From demands to dialogue to action: partnering with students to co-create racially just campuses

Over the course of this academic year, students from numerous institutions have issued demands that have led to a range of responses from administrators, including but not limited to making significant financial commitments, instituting educational programming, and establishing new leadership positions focused on diversity and inclusion. Notably, some institutions have refused to negotiate at all.

In Emory University’s student affairs operation, Emory Campus Life, we decided to respond to students’ demands in a radically different way with a radically different philosophy.

In response to a list of demands last fall by the Black Students of Emory movement, which brought greater attention to issues of racial justice at our institution, we partnered with black and other student leaders to plan a Racial Justice Retreat. Our shared goal for the retreat is to produce action items, timelines, and accountability measures to address our students’ concerns – to move us from demands to dialogue to action.

We established a number of working groups for the retreat. Each group includes students, staff, and faculty, and each group is assigned to examine and develop recommendations and action items for one or more of the 13 demands initially set forth by our students.

We will post the draft reports of the working groups online for community feedback. With the results of their labors in hand and with feedback from the community, the groups will gather in late February to discuss their recommendations with one another and revise them accordingly.

Inviting more than 100 stakeholders, a cross-section of our university community, to participate in the retreat, we are embracing the principles we cite below and intentionally choosing to serve as a laboratory for cultivating student leaders who can help create systemic social change at Emory and beyond.

Perhaps more important, this approach marked a departure from how higher education institutions have too often done business. Our goal was not to appease students or ignore them in an effort to make a difficult issue go away. Our goal is to do the right thing for all of our students and the university – to seriously and diligently address systemic racial and other social justice issues and cultivate a new generation of leaders in the process. Our goal is nothing less than to reimagine and co-create a racially just campus community.

Truth be told, we are engaged in a grand experiment that asks: Can a large, globally recognized research university reimagine itself as a racially just campus community? To do so requires principled actions, four of which are discussed below.

First, we must accept that a more efficacious starting point is to agree as a community that racial justice is a shared goal, rather than debating the legitimacy of student demands at the onset. There certainly is no lack of empirical evidence suggesting that racial injustice is a historical and persistent fact of life in our society – nor reason to assume that we have completely purged our campuses of such injustice, the sincerity and determination of our efforts notwithstanding.

In addition, we should recognize that activist demands are often intentionally radical, lofty, and accusatory – an effective strategy to gain the attention of leaders who might otherwise ignore these very difficult issues. To dismiss demands because of tone and lack of clarity is shortsighted; our purpose in higher education is to educate and practice community. This is how we teach our students to lead beyond the ivory tower.

Second, we must encourage our community members to share and debate ideas in civil, generous, and constructive ways. This is not to suggest that “demands” are an inappropriate strategy for students to advance an issue. If we decide to puff our chests when our students challenge us or when they question the motives of the academy, we aren’t doing our job. We aren’t serving as educators.

Of course, this principle is moot if we fail to validate the personhood of our students. And, too often, we further marginalize them by refusing to acknowledge that their lived experience – versus empirical evidence – is in fact legitimate and worthy of our concern. 

Third, institutions must strengthen and position student affairs organizations to facilitate these difficult and important conversations. Our tendency is to assign issues to the relevant governance body without engaging stakeholders in discussion to achieve an indisputable shared goal – to make something better than it already is. Student affairs professionals, individually and collectively, have unique skills that can help advance dialogue on even the most difficult issues.

Finally, systemic change is virtually impossible without the right ingredients, one of which is student agitprop; it keeps us on our toes and moves our bureaucratic institutions forward at a more rapid pace. Indeed, the results of student activism on our campus have helped to place Emory on the path of innovation in addressing issues of diversity. 

For example, in December 2012, as a result of student activism, we developed the Campus Life Compact for Creating an Inclusive Community at Emory. This initiative led to development of the Emory Black Student Union, a Black Student Alliance residential community, Centro Latino, and the Creating Emory Orientation Program, among many other initiatives.

Student activism even inspired a change to our organizational structure with our introduction of an innovative “Community” portfolio of departments, with debate and dialogue as the cornerstone of the initiatives and our Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education playing a critical role. The next step in the development of the organizational reimagination will be designing staff positions to further ensure the success of all Emory students, to equip them to build a collaborative, culturally humble, inquiry-driven, and socially just community.

Today, our focus has shifted from a patchwork approach that creates incremental change to a sustainable racial justice movement that not only aligns with but is virtually called for by our university mission “to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.”

Our next challenge is to develop proactive systems to address all areas of injustice. While student activism is powerful and necessary, we shouldn’t wait for students to tell us what we should already know.

Indeed, how better to serve humanity than cultivating leaders who can partner with us to create systemic change as part of a grand experiment on our own campus and ultimately pursue real and lasting social justice throughout our society and our global community.

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