Tuesday, October 27, 2020

‘We’re here’: Black women are making a difference on MSU's campus

February 27, 2020

Efforts for diversity and inclusion at Michigan State are in full force by black women on campus during Black History Month.

The Black Students’ Alliance, or BSA’s, ongoing fight against racism on campus is making an impact on the black community. BSA president Sharron Reed-Davis leads the organization and fosters change with the support of her black peers.

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“We are here as an advocate for black students on campus,” Reed-Davis said. “Historically, we were founded to fight for the rights of black students — because we didn’t have those.”

Black women in student organizations

The movement created by BSA that began in 1967 is still a dominant force in 2020. Campus-wide initiatives like a power rally in October 2019, community forums and recently a Black Revolt Week have amplified the voices of Reed-Davis, the organization and those affected by racist acts on campus. 

Last semester, a toilet paper noose was taped to the dorm room door of two black students and a survey distributed to the MSU community contained racist slurs. Earlier this semester, a display in the Wharton Center’s gift shop depicted current and historical black figures hanging from trees.

BSA held a commemoration march at the end of Black Revolt Week themed “Still We Rise.” 

“We made it to the Hannah (Administration Building) and I’m so proud of us,” Reed-Davis said at the march. “I know being black at MSU, being a person of color at MSU, being a woman ... is very hard at this university — and this is for us. This university is for us. It wasn’t made for us, but we’re making it for us.”

Reed-Davis said the events of Black Revolt Week were inspired by the Wharton Center incident. 

“We had a protest last semester, but when this happened on the eve of Black History Month ... we wanted to do something to say, ‘OK, this is it,” she said. “We’re here. Black students belong and we’re going to make sure that y’all know it.’”

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Reed-Davis said BSA serves as an umbrella organization for more than 120 other black organizations on campus. As a result of their efforts to create change on campus, BSA has succeeded in getting funding not only for its own organization, but for the organizations they represent as well. 

They also played a major role in the push for a free-standing multicultural building to be established at MSU, something Reed-Davis said they’ve been fighting for since at least 2011.

Apparel and textile design senior Alyeea Turner and journalism sophomore Kennedy Walters said they are proud to be members of BSA.

“BSA has really been very influential on campus, on the black community,” Turner said. “It creates a family environment for people to feel comfortable in, and to feel free to be themselves as a black individual.”

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Walters said being a part of BSA has put her in a place where she can advocate for her community. 

“And also (to get) people to focus on what’s next and what can we do to be a part of history,” Walters said.

Black women in the MSU administration

Chief diversity officer and senior advisor Paulette Granberry Russell said BSA should respond to what their community has faced at MSU in a healthy way. 

“The incidents that target them based on identity do not define them,” Russell said.

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Russell said her work is influenced by her understanding and appreciation of her roots. 

“I have to pay homage to my people and to my ancestors, and as a black woman raised by black women, I know nothing else,” Russell said. “That is how I am hard-wired.”

Russell has worked at the university for almost 22 years and said she is honored to have helped MSU navigate challenges to affirmative action, which created a foundation for a lot of the work they’re able to do today.

“I’m proud of the way in which both myself as a leader and others that were leaders on this campus chose to lead in ways that said, ‘We will be inclusive. If it means to retain those programs, that we make them more inclusive.’”

She said she has also helped increase the number of black students in STEM programs and was involved in the Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant Funds, which incentivizes new program initiatives by faculty, staff and students.

Russell is transitioning to her new role as a special adviser to President Stanley. Russell, a former MSU Title IX coordinator, is also a key witness in the trial of ex-MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, who is charged with lying to police about knowledge of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.

“Twenty-two years,” she said. “I’m ready.”

Residential and Hospitality Services Strategic Innovation and Lean Performance Manager Kelly High McCord said Russell has made positive changes in her role.

“Paulette is a person that’s paved a way for us too … because of where she sits,” McCord said. “I know she is transitioning out of her position, but she will be greatly missed.”

McCord said she loves working and serving students at MSU.

“I love trying to make this a better environment for students,” McCord said. “I feel like that is what we’re here for.”

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McCord’s efforts to make improvements on campus involve instituting restorative justice practices in residence education and trying to address harm between parties, she said. 

McCord said she worked with BSA in the past, responded to their demands and wants to get feedback from students on how the administration can work on being more transparent and helping the community move forward. 

McCord said she encouraged BSA to “find their allies.”

“Their true allies can be honest and candid within spaces where they feel comfortable,” she said.

While working together to implement change and create a more diverse environment for the black community, black women remain true to their identity.

“I love being a black person,” McCord said. “I love black people. I love who we are, how we overcome things we shouldn’t have had to. The love that we have, the bond that we share is just amazing to me ... and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Associate General Counsel Nakia White Barr said her role at the university doesn’t take away from her identity as a black woman.

“I’m a black woman and this is part of who we are, and I’m not going to be afraid to show my culture and celebrate that,” Barr said.

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Barr said being in an administrative position, and therefore at the center of a lot that’s happening on campus, has been interesting.

“I love my job, it’s challenging times right now,” she said. “We’re dealing with a lot of difficult things at the university.”

Barr said the racist incidents are “upsetting (and) disappointing,” but believes the shift in top leadership will help with creating change on campus.

“Looking at President (Samuel L.) Stanley (Jr.)’s record ... I think I’m optimistic that he will do the right thing and that there will be a change in tone and change in culture,” Barre said. “It would be hard for me to sit here with a straight face as a black woman working at this level of the administration if I didn’t really believe in him as a leader.”

However, BSA has been disappointed in the lack of action from the university following racism on campus, including the "Molly Muck Gorilla incident" in 2016, a shoelace noose in 2017, racist slurs on social media in 2018 and the incidents of this academic year. 

“All these incidents and MSU did NOTHING,” according to the timeline BSA posted to its social media accounts. 

They’ve expressed they’re tired of the administration’s ‘I’m sorry’ emails and want real change and actual consequences for the perpetrators of the racism black students experience. Their hashtag “#NotAgainMSU” has become a part of the movement and was painted on the Rock on Farm Lane during Black Revolt Week. 

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Barr said she believes BSA should keep pushing and that people are listening. She brought up the progress that’s being made with the multicultural building and diversity, equity and inclusion training.

“Keep it up and hold people accountable,” Barr said. “Use your voices ... I think there’s strength in numbers.”

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