Ever since Michigan State student Lesly Morales was young, they advocated for change.
Morales is from Brownsville, Texas, where the population is “98-99% Brown”. Morales is a member of the LGBTQ community in Brownsville and founded the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at their high school.
Because of the explicit religion of their community, Morales didn’t really see the GSA “lift off." They felt like the only one there with radical ideas, ready to push and make change, then they came to MSU.
At MSU, they began studying politics and history and saw what was happening in their town, wasn't just happening in their town.
“I started realizing how messed up and corrupt back home is,” Morales said, “That isn’t just back home. It’s alive and well, all throughout America, in our society. When people don’t have the knowledge to stand up for themselves, then they’re gonna keep getting oppressed ... That’s why I do this work is to let people know, 'Hey, these are your rights.'”
Morales joined the community of activism at MSU and began to see that the things MSU said they were doing had no effect. Morales hears the university's words of support and then sees nothing change. They want it to stop.
“They always say 'Yeah, we’re here for you, we support you,'” Morales said, “Then there’s listening circles, there’s committees being formed, but nothing ever happens. So, I just want people to understand and to not be scared to stand up.”
Of the many battles for equality that Morales has fought as an MSU student for the many communities they are a part of, the one that they faced on Friday is one that America has been fighting in unison: the battle against police brutality, injustice and systemic racism.
“In MSU’s campus there’s such a rich history of activism that you all don’t know about because they are repressing you all,” Morales said in a speech. “Did you know that back in the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, even right now in 2020, BSA (Black Student Alliance) is still fighting for the same demands they have been. How sad is that? A school that says they are all about diversity and inclusion, but only when they are trying to publicize their school.”
About 50 students and alumni met at The Rock on Farm Lane on Friday, June 12. The group met for a “Die-In” protest, in support of Black Lives Matter. The event was organized by current MSU students and alumni, all of whom were minorities.
The organizers saw MSU’s campus as a diverse community, but with no support for these diverse groups. Their demands were to make MSU what it says it is: inclusive and united.
“I experience this every day, but it’s even worse when nothing is being done about it,” Karina Mireles, an MSU alumna and one of the organizers of the protest, said. “So, that’s what kind of gave me the inspiration to gather people who had the same mindset and ideas as me and organizer together.”
The students and alumni listed specific demands for the university on the Facebook group they created for the protest.
Defunding MSU police
“Defunding the Police” has been a term that has been picked up and used throughout the country and has often been the source of misinterpretation of protesters' goals.
Defunding the police is an umbrella term, most associated with pulling back, cutting or relocating the budgets within police departments.
Karrington Kelsey, an MSU alumnus who has been an activist since he was 13, wants the police to be defunded so that the community can be better represented within this system.
1 “I want to see policy change," Kelsey said. "I want to see us defunding the police so they can reform and rebuild (in ways) that has accountability from the communities in which they inhabit, where community boards are elected by the people and it affects the people that live in these areas.”
Kelsey also demanded that these boards include the people of color that represent the area and to have a police oversight board as well.
In addition to defunding the police, they also demanded for the university to divest in fossil fuels.
Change in the classrooms
The first demand for change in the classrooms was a mandatory general education course for all students on race, ethnicity, racism and gender to be implemented into the curriculum.
Morales has experienced the results, or lack thereof, of MSU’s inclusive environment.
“I came from a bordertown where everybody is Brown, not that there's anything wrong with that, so I really didn’t know what racism was,” Morales said. “I came here and I was like ‘Wow there really is a diverse bunch of people’ … but for where we are, this could be so much more diverse. Why is it that in every class that I’m in I’m the only Brown student? Whenever my professors say 'speak to the person on your left and (your) right,' they're both white and they both speak to their other white counterparts, and that leaves me in the middle. That’s not inclusive. That’s not diversity.”
Morales and other students' experiences translate to their next demand: mandatory cultural, racial and religious sensitivity training for all university faculty, staff, contractors and police officers as outlined by a student selected group.
The organizers also outlined the demand for Black and minority faculty and staff demographics in each department should reflect the current national demographics.
According to the 2019 Annual Report on Diversity and Inclusion that is produced by the university, 78.3% of all employees were white and 72.4% of the faculty and academic staff were white.
“Why is it that our professors don’t represent the students as well,” Morales said in her speech, “You can’t always have a representation of the people there, because that doesn’t mean anything. What if a majority is white, then you have all white professors which is already what we have right now, so what does that mean?”
Student and alumni organizers outlined throughout their protest the desire for MSU to represent diversity and inclusion outside of just words and support.
In fall 2019 the undergraduate enrollment for people of color represented just 24.5% of the population. Since 2009 the Black student enrollment rate has increased just 1.4%, while the American Indian/Alaska Native student enrollment rate has decreased by 65.1%. The Hispanic student enrollment has seen the biggest jump, increasing by 86% from 1,357 to 2,524 students, a statistic congruent with a large percentage of college enrollment throughout the country, according to the report.
The percentage change of enrollment for the Asian, Pacific Islander and Hawaiian student population is not listed in the report. In fall of 2019, 32,865 of the enrollment identified themselves as White.
In addition to change in the classroom, the protesters demanded that those systems already in place to help people of color transition culturally and academically be revitalized.
Protesters demanded the revitalization of the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions Office (OCAT).
This demand included reform of the office’s programming and an emphasis on a rejuvenation of the Intercultural Aide Program, according to the Facebook post by group organizers.
“Equity over equality”
Overall, the demands of these students and alumni all pointed toward better representation and inclusion of people of color at their university. As Kelsey put it, he wants “equity over equality.”
“We do live in a society based off of capitalism, that’s based off of using people as a means to an end, that shows that there is power in money and assets,” Kelsey said in a speech to the protesters present. “If we wanted our school, our professors in this school to reflect those numbers, guess what they are primarily going to be … White people. That’s access to education, that’s access to money, that’s access to funds, that’s access to higher education, which builds inequity.”
While Kelsey still wants and pushes for equality, he sees the difference between the two: If the demand is just equality, that still leaves the inequity that has built up for hundreds of years. He wants MSU to help change that.
“If we say we want equality, we just want to create space for Black people right then and there, but that still leaves our white counterparts at the front of the race,” Kelsey said, “When I say I want equity, I want MSU to put money into Black and Brown schools to provide kids with tutors to pass all these racist test that we have to deal with. I want them to provide space for kids that look like me every summer, not just those ones that are at the top percent of the classrooms … the ones that need to show progression.”
Kelsey doesn’t just want MSU’s 'lip service,' he wants the work done behind the scenes — the work needed to provide the representation and help they need.
“That’s what I mean by equity, doing the actual work. If we aren’t doing the actual work, all this is bull,” Kelsey said. “All these pretty words, all this lip service, ‘We are here to protect you,’ means absolutely nothing if we are not doing the work behind the scenes. So, when I talk about equity, I want equity over equality, because we said we want equality for 400 plus years, but look where we are now.”
The protesters said they want to MSU to be the force that is actively trying to bring these diverse communities together.
“There is no force bringing us together,” Morales said in their speech. “Why? Because it keeps us repressed, it keeps us from keeping knowledge and it keeps us from fighting … We need to come together and realize that our struggles are intersectional. Your fight is her fight is their fight is my fight. That’s what we need to come together and understand.”