Asa Daniels, Campus Carrier staff writer
Last Thursday, the Carrier published on the President’s Advisory Committee and its associated subcommittees’ research and implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Berry. The subcomittees are comprised of student, faculty and staff memebers brining together different perspectives and experience on the issues at hand.
Because of the personal and emotional investment that it takes to participate in these committees vary from person to person, it can be difficult to gauge how every individual is feeling. Several students who are a part of the subcommittees and the Presidential Advisory Committee agreed to share their experiences with and thoughts on the subcommittees thus far.
Sophomore Macilah Taylor is one of the students on the Programming Subcommittee. Currently, Taylor is helping to create the Intercultural Center, from the former Krannert Game Room.
“I’m there to offer student perspective and outreach to students to speak into what we would like to see in the Intercultural Center and just provide my own experience as a student of color, a black woman, of what this space would mean to us and to me,” Taylor said. “[I will be] speaking into the structure, how it’ll operate with the student workers, which diversity clubs will meet when, [and] how programming will be held in this space,” Taylor said.
One of Taylor’s concerns regarding the operation of the subcommittees is oversight and communication. She believes it would be beneficial for Berry to hire a DEI consultant to address these organizational issues.
“There seems to be a disconnect [in that] faculty and staff and administration are not seeing things that we are seeing as students and vice versa,” Taylor said. “A DEI consultant, who has no bias, who is not very close to the situation, but their sole training is diversity, equity and inclusion and they get paid to do this, to come in and mitigate those biases and blind spots.”
Taylor explained that she has come forward to administrators and the board of trustees on issues of DEI in the past but has found little progress, which she believes a DEI consultant would resolve.
“A lot of what happens with administrators is either gaslighting or kind of ‘Well, I want proof, other than you just saying your experience’ which, in my opinion, should be enough,” Taylor said. “They want proof, so a DEI consultant could come in and evaluate the systems and these programs, and all of this stuff without the outside bias or emotion attached to it like I have and clearly define and lay out what we need, as a campus.”
Senior Orlin Gomez-Aceituno, on the Representation for Faculty and Staff of Color Subcommittee, believes that having a DEI consultant would provide a perspective missing from Berry.
“While we have an array of experts in different fields, diversity and inclusion is a field that this institution just lacks in general,” Gomez-Aceituno said. “We don’t have anybody who understands the depth and the gravity of this issue and there’s people who definitely have their expertise about the issue.”
Junior Noah Miller, a student on the Presidential Advisory Committee, agrees that a DEI consultant would be beneficial.
“[We need] somebody who’s trained and qualified and who knows what should be happening and knows how to run a committee, how to set up focus groups and set up surveys and things like that, because these are all things that we’re doing but it feels discombobulated,” Miller said.
Last semester, student activists requested a CDO, but one has yet to be hired. Miller added that the need for a DEI consultant is similar to but does not replace the need for a Chief of Diversity Officer (CDO).
“We were told all last year that that was a no, that that would never happen, that [a CDO] wouldn’t benefit campus in the way that we think they would in this [and] that, so we moved from a CDO to DEI consultant because we’re like, ‘fine if you don’t want to hire somebody who’s going to overlook this completely, then we at least need somebody who is trained and understanding of these issues to come and point out to the administration what [and] where the issues are,’ because for a while it was us having to even tell them that there were problems,” Miller said.
Taylor also said that she is unsure of the subcommittees’ leadership and ability to implement change given their lack of experience with DEI.
“I’m still very skeptical of the leadership in all of these committees, just because I know, none of my co-chairs and many of the co-chairs on the other committees don’t have any training in diversity, equity, inclusion and don’t have any certifications, haven’t done any research, don’t have any degrees in that, so I still continue to be very worried about the capability of the leaders of these communities to apply and execute this work,” Taylor said.
Gomez-Aceituno also expressed concern for his own ability to address issues of DEI in hiring practices as Berry.
“I question my role in this committee because, to be fair, sometimes I feel that it’s difficult for people in that kind of court to create change when we’re not qualified or have the experience of handling diversity and inclusion in the hiring process,” Gomez-Aceituno said. “I can read, I can do research, but this issue, you have to continuously be fighting.”
Being on the subcommittees have presented unique challenges to the students involved, one of which is mental health. For Taylor, it was especially difficult working in the committee due to the loss of family and a fellow student, and trying to manage her student work and classes. She also felt that others on her subcommittee were not were taking the DEI initiative seriously in the beginning.
“I felt extremely frustrated,” Taylor said. “It was affecting my sleep schedule, it was affecting how I ate – I would go all day without eating. It was definitely taking a huge mental toll on me that I’ve been continuously trying to express to them, since the very beginning and quite honestly, I felt it was toxic.”
Taylor believes that her fellow members have come to take the work more seriously, but expresses that it is still tiring having to continue to educate others on DEI issues.
