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An Anti-Racism Campaign At Lehigh

As an executive board member of Lehigh University's Undergraduate Student Senate, I am trying to transform our organization and Lehigh into anti-racist institutions using design methodology.

As sustained Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the country took center stage in summer 2020, and with systematic racism being ever-present at Lehigh, I realized I needed to be a much stronger ally to minority communities at my school. So far, and with great help from others, I:

  1. Helped organize a 500+ attendee BLM Town Hall with the Black Student Union;
  2. Held Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) discussions at the executive level of Senate;
  3. Am mentoring our DEI committee chair and helping her plan full-Senate DEI discussions;
  4. Pitched a new kind of DEI discussion for first-year orientation;
  5. & I am helping to pilot an anti-racism online forum for student feedback on the administration's anti-racism efforts.

While I have already learned so much about how to listen, advocate for others, and navigate challenging emotional conversations, my growth here is active and ongoing - see what I have learned so far.

A Disclaimer

I am very conscious that I am white. I fully recognize that I have not experienced discrimination as a result of my identity - and thus, I have done my best to listen to, learn from, and empathize with students of color before engaging in this area.

Whenever possible, I try to give leadership space to those with that life experience before I step up.

Racism At Lehigh

Minority students have regularly cited not feeling welcome or accepted at Lehigh. This includes:

  1. In everyday social settings, where white students stick to themselves or may make microaggressions;
  2. In classrooms, where a professor cited slavery as a positive for the economy directly to black students, and no other students stood up for their peers;
  3. At parties, where students of color have been explicitly barred entry, asked to leave, or assumed to not attend Lehigh;
  4. In Greek Life, where students of color feel unwelcome in recruitment, accepted only for marketing, or feel forced to homogenize within their chapter;
  5. with the university administration, which frequently mishandles communication about these subjects and fails to provide support to the community after bias incidents occur;
  6. & even in residence halls, where the Lehigh Campus Police have assumed students of color are intruders from the nearby town instead of residents.

You can read many more stories like these from BIPOC on Instagram pages of anonymous submissions like Dear Lehigh. Taken together, these testimonies paint a picture of a university plagued with both overt and subtle systematic discrimination, and an apathetic and at times prejudiced student body.

Arguably, this discrimination is pervasive within my organization as well. Under our previous executive board, Student Senate failed to stand up for our peers and call for more from the administration when the first-gen house was egged, instead choosing to get up-in-arms about a recent suspension of Greek Life activity; we frequently failed to provide space for minority student voices during important discussions; and our elections process heavily favors white students in Greek Life with more personal connections for votes.

One of many student testimonies from the Dear Lehigh Instagram account about discrimination at Lehigh University.

Black Lives Matter Town Hall

In summer 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and a weak response from our university, students started organizing en masse. Within a day, over 1000 students had joined a groupchat and began raising money for George Floyd, Breona Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery's families, as well as talked about demands for change from the university.

At first, I was impressed with my community, but then I noticed something upsetting - Black students were not contributing in this chat, or if they did, were met with resistance to their opinions from white students. I wanted to know if there was something better Senate could do to support our Black student community.

Senate's Executive Board was already imagining a town hall, but seeing this, we were uncertain if it was the right path. Through Will Constant, my friend, Vice President of the Black Student Union (BSU), and my predecessor in Senate, I got in contact with the two co-presidents of the BSU, Nande & Savanna.

I'll be completely honest - Before talking to them, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know what my role should be on these issues, or if I was going to say the wrong thing, or if my efforts would be received the same way as the groupchat.

But over the next few days, I had many meaningful conversations with the three of them. I learned how Black students weren't engaging in the groupchat because, despite the groupchat students' intentions, the Black students weren't being given leadership of their own space; and that Black students were nervous to invest in a town hall without the promise of change (This which led us to bring in University President John Simon and other administrators). Throughout these conversations, Nande, Savanna, and Will were kind, understanding of my nervousness, and helped me understand their perspectives and my role as an ally.

