Students, faculty reflect on DEI committee work

Asa Daniels, Campus Carrier staff writer

This semester, the President’s Advisory Committee and six subcommittees have been working to devise and implement initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Berry.

Meeting notes and goals of these groups can be found on VikingWeb, under the community tab, under the title “Campus Initiative.” The President’s Office has also been providing email updates throughout the semester.

For the students, staff and faculty involved in these DEI initiatives this semester, there have been a number of different experiences while working in their respective groups.

Orlin Gomez-Aceituno, a senior on the representation for faculty and staff of color subcommittee, said that work with the subcommittees began with positive expectations, but that it quickly became burdensome.

“Our feelings were optimistic, we felt like we can make change, but quickly it turned into [a] very sour experience,” Gomez-Aceituno said. “We started [to soon realize] that the students’ voice was very small and we started realizing that the people who were put into these [sub]committees didn’t have the qualifications to be in these [sub]committees, which resulted in a lot of us teaching people. But, these [sub]committees weren’t meant for people to be learning, it was meant to find the solutions to the problems, and so then they created an extra burden for specifically us and myself included.”

Gomez-Aceituno added that there were power dynamics between faculty and student members which made work on the subcommittees stressful, as well as difficulty in getting the subcommittees to meet together.

“In my case, my committee started meeting when I was in class and so, it was literally going to the meeting or going to class and so that put me in a very awkward, difficult situation,” Gomez-Aceituno said.

For Gomez-Aceituno, a major issue for not only himself but other students in the DEI initiative groups was their mental health. Gomez-Aceituno said that his physical health deteriorated due to the stress of his DEI work.

“I was basically in bed rest for one and a half weeks because the amount of stress and the amount of just, anxiety, that I was getting from this, [it] ended up impacting my actual health to the point where my doctor was explaining to me that I needed to tone it down,” Gomez Aceituno said. “I hope [that] gives an illustration, or a depiction, of the severity of these conversations that we have in these [sub]committees, because it’s a lot of burden being put on us.”

He also added that students felt gaslighted by other members during their DEI work.

“The difficulty of working with people, professors continuously gaslighting, of professors not being conscious of the severity of these issues, you know, it becomes extremely overwhelming,” Gomez-Aceituno said.

For the members of these subcommittees, their experiences have each been unique, with their own challenges and positives from throughout the process.

For sophomore Macilah Taylor, student on the programming subcommittee, she found herself surprised by a sense of resentment towards Berry staff, faculty and administration.

“I thought I had really great relationships with administration and faculty and staff, I considered them people I could trust in this process, I could go to them, and I’d know things would be handled swiftly and I’d know they really do care about us,” Taylor said. “But you look now, I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t want to speak for them, but just based off my experience it’s so hurtful to me that, you know, the trust is just completely gone and broken and there seems to be no want on their side to repair that trust, which is fine. I don’t really care if they dislike me or they don’t want to speak to me, but it just sucks that our, college’s leaders, or so-called leaders, that if something God forbid, were to happen to me that’s more severe than some of the situations that I’ve spoken to them about, I wouldn’t know who to go to outside of my supervisor, Chontel Washington.”

However, Taylor does feel that she has found some community throughout this whole process.

“I didn’t have the community or the family that I have now [with] my friends on these committees and with Student Diversity Initiatives,” Taylor said. 

Taylor is also thankful for the upperclassmen who helped her and other students find a sense of community around these issues and DEI work.

“I feel like it’s the way these faculty and staff people should be inspiring students, should be a role model,” Taylor said. “I feel like these students on these [sub]committees have been role models to faculty and staff. They’ve not only been committed to the diversity, equity and inclusion work on these [sub]committees, but wrapping their arms around the younger students and taking care of them and making sure [that] even if they’re not going to be heard on the administrative level, that they’re being heard on the peer-to-peer level.”

Rebekah Rowe, a senior on the speech and behavior subcommittee, said that power differentials were a challenge which needed to be addressed in the subcommittees so that students could properly participate.

“Even as a student, you still have a lot to bring to the table because, ultimately, this experience is up to you [since] these policies will affect students, it’s really imperative that we did include student perspective,” Rowe said.

Rowe appreciates the experience she has gained this year working with DEI initiatives and believes that it will help her in her future work within neuroscience and promoting greater DEI in those areas as well. 

“It starts with the small stuff, but also just starts with how I present myself and how I assert myself there,” Rowe said. “I’m just as capable as anybody else so keeping that in the forefront of our mind and enacting what I’ve have learned from this work with my future endeavors, I think, is crucial.” 

Sarah Allred associate professor of sociology said her subcommittee began planning in September. Her subcommittee worked to determine the goals of their group, as well as communicate with others to know what they needed to do. 

“We spent a lot of very intentional time sharing our insights and understandings, reaching out to relevant people, [doing] a lot of listening to each other, listening to other important stakeholders on campus,” Allred said. 

From there, Allred said that conversations and research where focused on DEI initiatives at Berry’s peer and aspirant institutions and how to split the work between members so that they could focus on their strengths. At the same time, respect was given for members’ time to give to the subcommittee during the winter break before the 2021 spring semester. 

