Even At 'The Most Diverse' Cal State School, Students And Faculty Press For Better Discussions Of Race
This school year students at California State University, Dominguez Hills already have protested:
- The slow process for opening an Asian American student center.
- Racist slurs published on the cover of the student newspaper
- A long-term food services contract the university signed with Aramark, a company students here and at other campuses say is part of the "prison industrial complex."
Race was a factor in all three in one way or another.
Student protesters say that university administrators haven't listened to their demands. And that has some students saying that if campus leaders can't better address those kinds of concerns, they're left feeling unsafe.
But in a classroom and on campus, what does make a space safe?
At CSUDH, one example is the Black Resource Center. It's a place where you’ll hear conversations, you’ll see people with open laptops doing work or relaxing. This is an important space, students say, because it allows them to be their authentic selves and not have to code switch.
“When we step out into the actual society that we live in today,” said Terrie Kennon, a third-year student at CSUDH and president of the Black Student Union, “we constantly feel like… we cannot embrace our culture to the fullest extent without being judged or ridiculed for it or labeled.”
Inside the Black Resource Center, Kennon said, she and other Black students can freely talk about everything from hair to the latest police brutality incident, before having to switch the way they talk and carry themselves once they leave this room. Especially taxing, she said, is that she's often the only Black student in a class.
“So you have to be the representation for your entire community at that point," she said. "And it doesn't feel safe, it's actually a very uncomfortable place to be in.”
Kennon’s comments may ring true among Black students at many U.S. universities. What makes her comments stand out is this university’s demographics.
The university makes a point to note that it's the "most ethnically diverse campus" among Cal State schools. Latinos make up 70% of the 15,000 students at CSUDH. According to fall 2022 data, CSUDH’s Black students are 11% of the student population. That's down from 2000, when Black students made up 27% of CSUDH enrollment, but it's still the largest percentage of Black student enrollment out of all 23 California State University campuses.
Systemwide, Black students are only 4% of CSU’s 457,992 students.
(Some) classrooms offer the best opportunity
Africana Studies 212 at CSUDH is a class that examines the lived experiences of ethnic and global communities in the United States and their places of origin.
The instructor began a recent Wednesday class with a deceptively simple prompt.
As she sat on a chair in front of the chalkboard, Professor Meryah Fisher faced her two dozen students. “How are you?”
One student said he and his friends drove together to L.A.’s Little Tokyo, the first time this group had been together in a car. Another student said with pride that he did well on a test in his Asian studies class, while another student described how he learned about a shooting along his carpool route to campus through an app.
The simple, open-ended question is intentional.
“Every week it feels like there's always like one or two more who have something to contribute,” Fisher said, “because they really start to feel that they belong there, they start to have that sense, 'Oh, you are talking about me,'” she said, and being heard is the foundation for talking about difficult topics and learning.
One student said he's watched Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy help downplay the seriousness of the Jan. 6, 2021 attacks on the Capitol.
“My mother came here as an immigrant for a better opportunity for me,” another student said before saying in a slow, measured voice that he doesn’t feel safe in this country nor feels like he belongs here.
“I think I might be taking this step that my mom actually took,” the student said, to leave his country and look for a better opportunity elsewhere.
That prompts a student one row over to say that his parents left the Philippines.
“I'm grateful in so many ways for them doing that because the Philippines is not an easy place to live,” he said, but that gratitude sometimes keeps him from criticizing U.S. politics.
“This is actually a really good segue for us into today's discussions,” Fisher tells the students. “We've already started to touch on this a little bit with the immigration thing… What does it mean to feel American?” she said.
Fisher prompts students to populate two columns on the chalkboard: examples of racism toward Asian Americans and Native Americans.
At one point a Black woman who appears to be a couple decades older than most of the students talks about being followed by an Asian shopkeeper while she shopped in Inglewood. The conversation about tensions between racial groups continues when the students break up into pairs.
“I grew up in the '90s,” third year student Michael Padilla told the woman, “I saw a lot of Latino on Black crime… during that time these two communities just hated each other.”
The conversation between the two remains civil, two people respectfully hearing each other’s lived experiences. There's no visible tension.
The tension that has affected campus this school year has left students and faculty saying that the administrators should lift some of the burden of talking about these difficult topics from student and faculty shoulders.
“My job would be so much easier,” Professor Fisher said, “it would be so much easier if [the administration] would have more of these conversations and support these conversations when they're happening.”
How does a university create a sense of belonging?
Researchers who study university policies to recruit, enroll, and retain students of color say that it’s important to take into account that universities in the U.S. were founded as institutions exclusively for white men. Sure, that was decades ago, but remnants of that legacy endure.
“What the [CSUDH] students are speaking about is extremely valid, it's tied to their belongingness, about how they perceive the school to be embracing of their identities holistically,” said Bryan K. Hotchkins, a professor of higher education at Texas Tech University.
What the [CSUDH] students are speaking about is extremely valid, it's tied to their belongingness, about how they perceive the school to be embracing of their identities holistically.
He advocates for university faculty, staff, and administrators to adopt an approach that may sound more appropriate in elementary schools.