“There’s a lot of learning that a lot of the committee members have to do, or need to be at and a lot of them are just not there, and so in these committees we as students are having to educate people, or the Black faculty and staff are having to educate people on these committees,” Taylor said. “There’s a time and place for education but also, the impetus of education shouldn’t be put on Black and brown people. I feel like we all should be on the same page, we should all be on the same playing field, because a lot of the work we’re doing needs to be done in a timely manner and the DEI work is urgent work. So, I still have worries about the success of these committees, but I am starting to see a huge difference from weeks ago [when] it felt like they were book clubs and not really anything actionable.”
Gomez-Aceituno added that the subcommittees lack an overarching idea of a single goal in mind and a clear timeline in which to reach their goal.
“The emails that [President Steve Briggs] sent out, were messages that just kind of summarized what sort of change he wanted to cultivate but in order for us to create change, you have to give us a timeline, there has to be some type of tangible goal in the mission, but most importantly there has to be accountability,” Gomez-Aceituno said.
For junior Raquel Luna, on the policies related to speech and behavior subcommittee, there was a challenge in feeling heard by the other subcommittee members.
“I know that for me, whenever [I] would voice [my] experiences with things, it wasn’t like they were fully grasping it,” Luna said.
Gomez-Aceituno believes that the subcommittees have been limited in appreciating the students involved in them. Gomez-Aceituno in particular has the challenge of having to pick between going to his class and going to a subcommittee meeting, as they are regularly scheduled during one of his classes during the school day.
“I’m somebody who’s been fighting for it and I’m somebody who wants to create change, so this means a lot to me,” Gomez-Aceituno said. “So, [having to] miss these meetings is very difficult.’”
Gomez-Aceituno also believes that the students’ mental health has been severely challenged by the work on the subcommittees, especially noting the free labor that students are providing through this project.
“It’s a lot of work and we’re not being paid for this and to a certain extent I would say it’s fine, if the change was actually going to happen,” Gomez-Aceituno said.
For senior Rebekah Rowe, a student on the policies related to speech and behavior subcommittee, students’ mental health has been challenged in particular by having to discuss these topics constantly.
“We’ve had a couple of people leave the committee because they felt that this was a detriment to their mental state, to be constantly talking about racism and discrimination every single week,” Rowe said. “A lot of us have friends within the committee, of course, but we also have friends on the outside who are part of the majority that we love very dearly, but to constantly be talking about these kinds of things can be exhausting, especially if you don’t feel understood, even by those friends.”
Beyond their mental health, Rowe believes that students on the committee have faced the challenge of discussing DEI issues with individuals with whom they are in an unequal power dynamic, with faculty and staff members.
“I think the difficulty in the students’ experience is that, these are people [who] have authority and it is hard to navigate that sort of relationship and being like ‘hey, you’re wrong,’ especially with someone that holds our grades, our future, a little bit, in their hands,” Rowe said.
Luna also said she experienced these power differentials at the beginning of working in the subcommittee. However, she feels that she has become more comfortable expressing herself.
“I was intimidated, because I felt like there was a lot of administrative people in there, who were higher ups, so I know that I struggled with actually speaking out or saying something or contribute something to the meeting,” Luna said.
Trinity Hutchins, a senior on the personal and professional development subcommittee, has had her own unique challenge of trying to grapple with representing all marginalized groups at Berry.
“It’s a challenge [and] responsibility to speak for all these protected classes whenever there’s just two students on the committees [and] my biggest thing is, how am I supposed to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, how am I supposed to speak on behalf of people who need accommodations, how am I supposed to advocate for them,” Hutchins said. “I try my best, but I just wish that there were more perspectives in the [sub]committees themselves.”
Taylor believes that there is a lack of clarity between the subcommittees and the greater Berry community, in terms of what the committees are doing and why they were formulated.
“There’s a misconception that we forced the college’s hand and that’s why these committees are so disorganized, or that we’re creating a toxic environment instead of there already being a toxic environment for marginalized students and nobody noticing until we said something,” Taylor said. “I would just encourage students to just start paying attention because these changes we’re asking for are not ridiculous changes. We’re asking for [Berry] to create a safe environment for all students, an inclusive environment. ”
Miller agrees that miscommunication is an obstacle.
“I think Berry in general has trouble communicating and has trouble with transparency and I think students have felt that we have had to kind of take that on our backs and figure out ways to make sure that everybody, is understanding what is happening in these committees and what’s important,” Miller said.
Even with these challenges, students involved in the DEI work feel that progress has been made and that they have learned valuable lessons through their experiences. For example, Rowe appreciates the ability to learn from others and their viewpoints from her work on the subcommittee.
“It’s been really cool to see [faculty and staff] be like ‘you know what, I may need to go back and really educate on that or I may need to start reforming the ideas I once held,’” Rowe said.
Luna is grateful for her ability to represent the student body at Berry and to work with the administration to address DEI.
“I feel like I can like represent people who maybe don’t feel like they can speak,” Luna said. “Also, just advocating to administration as well, like Dr. Kendi mentioned in the event recently, is [that] building the trust between administration and the student body is something really important, and so I think that these committees, hopefully, are going to fulfill that.”
Miller believes that the work being done by the subcommittees will be able to bring meaningful results in the future.
“I think in general, all of the subcommittees, the students specifically feel that things are actually beginning to get done and that we are seeing the results that we asked for and that we’ve kind of been championing for at this time,” Miller said.