While the Black Lives Matter movement has grown stronger since George Floyd’s death on May 25, the call for more support of African American students and the elimination of racial injustice at Illinois State University’s campus has soared.
Over the past year or so, students have expressed their thoughts and shared their experiences with racism at ISU on social media and during local protests that have sparked in the Bloomington-Normal area in recent months.
These students remain consistent as they have continued to call on ISU and its administration to take action about the racial injustices that have crept through the entire campus, especially within the past year.
This includes the most recent events where the Black Homecoming Committee had a concert in Redbird Arena canceled for an extra volleyball practice in October 2019 and when ISU Athletic Director Larry Lyons used the phrase “All Redbird lives matter” in August.
Both sparked large protests that circled around campus and social media threads with students sharing their thoughts about the lack of support they feel they receive from the university, including many posts from October 2019 using the hashtag “#AntiBlackISU.”
Since the university’s cancellation of the Black Homecoming Committee concert and the incidents and conversations between administration, faculty and the students that followed, both parties knew it would take more than protests or attending Academic Senate meetings to make the changes that students continue to push for.
“It really was a good wake-up call for us, even though a number of areas we had been working on but to really call our attention to the fact that we can’t drag our feet. We really have to be intentional on those demands that students are making,” Interim Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion Doris Houston said.
Students at the protests held over the past year have brought awareness to what they believe ISU lacks when it comes to diversity and inclusion across the entire campus, stressing how important and impactful it is to stand up to racism and its injustices.
Others are echoing this by putting emphasis on the importance and impact of doing the research about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement themselves instead of expecting the Black community to inform them.
“I think it’s important for myself as a white person to listen [and] to be receptive to the stories of those in the Black community,” senior early childhood education major Elizabeth Seabert said.
“While it’s very important for me to listen though, I also think it’s even more important for myself and other white folks to seek out information about how they can be a support for the BLM movement rather than expecting Black people to inform us. We must seek out the knowledge for ourselves.”
The administration’s immediate initiative to the #AntiBlackISU movement and its protest was to create working committees that included many of the students and faculty speaking out about the racial injustices.
This allowed these students and faculty to have a louder voice and more of a say in the change they wanted to see happen moving forward.
ISU President Larry Dietz and his administration have been meeting with these working committees on a regular basis over the past year, providing an open door to discussion about these changes and the other initiatives that are going to come.
“I’m going to continue to work with this student group and other diverse leaders on the campus to try to improve things here,” Dietz said.
“I may not be able to do a whole lot to make any kind of a global impact, but the bottom line is that all of us do whatever we can to improve the situation in the areas where we live and work.”
While the ISU administration implemented a campus climate task force a few years ago, created the working committees in fall 2019 and hired Doris Houston in February, a larger push for making change to the campus community regarding racism came after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May, sparking the national protests that followed and continue to happen daily.
Students across the athletic department and the administration’s working committees have presented lists with demands, recommendations and on-campus changes they want to see through social media threads and sent to the administration, remaining consistent in the standards.
This includes, but is not limited to, changing the names of the houses and floors within Watterson Towers, training and online courses for administration, faculty and staff, recruiting more diverse faculty, all colleges within ISU developing an anti-racism committee and the ISU Police Department acknowledging, addressing and investigating anti-Blackness.
Some students are going beyond their social media platforms and the meetings with the administration to continue holding the university accountable.
This includes #AntiBlackISU representative senior Ashley Dumas attending the ISU Board of Trustees special meeting Saturday, claiming that there is a lack of communication between the administration and the public about the progress being made.
“I’m here to acknowledge that we have had direct communication with administration since October. Our progress was cut short in spring and seemed to only have resumed due to nation unrest. In summary, progress has not been sufficient nor measurable,” Dumas said.
“Work like this takes time, we know, but almost a year later and we still need tangible plans for years to come.”
While the Board of Trustees’ special meeting followed Dietz’s annual State of the University address Thursday, the president discussed equity and diversity in his speech.
Dietz emphasized that leaders in higher education need to listen and learn from “the students voicing their frustration, trauma and pain,” referencing the #AntiBlackISU protests that took place in October.
“Equity is not an easy road. It pushes against a centuries-old narrative that things are supposed to be a certain way. It means admitting that our history, and the systems established throughout that history, can be flawed, can be brutal, and can be perpetuated in how we see the world today. Leaders in higher education are trained to find solutions, fix problems, serve as good stewards of the public trust and care for students, faculty and staff,” Dietz said.
“It can be difficult for us to hear of a student’s pain and not want to act. But we are learning that when it comes to addressing disparities in race, economics, ability — we must first listen and understand before we attempt to assuage the pain.”
In response to the demands and recommendations, Houston has been planning to spend her first year as the interim assisstant to the president for diversity and inclusion by prioritizing the most important areas, starting with equity and social justice training for all members of the university.
“There are the consistent themes [with the demands], and themes that we are taking seriously, are things like the hiring of diverse faculty, staff and administrators [and] ensuring that there [is] adequate support outreach to ensure that there is retention of students that come to the campus,” Houston said.
“One of the important areas that each of the student groups and faculty groups that have either offered demands or recommendations that training around equity and inclusion and social justice has really been at the top of the list. I’m really pleased, I have to say, to have been a part of a number of those trainings.”
Already having this training for all officers, ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff highlights that the department signed up for the 10 shared principles developed between the state of Illinois, the Illinois chapter, the NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs in 2018.
The department continues to review the principles and have each officer sign a commitment to follow the 10 shirt principles, reaffirming its dedication to transparency and accountability to these issues.
“We have a very good relationship with the local chapter of the NAACP, and we meet regularly as part of the minority employees partnership. It’s not something necessarily new to us [and] it’s something we’ve always been doing. We’ve just been reaffirming the values that we say that we’re committed to,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff went on to highlight the other aspects that the department has already been working toward with the hiring of diversity within the department and the training sessions that are in place for incoming officers.
“We are a fairly diverse department for a police department and that’s pretty much reflective of the ISU community. When you talk about the training that we get from the very beginning, our officers get kind of an introduction into topics such as microaggressions, privilege [and] power intersectionality as well as implicit bias [and] procedural justice,” Woodruff said.
“[We] go through a number of different trainings initially as an incoming officer. I view it like an inoculation process, so you don’t just get it and be done with it. There’s regular trainings, so the expectation is that our officers continue down that path of educating themselves and that includes training.”
While administration, faculty and staff members acknowledge that the university is far from finished when it comes to eliminating racial injustice and fulfilling the ISU diversity and inclusion mission, the goal for administration is to spend time this year implementing some of these demands and recommendations across campus.
“We’re a large campus of more than 20,000 students. So even in the short-term areas, things don’t happen overnight. Certainly, policies that are important [have] a fairly twisted response to [them],” Houston said.