Resolving one particular moment of tension was a major learning moment for me- Before I had first met Nande & Savanna, my Senate president asked me who needed to attend a short meeting with the university president in advance of the town hall. Thinking this would be an unimportant, procedural meeting, I signed off on just two members of Senate's Executive Board being invited.

However, upon hearing about this, Nande and Savanna insisted on being included, explaining that for too long, Black people had been left out of important conversations about their community. They helped me realize that as I was responsible, I had to fix it - and once I had gotten them permission and heard Savanna speak at the meeting, I completely understood why they needed to be there.

An excerpt from my notes with the timeline of events and lessons learned before the town hall.

Our close collaboration over one week ultimately created a successful event. So many Black students & alumni were able to share their stories with five top administrators in attendance, and our call was its max capacity of 500 people for almost the full three-hour event.

With our posted recording of the event distributed by the BSU, it was able to reach a much broader audience, and it inspired the university to announce a plan to become an anti-racist institution.

The open forum part of the Black Student Union x Senate Black Lives Matter Town Hall, where students shared their stories. I speak briefly at the start.

Anti-Racism Within Senate

After the town hall, we realized: we needed to make DEI discussions a constant focus across all parts of our organization. As an executive member who chairs the Admin committee of all other committee chairs, I thought that would be the perfect place to start.

I dedicated our first two meetings of the admin committee to a review of the town hall stories and led a brainstorming clustering exercise to reveal key issue themes. I also took the opportunity to teach the committee chairs a few ideation techniques.

A clustering exercise I led to show the key issue themes revealed by the town hall.

One faux pas I made was a learning moment for me. During that first meeting, I hoped to rectify the mistakes of past discussions and elevate the voices of the two students of color in the room who had been outspoken about DEI topics, but in doing so, I inadvertently grouped them together and made them feel uncomfortable. Thankfully, one of the two was willing to call me out, and I was able to learn from this and improve how I host.

Recognizing I had much to learn here, I used my network to get in contact with a subject matter expert. During a half-hour conversation with Tori Goyette--Senior Community Manager at Hack.Diversity and an experienced DEI facilitator--I learned many new techniques and what my role should be in hosting DEI dialogue.

While I was hosting these discussions, I was also mentoring our Diversity & Inclusion committee chair Ashley-- a first-year student and a person of color who stepped into the role because no one else ran for the position.

My weekly meetings with her are my favorite part of Senate right now. We learn from each other - I provide techniques and recommendations from my years of committee chair experience, and she gives me insight into how to improve my approach to difficult conversations. Through our ongoing meetings, I oversaw her creation and ultimate hosting of a facilitated DEI discussion called 'Candid Conversations' for all of Senate, paving the way for DEI to be a regular part of our organization's work as we strive to improve.

Anti-Racism Proposal Pitch

As a part of a new pledge to become an anti-racist institution, Lehigh is calling on its community for Anti-Racism proposals. I decided to partner with my friend Natalie -- a gender and sexuality peer educator-- and we decided to tackle what we felt was the biggest issue, a prejudiced student body.

Although we'd hope our school would not accept such people, we realized their perspective may not entirely be their fault. Many students at Lehigh come from areas that are not diverse and have never been exposed to minority issues in their education. Thus, we came to the conclusion that true anti-racism is to do the hard work of opening these students' eyes. That's why we centered our proposal around:

"How Might We educate students with biases without alienating them?"

Our proposal: a new kind of student-facilitated conversation during first-year orientation, centered around universal experiences and designed to build a collective empathy. We hope our proposed conversation would set a precedent of Lehigh as diverse, accepting, and supportive - so as first-year college students try to reinvent themselves to fit in at their new school, they try to fit in with that positive image. Watch our pitch below.

A 5-minute pitch I made with my friend Natalie for a new kind of DEI discussion during first-year orientation.

Our submission is currently under review by the university's Council for Equity and Community and may be used in future Anti-Racism efforts.

What's Next

I'm planning to do a lot of reading - I need to read How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, among others I've earmarked. I also hope to have more conversations with minority students that I represent, so I can further evaluate if I am on the right track. I then hope to apply this learning to my next upcoming project - the creation of an online anti-racism forum for two-way communication with the University administration about Lehigh's anti-racism efforts.