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A Call to Action: Student Perspectives and Next Steps on Righting Historical Wrongs

Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement
August 27, 2020 Anna Connole Lauren Hassen Joshua F. Gray Nina Bundy
To right historical wrongs and disrupt the bondage that limits the possibilities of our institutions, we must be willing to listen and learn. Demonstrating this humility is the primary way to make a radical change– to be radically inclusive, radically equitable, and radically excellent. To meet this need to listen, the Restructuring Racial Justice CLDE Student Panel occurred on July 24th during the second day of the CLDE Meeting. This panel was moderated by and consisted of students who spoke about ways to reexamine and then reimagine racial justice within institutions of higher education. At the end of this conversation, the students shared several calls to action. Those calls were to transform the meeting’s space of listening into direct movement and operationalization. Now, consider these questions as you think about your work moving forward.

First, ask yourself, are there students in important rooms where university decisions are made? Now, take it a step further, have I intentionally made room for students to guide the work that is occurring?

It is often said that civic engagement begins at home – around the kitchen tables, in the back yards, and in the neighborhoods where we spend our formative years. In college, which becomes the physical, emotional, and academic home for every student, there is a gap in this analogy because essential decisions and conversations amongst leaders at the institution so frequently occur without students being active in them.

Practicing shared governance and the radical inclusivity of thought at every table pops the bubble that nurtures and protects otherwise counterproductive approaches to uplifting and empowering our institutions. Open your door to the lived experiences of the students for whom these institutional decisions have the most impact. Clear the way for us to be able to understand and participate in the conversation. Make information public and accessible for collective capacity building. 

Higher education institutions too easily get caught up on their own bureaucracies, financial demands, and competition with other schools. For example, within the admissions process, the ideals of diversity and inclusion are often used as tools to boost the image of an institution and bring in hopeful students who are looking for a home as much as they are a place to learn. Too often, decision-makers at these institutions cannot empathize with their diverse student population, and therefore cannot fulfill their promises of inclusivity in every aspect on their campus. Stakeholders and decision-makers need to listen to students of diverse ethnic backgrounds who can share their stories and real experiences about whether social justice and inclusion are embraced at an institution. The student’s opinion should hold the most value in whether there is true diversity and inclusion in their residence halls, their classes, and their student activities.

However, including student voices into the conversation does not mean that they are the only change makers in this conversation. Too often the burden of activism falls on the backs of students of color, who are already the ones being oppressed in their daily college experience. Stakeholders of all levels should practice what they preach and take it upon themselves to create the changes themselves. Students of color do not want to attend a University that does not respect their heritage and perspectives. Instead, these students want to be treated as equal stakeholders who have the power to change policies that do not reflect their demands. The conversation needs to include them and their voice, but not rely on their sacrifices to see changes be implemented. If you have students in your discussions, and you are even valuing what they’re saying at the appropriate amount, but now ask, am I relying on their time and energy to make this change happen when I have the greater power and money to do it with them? 

Another way to allow students to have a stronger bond to their college or university is to provide them with a reflection of themselves. Institutions need to provide more than a couple of classes geared toward a small percentage of minority students. As a student you start to think your institution is satisfied with a watered-down version of who and what your student demographic is and that can be disappointing, to say the least. It is important for institutions to keep in mind that students of all ethnicities want to broaden their minds and their education. Colleges, although on a smaller scale, can have a larger influence than most would think, especially on students of color. Many students who attend community colleges get a miniscule selection of classes that feature different ethnicities and cultures. Classes should be designed to please everyone. Take the time to sit down with your students, survey your students, truly know your demographic, and use this to your benefit to create new programs and classes that filter in different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  A student will be more interested in attending a college or university that is also interested in who their students are, where they come from, and what they believe in.

Building connections between a student and their education is one of the best ways to keep them engaged and even further their education level. Creating a surplus of classes, programs, and other services that support students of color will enhance an institution and strengthen the student and employee retention rates. Staff, faculty, and administration of color would also be more interested in working and investing their time into an institution that supports and recognizes various ethnicities and cultures. Always keep in mind that your institution is fueled by your students and their backgrounds, everyone deserves to be represented equally and rightfully so. If students are not able to have a proper reflection of who they are and where they come from then the institution is failing in keeping promises and claims of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

So, you may be wondering, how can I continue to build connections between students and their education and help to change a civic culture? Use technology. Technology has revolutionized the way we function in this world. Universities can utilize technology to uplift students of color, celebrate their differences, and provide them a platform to authentically voice their opinions both inside and outside of the classroom. Students, faculty, and administrators should combine technology with civic engagement mechanisms to help dismantle systemic barriers.

Additionally, universities should use social media platforms, websites, conference calls, and more to change the problems of our society. Technology not only fosters intercultural communication, but it can help to build equitable systems that will embrace the voices of all students.

Tackling these racial issues will require direct engagement and empathy from leaders of different institutions and stakeholders across the country who are passionate about unifying all people. Thus, administrators and faculty at the University need to do the following: practice shared governance and incorporate student voices in critical decision-making processes; listen to the lived experiences of people of color and implement the demands of students; restructure the curriculum to reflect different demographics, educate students on their history, and increase educator diversity; and last, utilize technology to advance civic empowerment. These changes will make a university a student’s home away from home. It is time to rebuild the lens through which we view the world. It is time to build a new home for students to be resilient and feel comfortable voicing their opinions. It is time for our voices to be heard, not deterred.