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W&M community engages in campus, national conversations on race

  • Conversations on race:
    Conversations on race:  Members of the W&M community have been engaging in conversations about the racial climate both at the university and across the nation, participating in such events as the Task Force on Race and Race Relations' campus forums and a student-led show of solidarity (pictured here).  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Conversations:
    Conversations:  Hundreds of students, faculty and staff gathered at the Wren Building on Friday to show support for students of color at such institutions as the University of Missouri.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Conversations:
    Conversations:  The campus forums on racial climate are being hosted by the Task Force on Race and Race Relations, which was established in the spring. Here, members of the task force engage in discussion at a meeting.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Increased faculty diversity, training for faculty and staff and additional opportunities for discussions both in the classroom and out were just a few of the changes that William & Mary students would like to see to improve the racial climate on campus, according to participants in a forum Tuesday.

The forum for undergraduate students, held in Blow Hall, was one of five being held on campus this month by the Task Force on Race and Race Relations to get feedback from faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students on the university’s racial climate.

During each forum, participants have entered into small-group discussions along with members of the task force and other campus administrators, including the president and provost.

“We talked about a lot of trends that are going on not only nationally but on our campus here at William & Mary,” said Yohance Whitaker ’16, president of the Student Assembly and a participant in Tuesday night’s forum.

“And one of the things that stuck with me is that students really need to see within their fields of study that there are professors who look like them so that they know that, here I am in a STEM field, here I am in government, and I can see a professor who looks like me, who can be a mentor to me, who’s gone through my department and has mastered what it means to be a scholar of that field,” he said. “And so I think it’s absolutely important to increase the number of diverse faculty members that we have here on campus.”

Whitaker’s small group also talked about finding places within the curriculum for conversations like the one happening at the forum.

“William & Mary students are very good at doing class, so it’s important that we have classes, we have spaces in the curriculum that are devoted to having conversations on race relations, mental health, sexual assault,” Whitaker said.

The students also discussed the concept of “One Tribe, One Family” and how that phrase shouldn’t just be said at orientation or times of crisis, but should represent a sustained sense of community and inclusion.

“[So] that students of all backgrounds can feel that they are members of our family and understand that yes, we’re family and we have many perspectives, we have many voices, and that’s a good thing, that diversity should be encouraged, it should be fostered, and no one, by virtue of who they are or how they identify, should be excluded from our William & Mary family,” Whitaker said.

As a student representative with the task force and a member of its campus climate subcommittee, Ebony Lambert ’16 has been meeting with individual students and talking with student cultural groups. She also attended both undergraduate student forums, with the first being held Nov. 11, and helped to moderate the small group discussions.

“I think it’s important because even within groups of color, for example, you have very different perspectives, so it’s always important to continue the conversation because it’s one of those things that if we’re not talking, we’re not making progress,” she said.

The forums have been reaffirming, Lambert said.

“Every time we sit down and have a conversation with different constituent groups on campus and they can talk about different issues they face, it just reinforces the need for this kind of work, so I think it’s very, very reaffirming in that way.”

Racial climate on college campuses has been a topic of national conversation recently, with race-related tensions and protests at such schools as the University of Missouri and Yale making headlines in recent weeks.

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of William & Mary students, faculty and staff gathered at the Wren Building in a show of support for the students of color at those institutions and others across the country. The participants — wearing black shirts and some carrying signs with such messages as “Our Struggle Matters” and “My Education or My Safety?” — took photos together, which were later posted on Facebook along with an open letter signed by more than 40 student groups and other organizations.

“We — students, faculty, administrators of color, and allies — at the College of William and Mary, stand with you in solidarity. We stand with you in outrage, and to let you know that you are not — are never — alone,” says the letter, which was written by Lambert.

Earlier on Friday, President Taylor Reveley sent a message to the campus community titled “Race and W&M,” in which he acknowledged the recent events at universities across the nation, saying that they had “highlighted the complexity and difficulty of race relations on college campuses.”

“William & Mary faces the same challenges as we seek to create an environment where differences are embraced and everyone feels welcome and included in campus life,” he said in the message. “We understand that many members of our community are experiencing the same feelings of isolation and frustration as those being felt on campuses nationwide.”

Although the ongoing conversations related to race have sometimes been difficult, they have been powerful and are necessary for W&M to make progress, Reveley said.

“As a community, we must be able to talk with each other openly and honestly.”

Whitaker noted that he saw many of the same faces at Tuesday night’s forum that he’s seen at other similar conversations on campus, and he’d like to see others participate, as well.

“It’s important that we’re not preaching to the choir, but we’re spreading the message so that all students can have these wonderful conversations,” he said.

The next task force forum – this one devoted to staff at the university – will take place on Monday at 11 a.m. in the Sadler Center's Tidewater A/B room.