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REIMAGINING: Students and Cultural Change 

BY: ISIS AMUSA

Click to read the previous section, The Exodus of Black Faculty

Content Warning: Mentions of Sexual Assault in Links

When Fanta Aw, vice president of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, entered AU as an undergraduate student, she was embraced by a vibrant Black community. 

At the time, a diaspora of African and Caribbean Black students received scholarships to study in the U.S. Aw said students of that diaspora had "one foot here, one foot there" and met often to discuss global racial inequities. As they organized to fight them, they looked to Black leaders on campus for support. 

"We felt like we were standing on the shoulders of giants," Aw said. "Those who had come before us had paved the way. It was paving the way for access to education, it was paving the way for how you build proud Black communities within American University. That was the AU that I knew and that I took pride in." 

Now, after working at AU for over 30 years, Aw not only observes fewer Black undergraduate students but a loss in the strength of the Black community on campus. 

"During my time [as an undergraduate student] there was probably more solidarity and there was more of a unified voice within our Black community," she said. "I think over a period of time I have not seen as much of that, and it's understandable. That happens a lot in any group." 

American University Student Government President Eric Brock attributes this to the university's difficulty retaining Black students. 

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While making up only 7.1% of the student population, Black students still have the lowest three-year retention and graduation rate at 78.1%, alongside international students, according to the 2019-20 Academic Data Reference Book.  

In an attempt to promote Black solidarity and community, Brock and several others worked closely with faculty and administration to create Black affinity housing last school year. 

Though some Black students voiced concerns in the choice of Roper Hall due to the building's age, Brock advocated for it. 

"Roper is one of the few housing structures where any class can live there," he said. "It is secluded and its own space. We really wanted a small community so that it created a sense of bonding."

Halls like Hughes were also brought to the table, but Brock says this would change "the intentionality of the space," as only having a Black floor would leave the opportunity for other floors to intrude. 

Brock says the success of this generations-long effort was dependent on initial petition signatures, support from the Black community and collaboration with Director of Residence Life Lisa Freeman and Consuelo Grier, director of Multicultural Student Support at the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI). Though Brock feels this is just a start to combatting AU's cultural issues, he acknowledges its impact. 

"There's something to be said in celebrating what we did achieve," he said. 

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The university also made commitments to restoring the structures of the building and renovating the aesthetic inside, with goals of having students co-create the design. 

Despite COVID-19, Grier says CDI, Housing and Residence Life and the administration still hold the commitment to follow through. CDI staff will provide programming for students who applied for affinity housing in the meantime. 

CDI is also expanding their dialogue series for the larger student body, Grier says. It will place an emphasis on "intentional" conversations surrounding race, intersectionality and queer and trans spaces, through both intra and intergroup conversations. 

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Additionally, the CDI team works across a variety of committees and workgroups to apply equitable lenses to recruitment, admission and retention, all to help nourish communities of color. Grier says she appreciates higher leadership's openness to examinations of inequity and to creating a "community of the willing."   

At the same time, Grier urges CDI and the administration to recognize their ideological limitations. 

"Inclusion means that you're being invited to the table by somebody else that owns it," Grier said. "When you talk about equity, belonging, ownership and power, that's different. Those are the pieces that I don't think we've gotten to yet." 

She also stresses institutions refrain from being so quick to adopt "antiracist" titles. 

"I think when people focus on antiracism as a goal, they forget that it's really a practice," Grier said. "It's not just all of a sudden you get your antiracism checkmark, and so many people want that checkmark. That doesn't fix a culture. Culture bends and it shifts and it vacillates. The work that you do to be an antiracist also has to shift."

Antiracist practices and policies, she says, require "decentering whiteness and white supremacy," something she says has proven to be difficult for historically white institutions. 

"I do think that there's an element of realism that it's tough to wake up to sometimes the more you learn about how difficult and lengthy organizational change is," she said. "We didn't get here overnight so it's really difficult to undo it overnight either." 

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Despite this difficulty, there will always be a "sense of urgency" to combat these cultures and systems. 

"AU culture is a microcosm of what we're seeing across the country," Grier said. "But when you experience that in an educational setting it is disruptive not just to you as a person but also to you growing, to you becoming a leader...to the way that you acquire knowledge and sometimes to the knowledge that you have access to." 

This summer, over 200 AU students demonstrated just how disruptive this can be. The Instagram page @blackatamericanuniversity shared posts from current and former Black students to discuss microaggressions, tokenization, fetishization, blatant and public acts of racism, Greek life and the ostracizing effect these cultural issues have.  

One student's post mentioned he felt, "being Black at AU was just about the loneliest experience of my life."

The pervasion of these isolating cultures is why Brock is abandoning the idea of transforming them.

"We can't Africanize a white supremacist culture, that is a whole conversation within itself," he said. "The best we can do is structurally benefit against the system that was built against us. If we continue to focus on the culture we just end up in a loophole." 

Read the next section, Faculty/Staff and Curricular Change.


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