Allred felt that the progress of her subcommittee has been satisfying given initial concerns of being able to successfully have a finished product that would be up to Berry standards. 

“The work has some limitations, we think we’ve been upfront about what we think they are – other people may have other thoughts about that – but I think one of the gratifying things about this was being given a tremendous responsibility and job and feeling, yeah, for that moment, I don’t know if we can do this in a way that that meets our standards, and I think we did well pulling together to pull this off,” Allred said. 

Dean of Personal & Professional Development, Marc Hunsaker, felt that his subcommittee did a good job of presenting the various voices of their members in meetings and in making choices on what they wanted to do. 

“We’re trying to pay attention to things like power dynamics at play between staff, faculty and students and so that’s sort of structured the way that we’ve gone about things to try not to marginalize student voices,” Hunsaker said. 

Hunsaker said that he has enjoyed working on DEI initiatives, and that he has enjoyed working through the different training programs and hopes others will enjoy them too. 

“Learning more about what different institutions are doing and the good and the bad of that and where [there’s] strengths and where there’s weaknesses and being inspired by what we see out there as well, and going ‘I can’t wait for people to engage with that, that sounds kind of cool’ or ‘I wonder if we could take the best of what we see and create something even better at Berry,’ you know, that is exciting to me,” Hunsaker said. 

He also said that he has appreciated learning more about DEI and the experiences of people of color at Berry. 

“It’s been very helpful and enlightening to learn from, particularly some of the staff and students of color on our [sub] committee,” Hunsaker said. “As we’ve gone through this process, I feel like I have come to understand them and their experiences at Berry better.” 

Gomez-Aceituno has been able to see more conversations regarding DEI related issues for his first time while being a student at Berry, but believes that people shouldn’t equate this with actual progress towards DEI having actually happened here at Berry. 

“Progress is when you’re actually creating change that would actually deal with these issues,” Gomez-Aceituno said. “Having conversations, it’s important, but it should have been done already, we are way past having conversations. Students are transferring, students’ health is on the line, we’re dealing with a mental health crisis here at this intuition for black and brown students and it’s not being talked about, it’s not being discussed. So how can we make progress when we’re not even recognizing these issues.” 

Looking forward, Taylor is most excited for the opening of the Intercultural Center. She is looking forward to how it will be used in the future. 

“I’m looking forward to it be an educational space,” Taylor said. “I’m still the chair of solidarity week and I’m so excited to utilize that for some of our events and kind of lay the groundwork for what type of programming should be in there.” 

Even with that, Taylor is hopeful that there can be a change of pace for students of color at Berry in the future. 

“I would love to be proved wrong about DEI work and I’d love to see freshmen come in and just see a turnaround of their experience and they’re just, you know, falling in love with Berry even more so than they did when they first applied, which has been the opposite for me,” Taylor said. “I would love to see them enjoy their experience here because they deserve it and everyone deserves to have a good college experience.” 

She hopes that Berry faculty, staff and administration will be better at attending to the concerns of marginalized students in the future so that those students don’t have to experience what she did. 

“I’m hoping in the future that they really work hard to [being] strong leaders and strong role models for students and actually listen to them so they’re not being put in this very awkward and unpleasant situation that I’m currently in,” Taylor said. 

Rowe hopes that the work done this semester will lead to future and continued work in the long run that will address more issues and bring wider representation to DEI issues at Berry. 

“We need to continue the momentum and continue change,” Rowe said. “And we want to make sure that we’re clear that diversity is not just being race/ethnicity. This includes disability, this includes people that are part of the LGBTQ+ community and other groups that are not really accounted for, not just on this campus, but nationally.” 

Allred also believes that future conversations need to be had expanding what is meant by diversity at Berry. 

“Important dimensions of diversity include race and ethnicity, but there are many important dimensions of human identities that fall within the diversity concept that we also need to elevate and bring up in terms of our conversation,” Allred said. 

Allred said she looks forward to these conversations continuing around DEI. 

“I would say we’re in this for the long haul, in terms of learning and genuinely wanting to create a living, but also a learning community, that is inviting of perspectives with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Allred said. “I feel like we can all grow when we can engage with each other directly and at the point where we can all think collectively and respectfully, but we don’t have to think identically about everything,” 

Hunsaker said that he is looking forward to how Berry can help foster these conversations in a constructive and open way, given how much disagreement and animosity appears to be in the world today around DEI. 

“I think our world, our country, is really struggling to figure out how to do that well and I think there’s a lot of mistrust and distrust that really complicates that process, there’s a lot of distance between people and polarization that is happening, politically and otherwise,” Hunsaker said. “I think at Berry we have the potential, with this close-knit campus community that we have, to really leverage the goodwill, the strong relationships and the shared vision that we have with one another to do something really amazing.” 

Gomez-Aceituno hopes these conversations do not stop after this semester and that the overall campus comes together to address these issues. 

“I am hoping that people don’t stop voicing their concerns [on what’s] going on at this institution and I’m hoping that we’re able to encourage not only black and brown students but white students to speak up and stay concerned for their black and brown peers, to be worried about their mental health, to fight for the same experience,” Gomez-Aceituno said. 

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