By Taylor Corley, Campus Carrier Editor-in-Chief and Annie Dietz, Campus Carrier Managing Editor
On May 30, the chairs of the Solidarity Week committee hosted a candlelight vigil for students currently living on campus. Members of the Berry community gathered in front of the College Chapel to express support for ongoing national Black Lives Matter protests. The vigil gave students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to consider the unique problems members of the black community face when learning, teaching, and working at Berry.
Protests around the country were sparked on May 25 by the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. According to the BBC the horrific incident was filmed and posted online, going viral quickly. Black Lives Matter demonstrations began in all 50 states, and in many other countries across the world, protesting not only the murder of Floyd, but general police brutality and systematic racsim in America.
The Saturday night vigil strived to enhance the Berry community’s understanding of and unity with these events. According to rising sophomore Macilah Taylor, Solidarity Week chair, the vigil also aimed to help initiate conversations on how students are forced to deal with racism and what it’s like to be in the minority at a primarily white college.
“It really was about solidarity and encouraging students on campus to be an advocate,” Taylor said. “As a minority at Berry, a lot of the time it feels like you’re being ignored. This was a way for students to come out and speak about it.”
According to rising sophomore Haikal Cooper, the vigil served as a place of support and community during this difficult time for black people in America.
“This event showed me that I don’t have to go through this alone,” Cooper said. “Although there’s not many of us here on campus for the summer, the prayer vigil showed me what it’s like to have a family here at Berry that’s concerned about my well-being with all that has been occurring in this nation.”
At around 8 p.m. on the day of the vigil, students, faculty and staff gathered outside of the College Chapel. Many participants wore masks, and all engaged in social distancing. According to rising senior Julia Churchill, the other Solidarity Week chair, candles were passed out before the event began.
“We passed out candles to everyone who joined our circle,” Churchill said. “We met in front of the College Chapel and just let everyone talk in small groups before it began and explained what we were going to be doing. Close to 8 p.m. we got started and everyone got in a circle. Macilah stood on the steps of the College Chapel and we opened the event.”
During the vigil, Taylor shared about her experience as a black woman in America and a student of color at Berry. While she was nervous at first, she explains that her testimony proved powerful and impactful to those in attendance.
“I was really nervous,” Taylor said. “I didn’t really know what it was going to be like, or how many people were going to be there, so I was nervous about the event but more so I was nervous about being vulnerable on such a large scale. But I was able to tell part of my story, and I thought that it was really heartwarming to see the support from students and faculty.”
Taylor’s story gave insight into an experience unfamiliar to many Berry students. Rising junior Leslie Gutierrez said that this part of the vigil allowed students to better understand the impact of race from a personal point of view.
“Listening to Macilah speak gave me a different perspective of what she faces every day of her life just because of her skin color,” Gutierrez said. “It is important to bring attention to these uncomfortable issues that people seem to brush off just because it does not affect them. At Berry, we have started to bring attention to racial injustices and we need to continue to do so in order for us to grow and it all starts with understanding and supporting our black peers.”
Afterwards, Taylor and Churchill lit their candles and passed the flame around the group. Everyone stood for a moment of silence to reflect, pray or think. As the event ended, students were able to talk to faculty and staff members present about their opinions, experience and concerns. Rising senior Ei Noe said that developing conversations between students and faculty creates a safer and more supportive environment for communities of color at Berry.
“Because of the different backgrounds of our students in the ‘Berry bubble’, it is important to have events like these to build an environment where our students feel safe, heard, supported, and respected on their culture and values,” Noe said. “I would also encourage people to have conversations with those around you and not to be afraid to have them or even to ask questions about things you don’t understand.”
On June 2, eight days after the passing of George Floyd, President Steve Briggs sent out an email to the campus community detailing the institution’s thoughts on the event and the ensuing protests. In the email, Briggs expressed his desire to make Berry a more welcoming place for students, faculty and staff of color.
“Many of us experience Berry as a warm and caring place, but we must not take that for granted,” the email said. “We must help make it so for others as well, no matter our apparent differences, no matter our color.”
As Cooper explained, some members of Berry’s faculty and staff have reached out to African American students already to show solidarity and support.
“My academic advisor and one of my previous work supervisors reached out to me to see how I was doing with all that’s been happening and to express their love and support for me during this time,” Cooper said. “I can’t explain how incredibly grateful I was just to hear from them and to have their support.”
Still, the Solidarity Week chairs both encourage the Berry community to do more in regard to expanding inclusion. According to Taylor, the institution needs to work harder to ensure that all have their needs completely met, not just those who are white.
“Students, visitors, faculty, shareholders, we’re all told that Berry is a safe environment,” Taylor said. “But that statement forgets the unique challenges that people of color face at a primarily white college. Too often the college ignores our needs. We need to be heard, seen and understood, and Berry could do better.”
According to Churchill, becoming more informed is an important step that anyone can and should take towards becoming an ally. She further explains that an important part of this education requires Berry students, faculty, and staff to do more to incorporate voices of black, and otherwise marginalized, authors, artists and scholars into our lives in the classroom.
“I think, especially for our white students and white fac/staff, it’s super important to be listening and learning and doing our own research,” Churchill said. “Faculty can start to diversify their curriculum. We need to start making sure that the articles we’re assigning and the books we’re assigning in classes aren’t all just white people. We can’t be whitewashing our history or our science or our anthropology, there are so many amazing voices and historians and educators and we can definitely incorporate that into our learning.”
Taylor implores all students, particularly white students, to work harder to become aware of the issues facing the black community at Berry and in the country at large. She urges people to become more informed, and to look for more ways to help out without necessarily relying on the labor, work and time of their African American friends. Above all, she believes people need to do more to speak out against racism.
“Please speak up,” Taylor said. “A lot of times people don’t speak up because they’re afraid. But silence speaks so loudly, and your black friends will remember that. We’ll remember that. Everyone should be an advocate here. If you care, show it.”
According to Gutierrez, speaking out is vital.
“It is important for you not to be silent,” Gutierrez said. “There is no other side to these stories, and this is not a Republican vs Democrat issue. This has to do with human lives. If you are silent and not angry, then you are not paying attention. There is no reason why everyone is not speaking out against this. I believe we have the power to change and come together to fight for equal rights and opportunities. Together, we will stand and fight for those who are oppressed.”
The Solidarity Week chairs plan to continue to host these vigils on Sundays at 8 in front of the College Chapel for the remainder of the summer and into the school year. Other campus organizations are working to provide resources to black students and community members during this time, as well as inform others on how to help and become a better ally. To stay up to date on this issue as it affects Berry students, follow the work of Student Diversity Initiatives (SDI), Solidarity Week, U.N.I.T.Y and the Black Student Alliance (BSA) online.