Student activists are finding support from faculty members while focusing on social climate issues for underrepresented communities and students of color at Portland State . Activists have called on the administration to better equip the school for these groups.
At the Students of Color Speak-Out engagement held Dec. 1, faculty members and students shared cultural issues that many underrepresented communities face while on campus. At the rally students addressed the need for cultural spaces for fellow students and faculty members.
The need for such spaces is past due, according to Speak-Out organizer Melika Belhaj. She said she believes students from diverse student groups need these spaces and views their creation as a necessity the college cannot ignore.
“Cultural spaces are imperative because within them we do not have to validate our experience and/or cultural norms,” Belhaj wrote in an email. “Expression of cultural norms in safe spaces is necessary for the physical, emotional and spiritual safety while living in the American landscape which, through overt and covert tactics, makes invisible the greatness and beauty of our communities of color.”
Students and faculty expressed concerns that underrepresented students feel their customs may stigmatize their success. Advocates envision the new spaces as places for students to express beliefs, religion or decorum without the feeling of alienation.
Dr. Samuel Henry, interim director of the School of Gender, Race and Nations , pointed out that PSU is organizing efforts to find suitable space for two groups. The next two cultural spaces built at the university will be for Asian-Pacific Islander students and for black students.
Shortly after the Speak-Out event, faculty members from the SGRN overwhelmingly agreed on an immediate time table for advocating change on campus. Henry also pointed out that the SGRN had already begun work on similar issues earlier in the year.
Henry began work on a proposal for his department heads addressing how the school could better serve communities of color on campus. The work began after he received an email from Karen Marrongelle, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, regarding a growing sentiment around the need to pay closer attention to these students’ needs on campus in fall term.
“There is a growing sentiment on our campus, [and] on other campuses across the country [that] there is an increased need for institutions to be responsive and an increased need to understand what is going on,” Henry said.
President Wim Wiewel shared a similar opinion during a January 15 press conference. He lauded PSU as advanced in its approach to cultural awareness issues, pointing to several resource centers already on campus, including the Women’s Resource Center, the Multicultural Center, the Queer Resource Center, La Casa Latina, the Veterans’ Resource Center and the Native American Student and Community Center. He also pointed out that the university administration responded immediately to demands for a black student center and an Asian-Pacific Islander center.
“This fall was the first time that this demand came up for these two other groups, and we met it right away,” Wiewel said.
Wiewel also acknowledged that more work is necessary. He noted three concerns of organizers at the December Speak-Out in particular, including diversity in faculty and staff, campus climate and content of curriculum. On the former two points, Wiewel said his office is working directly to address issues. But on the latter, he pointed out that curriculum is an area where he has little influence.
“Faculty really, truly control their curriculum,” Wiewel said. “That’s something that faculty, departments and deans are really going to have to wrestle with.”
Wiewel also noted that his office reached out to the SGRN faculty to push for broader conversations with the PSU faculty on diversity issues.
On all matters, however, Wiewel noted that change takes time.
“You don’t change peoples’ habits and practices overnight,” he said. “That takes a lot of time and a lot of work.”
Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, officials from the SGRN began discussions to build a stronger support network for PSU’s communities of color. On Friday, Jan. 22, the group voted to support the efforts of the Speak Out group and began the early stages of action.
Henry sees the creation of a task force to deal directly with issues related to underrepresented communities as job one.
“My expectation is, from the people who expressed at the meeting last week that they were willing to work, the group will probably be about seven or eight members,” Henry said.
The scope of work the group plans to accomplish is not defined as of yet. Henry plans to examine issues facing different students and look at what processes are in place before pushing for specific changes.
Henry noted that many campuses across the country are re-evaluating their practices for accommodating the needs for underrepresented students and communities of color. He also noted some schools are taking strides to better their efforts.
Although the college is now working to create spaces for Asian-Pacific Islander and black students, there is hope that other diverse groups will create spaces of their own in the future.