Saint Mary’s Students and Community Take Steps to Ensure Black Lives Matter

English and Ethnic Studies double major Annaliese Martinez '21 explores efforts by Saint Mary's students and the community to support the Black Lives Matter movement, including the letter from Black Student Union President Shilei Bell-Lipsey '22.

SMC Black Student Union President Shilei Bell-Lipsey '22Just as the Black Lives Matter movement’s presence has been heightened following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, members of our own community, reflecting Saint Mary’s Lasallian mission, have been speaking out with calls to action to purposefully work against racism and create more inclusion for Black students, staff, and faculty.

Just eight days after Floyd’s death, Black Student Union (BSU) President Shilei Bell-Lipsey ’22, a Psychology and Sociology double major, shared a letter addressed to the campus community on how Saint Mary’s could improve how it addresses the needs of Black students. The letter began:

"To My Black Gael Family: 

I wish I wasn't writing this to you. I wish instead this was a simple check-in after finals wishing you the best summer, but it's not. I am writing to you because our community has faced yet another injustice. George Floyd was killed by Officer Derrick Chauvin eight days ago. This came after police in Louisville, KY killed Breonna Taylor, white men in Georgia killed Ahmaud Arbery and many other tragedies occurred. 

As I write to you, I struggle to find the words because my heart is heavy. Over the course of this week I’ve found myself spiraling through emotions, as I am sure you have too. From rage to crippling sadness, there hasn’t been a time when I’ve felt particularly steady. I want you to indisputably know a few things. Your feelings of anger, exhaustion, sadness, and whatever else you feel are real and valid. You get to feel all those, all at once, and all the time. This was a human life which was lost and has yet to see justice. You are absolutely allowed to feel however you need to about that. Please, I beg of you to take care of yourself, and your loved ones. Your emotional and mental health is extremely important. If you can’t watch the news today or tomorrow, that is ok. If you can’t respond to every DM or post every hour on social media, that is ok. Take a break as you need. I want all of you to take care of yourself. I’m trying to do the same by limiting my time on social media. We feel the need to constantly be informed, but we need to protect our own mental health right now…."

“Writing the letter was hard,” said Bell-Lipsey, who grew up in Wisconsin. “I started writing it a few days after George Floyd was killed, and as more and more news came out about the killing, I found myself unable to keep writing and stopped for probably two days,” shared Bell-Lipsey. “Then I started back up again.

“When I wrote the letter, it was really important to me that I speak first to my community. Black people were and still are hurting. As much as we’ve continued to go back to work, organize, and revolutionize, we do so as we hurt,” Bell-Lipsey said.

Despite how difficult it was for her to write the letter, Bell-Lipsey understood the importance of speaking her truth as well as reaching out to the campus community for support in the Black Lives Matter movement. Her letter made a number of calls to action. “Calling officials like district attorneys, police chiefs, etc., is a great way to make a difference,” suggested Bell-Lipsey. “There are many petitions going around that you can also sign for the arrest of the additional officers involved in George Floyd’s killing and the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. You can protest, too.”

Bell-Lipsey thanks accomplices, or those who have been committed to dismantling structures that oppress Black people, but she recognizes that there is still work to do in our own networks and communities. “To break it down,” demonstrated Bell-Lipsey, “talk to folks who share identities or space with you who are not Black. That means your same gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, age, level of ability, etc. Collect your people, swiftly. Being an active accomplice is not easy, but it is something you need to do.”

Lastly, Bell-Lipsey, who is also a former Associated Students senator, calls on our community to create change on an institutional level at Saint Mary’s by implementing policies meant specifically for the safety and inclusion of Black students. She articulated her appreciation for President James Donahue’s letter to the campus community titled “Black Lives Matter.” However, she wants to make sure that the president’s words are accompanied by actions and change for Black students at Saint Mary’s. “We don’t have a single Black member of the Counseling and Psychological Services Department on campus,” noted Bell-Lipsey, as an example of a specific area in which Saint Mary’s could be more inclusive of Black students. “Institutional change is a requirement. The Black Student Union [BSU] will hold people accountable for their triumphs and failures in creating this change. I know that the Black Lives Matter Committee will do so, too.”

While the Black Lives Matter movement has grown across the nation, it has also directed Saint Mary’s toward a more just future because of the efforts of students like Bell-Lipsey. “The future of BSU is bright,” she said. “The new executive team is already working hard and coming up with creative ideas to follow COVID-19 guidelines. We are brainstorming events, collaborations, community efforts, and so much more. It is going to be a prosperous and united year for BSU,” shared Bell-Lipsey. She encourages the community to share their ideas and support with BSU by emailing them at bsu@stmarys-ca.edu, following them on Instagram at @smc.bsu, or Twitter at @SMC_BSU. You can read her original letter on Instagram here.

Ultimately, Bell-Lipsey’s letter calls on us to acknowledge the experiences of the Black community at Saint Mary’s and make significant changes to protect Black lives. “Get up and start doing the work, today, whoever you are, wherever you are,” she concluded. “We appreciate your careful consideration of how this campus will be improved for the Black community.”