“We're going to raise these children, we're going to protect them while they're under our care,” he said.
This doesn’t mean treat them like children, he said. It means opening the president’s office, the provost’s office, and other top administrators’ offices to leaders of the various student organizations on campus. And it means faculty and administrator presence at student events on campus.
“If you have that perspective,” he said, “[students] have a heightened sense of belongingness, students will come to you when they have problems, and they'll see you as part of the solution instead of a person that marginalizes them and actively participates in their experiencing loneliness and isolation.”
A series of tests
During the summer of 2022, CSUDH hired the Aramark corporation for a 10-year food services contract. The Philadelphia-based company has been embroiled in several high-profile controversies in other parts of the country. An investigative series in The Detroit Free Press detailed disgusting food service in Michigan prisons, while college students around the country have successfully lobbied their administrators to end campus food services contracts with Aramark.
The school said that Aramark delivered the best proposal. CSUDH students, in particular Black students, said the administration should rescind the contract not only because of these controversies but also because the company’s ties with prisons is a stark reminder of how the correctional system affects so many students’ families.
CSUDH has not rescinded the contract but has held open meetings on campus about the contract and other topics that have led to tensions on campus. The open meetings are called Conversations That Matter, and are meant to take on “difficult conversations” in an open forum with administrators.
During the December meeting a student criticized university administrators for hiring Aramark even after the university became aware of the company’s business practices.
“I acknowledge your comment there… I certainly don’t want to diminish the way you feel about that. I say yes to your comments,” said Deborah Wallace, the university’s chief financial officer, to the student.
Also in October, hundreds of students were in an uproar after the student newspaper printed slurs against Latinos on the cover of the Hispanic Heritage Month issue. Administrators held virtual meetings in an attempt to calm students and lay out what the university planned to do to address the harm.
Also last semester, Asian American students protested that the university was moving too slow to give the students office space for their own cultural center.
At every turn, the university said it took student concerns into account but students continue to say the administration’s efforts to reach students and spark campus-wide conversations have fallen short of improving their sense of belonging.
“It could have been really educational, it could have been an amazing, invoke for change [moment],” said freshman Catherine Gray, who is Black, about addressing the student newspaper cover. She would have wanted a campus wide event that raised the questions, “Why [are these Latino slurs] wrong? What were the terms? What did they mean? And why do they hurt so much when they're spoken?”
Hotchkins said the underlying ask there is for administrators to be intentional about listening to student concerns. Administrators could say, "'as your president, I'm concerned, tell me about your experiences. And what can we do? What can be the scope and sequence of change?'” Hotchkins said.
What CSUDH says it’s doing to connect with students
In 1960, Gov. Edmund Brown announced plans for a new Cal State school at Palos Verdes. Before construction began, however, state leaders moved the school further inland to Carson, in reaction to both the 1965 Watts uprising and the availability of cheaper land.
University leaders have highlighted that history over the years to explain their responsibility to the local community.
In recent years the university’s focused resources on efforts to support students who are the first in their families to go to college by acknowledging parents’ role in the effort.
“Here at Dominguez Hills, we strive to be the model of an urban university,” said Eva Sevcikova, CSUDH's interim vice president for university advancement, when she opened the campus’ Conversations That Matter open forum in February.
Students have protested a lot this academic year, many times saying university administrators have not been in touch with student concerns. The university administration uses the term “difficult” as a catchall term to describe the tensions and conflict that have arisen with administrators after the protests.
“As an institution that is grounded in ideas of social justice, equity and inclusion, we know that difficulty can create a reform, we will not shy away from the discourse, we are a learning institution after all, and at all levels we can learn from each other,” Sevcikova said.
February’s Conversations That Matter session addressed anti-racism in higher education.
“That portion of the event was led by representatives from the Anti-Racism Task Force, which President [Thomas] Parham appointed in 2020 to analyze anti-racism on campus and issue a report and recommendations to the administration,” said CSUDH spokeswoman Lilly McKibbin by email.
A follow up session on anti-racism was held on March 9 and a “preliminary report from the Task Force found that students judge the campus to be fully inclusive and anti-racist,” McKibbin said.
CSUDH President Thomas Parham devotes time to hearing student concerns, she said. These are the examples she provided:
- Meets monthly with the Associated Students Inc.
- Meets “regularly” with presidential scholars, attends social and athletic events (homecoming, Lunar New Year, the Associated Students’ “What’s Up Wednesday” events)
- Met with students in an open forum about the Aramark contract
- Convened a meeting with Asian Pacific Islander students about their protests that the university hadn’t provided an adequate space for a cultural center. A space opened this month.
She added that the university hosted a free lecture about whiteness and racism this year, is making available anti-racism professional development, and created Black and Asian Pacific Islander student groups to advance the academic success of those two student groups.
Students and staff give the university credit for improvement, even as they have other suggestions about what else the school can do.
"If we had maybe like, once a week, an event that would combine all of the cultural centers where we would just interact with each other," said senior Roycelin Love.
The university-organized events wouldn't even need an agenda, she said.
She'd like to ask students about their different paths to this university and their common goal: graduation day.
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