Reflection: Faculty Assembly Student Walkout – One Year Later by Lucie Pereira

Sitting in the faculty assembly on March 29, watching a video about last year’s student walkout, all I could think was how differently I had felt back then compared to how I was feeling now. A year ago, I was frustrated, disheartened, and disillusioned.

Before coming to Emerson, I had grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, and thought I was used to being in the minority. But never before had I been so overwhelmed by a sense of otherness. Never before had I been the only nonwhite student in a classroom. I was shocked at the number of microaggressions I witnessed on a daily basis at an institution that claimed to be so inclusive. This was not a place that loved and accepted its students of color. This was a place where white students casually used the n-word in the dining hall. This was a place where swastikas were scrawled in dorm buildings. This was a place where classrooms, stages, film sets, and other spaces were dominated by whiteness.

When I decided to come to Emerson, I’d envisioned a college experience that reflected the many vibrant cultures of the city this school calls home. But by the end of my freshman year, that vision seemed more like a fantasy. While I had made some incredible friends and loved many aspects of my life at Emerson, there was something missing that I felt I’d been promised: a sense of belonging.

Last April, when students of color left their classrooms in protest of the racism that still plagues Emerson, this is the message they gave:

“I am leaving class because I am tired of being othered by my peers. I am leaving class because cultural training of my professors must be required. I am leaving class because every space at Emerson must be a safe space.”

Many students of color felt exhausted, hurt, and voiceless, unable to find a way to be seen or heard due to our small numbers. But now we were speaking up, joined by friends and allies. Together, we were taking space because it was not being given to us freely.

On April 28, 2015, there were tears among us as students of color shared story after story of the oppression they had faced here at Emerson.

One month shy of a year later, on March 29, 2016, there were words of encouragement and congratulations as members of the newly formed student organization Protesting Oppression with Educational Reform (POWER) stood in that same space to speak to the faculty assembly about the progress that had been made and what still needed to be accomplished.

This time, I felt more hopeful. This time, we had been offered this space – an improvement already. We were not here just to air grievances; we were here to do work, to make tangible progress. As POWER leaders Nathaniel Charles and Taylor Jett were given the floor, it was easy to see the tone shift in contrast from a year before. Microphones instead of megaphones. PowerPoints instead of posters. Optimism instead of desperate exhaustion.

POWER consists of one student representative from each department who serves as a liaison between students, faculty, and administration on cultural competency and diversity issues. At the assembly, each member of POWER was given time to explain what actions, if any, had been taken by their academic department in the year since the walkout, and what still needed to be addressed. It was our chance to hold our departments accountable and to encourage them to continue moving forward.

As the WLP senator for POWER, I wanted to express what kinds of changes faculty and administration can make immediately, because I am tired of waiting. I have been told time and again that change happens slowly. But I am here now, and in a mere two years’ time, I’ll be graduating. I want to be able to look back on my time at Emerson and say I witnessed change happen, and that I left an Emerson that was better and more inclusive than it was in 2014.

It is easy to say that Emerson’s diversity problems stem from our skewed demographics and that it’s difficult to teach an inclusive and culturally aware class when most of the voices and perspectives in the classroom are white ones. Initiatives such as the Class of 2016’s proposed gift to the college, a scholarship to help students stay at Emerson who might otherwise have to leave for financial reasons, will hopefully begin to address this problem—but that’s just a start. And while it is imperative that Emerson works to raise the number of students of color who attend the college, I still implore faculty to ask themselves: what can I do to make sure that the students of color who are already here feel safe, comfortable, and accepted in my classroom?

As a student of color, I should not have to bear the burden of my college’s failure to bring in a diverse student body. I should be supported while I am still here, instead of being told it is too late for me, that progress can only happen slowly and in some distant future.

Education is what prepares us for the rest of our lives. What students are taught at Emerson will influence the ways they interact with others, the kind of art they produce, and their personal worldviews. I don’t want my Emerson education to prepare me to repeat the patterns of a system that is already in place: the system that benefits straight, white, cisgender males. I want Emerson to prepare me to challenge the status quo, to bring my own insight and ideas into all of my work, to be able to represent myself and others consciously. That is what I think of when I think “innovation in communication and the arts.” To me, innovation is bringing something new and interesting, it’s making your industry a more inclusive space by telling stories that haven’t been told before or haven’t been told enough. As future artists, communicators, and media-makers, Emerson students should be prepared to critically examine the industries we will be entering and become advocates for change. Emerson promised me that I would leave with the tools to do that.

From talking about how to conduct fair and unbiased crew calls to diversifying readings and film screenings to allowing journalism students to cover stories outside the U.S., members of POWER offered the faculty assembly numerous ideas for improvement. There are many ways that diversity and inclusion can be implemented, whether by adding an author of color to the syllabus or engaging in a class discussion about the best way to light a stage when working on a play with actors of different skin tones.

The March faculty assembly resulted in the passing of a motion with three parts:

  1. The requirement of training related to diversity and inclusion for all faculty, the first series of which will be completed by December 2016.
  2. An audit of all current curricular objectives, syllabi, case studies, course descriptions, and program requirements to be completed by November 2016.
  3. The development of a training plan for faculty who have been identified multiple times through the bias incident report system and/or course evaluations.

As a student, as a member of POWER, as somebody who sat on the floor of the Bill Bordy one year ago and listened to the powerful and heartbreaking stories of my peers, I’m proud to see action being taken by Emerson faculty. It’s a wonderful, affirming feeling to be heard, and for real action to be taken in response. Some departments have been more responsive than others. Some changes have been effective, some haven’t. It’s a process that’s going to need a lot of hard work and cooperation, but in the end it will be worth it. To me, there is no better goal than equality and inclusion, and a better Emerson is something we should all be proud to work towards.