Saint Mary’s Students Develop Steps to Take Action

The same day that Bell-Lipsey released her letter, I met with some fellow Intercultural Center student staff members, including Bell-Lipsey, to strategize what we could do to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter within our Saint Mary’s community. What started as a few of us planning a Zoom meeting to reconnect with each other turned into a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and the creation of a document of tangible actions that anyone can participate in to support the movement. Recent grad Brianna Ruezga ’20, who majored in Psychology and minored in Sociology, shared how she got involved in the creation of the document. “I knew I wanted to help in any way I could, but I felt helpless alone….It can be overwhelming for anyone to receive so much information at once,” expressed Ruezga, who worked as an Intercultural Development leader at the Intercultural Center. “For example, the two weeks following George Floyd’s death, the Internet was flooded with resources. It was excellent and helpful indeed, but did feel overwhelming. An individual is overloaded with information, and if they are not saving where they received what, information is easily lost. I wanted to be part of a team that created a list of resources that will always be there and that is helpful in seeking justice.”

Our group wanted to be mindful of the fact that our country is still experiencing a pandemic while witnessing racial violence, and wanted to demonstrate that everyone has a role in creating change within their own capacity. “Personally, I spent countless hours on Instagram,” added Ruezga about the experience of creating the document. “I found most of my resources there. I scrolled through people’s stories, visited pages, and looked at websites. I spent a good amount of time looking for Black-owned businesses, especially small and family-owned businesses. There is a section on the document specifically for us to support them.”

Ojaswi Sharma ’22, another Intercultural Center student staff member and English major who helped compose the document, shared how her passion for social justice and education motivated her to get involved. “I and my colleagues at the IC were looking for ways to help the BLM movement. Social education is something we all feel deeply about,” expressed Sharma. “The hope is that this serves as a cohesive resource for allies and accomplices to find verified information to further help the movement.”

While protesting and donating to organizations are some ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement, Sharma emphasized the importance of educating oneself as a way of creating change. “There is no substitute to educating oneself and starting dialogue with individuals who may show skepticism toward the movement,” Sharma said. “Lastly, nothing is more imperative than listening to the needs of the Black individuals in our life and on campus in order to support them in necessary ways. Introspection is a free tool all of us have access to, and we must employ it to understand our prejudices and biases in order to work toward being actively anti-racist ourselves.”

The Saint Mary’s Community Steps Up

Staff and faculty have also demonstrated their support for Black Lives Matter and communicated the need for policies at Saint Mary’s to reflect the simple truth that the Black members of our community do matter. On June 11, the Black Lives Matter subcommittee issued a statement emphasizing the importance of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, as well as demands for change. “The past and present co-chairs of the Black Lives Matter subcommittee of the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE) need you to understand that the current uprising that has marched across the world is the most current iteration of a struggle that has been ongoing since 1619 in the United States,” reads the letter. “Black people, generation after generation, have been simply pointing to the unyielding reality that whether you base it on the inalienable rights bestowed by a loving God, or you base it on the unassailable physical reality of science, the fundamental truth is that we (Black people) are human beings worthy of all the rights and protections that every other human being is worthy of.”

Department Chair and Associate Professor in the Counseling Department Bedford Palmer II, who serves as the Black Lives Matter Faculty co-chair, and was the main author of the letter on behalf of the Black Lives Matter sub-committee, described the intentions behind writing the letter. Professor Palmer shared how the subcommittee’s goal was to contribute to demands made by Associate Professor Loan Dao on behalf of the Ethnic Studies Program, as well as stand with Professor Cynthia Martinez and Professor Rebecca Anguiano’s statement on behalf of the KSOE Counseling Department Student of Color group, but mostly to support Bell-Lipsey’s letter on behalf of BSU and complement it with a letter from the Black community.

“What we wanted to make sure is that we address some of the things that have been long- standing problems that impact Black students and faculty and staff,” shared Professor Palmer. One way that the Black Lives Matter subcommittee calls on Saint Mary’s to address is investing in the GUIDE training program on multiculturalism and inclusion, and making it a requirement for all faculty. “It should not be controversial, and it should not be optional,” urged Professor Palmer. “We all need to build and provide a welcoming space here.”

The Black Lives Matter subcommittee also proposes shifting Collegiate Seminar from a Socratic discussion to a difficult dialogue model. “Socratic seminars were built in a society where everyone was homogenous. Our society is not homogenous; there’s power,” explained Professor Palmer. “We pretend like everyone is coming from an equal space instead of places of power and privilege.” Professor Palmer, who has a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology, also emphasizes the importance of offering counseling services that are inclusive to the experiences of Black students in order to protect and value the lives of Black students. “Utilizing the services at CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] will help retain any student. If you have a person there who understands your life in an intimate way, that will help retain them even more.”

The recent events of racial injustice and police violence are examples of a long history of racism in the United States that is deeply rooted in our society, and Saint Mary’s is not exempt from this. Still, the ways in which Saint Mary’s students, staff, and faculty have come together to support the Black Lives Matter movement and defend the lives of the Black members of our community truly embodies the Lasallian Core Principles of concern for the poor and social justice, respect for all persons, and inclusive community. This commitment to social justice is candidly summarized in Professor Palmer’s words in the letter from the Black Lives Matter subcommittee: “Black Lives Matter. This is not a plea. This is not a slogan. It is a simple fact. It is a feather on the scale that measures one’s heart. And every word that is spoken in opposition to this basic reality weighs like judgment on that heart.”