the First Year Advising Cohort (FYAC) and Collegiate Seminar, college affordability, clarity of support for undocumented students, more diverse faculty and mandatory diversity workshops for all faculty and staff. The SMC student protest is consistent with similar student actions across the nation, as can be seen on the campus protest website thedemands.org. End the Silence organizers requested the College respond to their demands by the end of this week.

In marches and rallies across the campus, students spoke about acts of intolerance, vandalism at the Intercultural Center, divisive political graffiti and micro-aggressions in the classroom. And, as they have been educated in many of their courses to advocate for social justice, they raised their voices collectively to question if the College was listening to their concerns. 

With the help of the Intercultural Center and the CCIE (College Committee on Inclusive Excellence), President James Donahue and Provost Beth Dobkin organized a series of campus conversations. They included a solutions-oriented town hall gathering at the Soda Center and two student-focused Brown Bag Lunch discussions with President Donahue at the Intercultural Center.

Desmond Hatter ‘18, who attended both the May 4 and 5 sessions at the IC, said he appreciated Donahue listening to the students. “I think the president is beginning to see it, and I noticed that when he took the time to take part in the Seminar program as a professor," he said. But Hatter added that administration responses to incidents of bias on campus can’t be passive; they need to be proactive.

Chief Diversity Officer Tomas Gomez-Arias agrees and said the institution must move promptly to address the students’ concerns. “I was pained by the experiences they courageously expressed,” said CDO Gomez-Arias. “However, I also felt encouraged because I heard students talk from a place of love for the College, and they challenged us to love it in the same way and make it a more inclusive place.”

The May 4 town hall gathering in the Soda Center took a problem-solving approach to climate concerns. Co-led by KSOE Counseling Professors Bedford Palmer and Gloria Sosa, the format featured 18 think tank tables for 8-10 people, each dealing with issues such as bias in Collegiate Seminar, faculty diversity, a more inclusive undergraduate and graduate curricula and the Black Lives Matter movement. Turnout was high, with a crowd of around 250 showing up to participate.

“We had people overflowing into the patio and had to make seven or eight extra think tank tables, beyond what we had prepared for,” said Palmer. “I think that community engagement is one of the most important aspects of any effort to make changes.” Sosa said the campus community could expect recommendations from the town hall soon. “We plan to organize and classify the information and share it with the SMC community, then begin the process of supporting the enacting of the prescribed solutions.”

Although Lizette Guevara ‘16, one of the student demonstration organizers, said she didn’t participate in the forum because of the large crowd, she was still heartened by the response. “It was really encouraging to see not only lots of students, but lots of staff, different departments showing that they do want to make a change and that they do want to hear the students out and see what needs to be done,” she said. “I definitely thought that was a step in the right direction.” 

Near the end of day, President Donahue spoke to a crowd of nearly 100 that had gathered in the Fillipi Hall lobby. He acknowledged the validity of their challenge to the College and said he is committed to addressing their concerns. “Don’t for a minute think that you don’t matter to me or to Saint Mary’s College.” Holding the demands in his hand, he recognized the students for their courage and promised a response by the end of the week. He also received encouraging applause after saying, “Thank you for everything you have done. We will end the silence.”