Augsburg community engages in dialogue around race and inclusivity

Ryan Moore, Editor-in-Chief

Hundreds of faculty, staff and students engaged in dialogue around racial inclusivity and equity this week after two Honors presidents gave testimonies at a faculty meeting on Nov. 7.

Winston Heckt, a senior film and communication studies major, and Olivia House, a junior graphic design major, were both requested by faculty members to make statements. Both house presidents spoke about their experiences as black students at Augsburg. “Many professors are firm supporters that college classes are supposed to make students uncomfortable and that ‘difficult conversations’ foster this idea,” House said. “As a black student, a first-generation black student in a predominately white program, in predominantly white classes, I can say that every time I wake up and go to class, I am uncomfortable and constantly in uncomfortable situations.” Heckt expressed a similar sentiment. “In my time with the Honors program, I have had my viewpoints challenged and my intellect pushed to new areas I hadn’t previously thought possible,” Heckt said. “But alongside this positive effect on my learning and self, there has been this underlying tension and atmosphere that has grown to make me feel unheard, unsafe and sometimes like I’m just the token Black kid that’s put on Augsburg’s marketing.” Augsburg’s undergraduate day student population is 47% of people of color.

On Nov. 9, a group of faculty members distributed a letter titled “We Are Listening.” The letter said, “Augsburg faculty for an anti-racist, non-racist society stand by the necessary work being done by our students, faculty, staff and administration around issues of discrimination, racism, bias and power.” This letter also invited people to attend a listening session on Nov. 12 during chapel.

More than 140 students, faculty and staff attended Monday’s session. Education professor Joaquin Munoz shared the concept of circle discussions with the group. He said these circle discussions were useful to “make decisions as a community — together — about what we need to do.” Near the end of the session, two students spoke. Taiwana Shambley, a black student, called for action across campus. Shambley said, “I need reevaluation of the Honors program.” Genesia Williams, an African American student, questioned the room about the place for students of color on campus. Williams asked, “If they have to beg you to keep them safe, why are they here?” Professor Phil Adamo was present at this first listening session; he was asked for a statement following the session. Adamo said, “I attended the first listening circle this morning. It seems like a good process. Rather than comment now, I prefer to listen.”

Time constraints led to another session being scheduled by the faculty members who wrote the “We Are Listening” letter for the following day. More than 130 people gathered in the East Commons for the second listening session. Students chose to participate in a talking circle. Aside from Provost Karen Kaivola speaking twice upon request of students, the conversation was entirely carried by students. Calls to action and the need for accountability were primary themes of the discussion.

Another listening session conducted by Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences David Matz was also held for Honors students shortly after the talking circle. Prior to the listening session, Matz said, “The intent of this meeting is to see what the state of the Honors program is.” Matz asked students to describe the strengths and weaknesses of the program.

Dialogue continued in the Faculty Senate meeting on Nov. 14. At this meeting, the senate approved a proposal brought forth by a group of faculty for “A Day of Action;” the senate approved the proposal. “On behalf of many concerned students, we request the support of Faculty Senate for ‘A Day of Action’ … The day will call for the canceling of classes either for a half-day or full-day. After consulting with a variety of offices about possible dates, we propose holding the session on Wednesday, December 5, 2018.” As of press time, this date was not yet finalized.

Kaivola spoke to the action that lies ahead in a statement for “The Echo.” “I would say this is a moment that requires deep listening, moral courage and acting together as we navigate the work ahead,” Kaivola said. “This is work that will require bringing our best selves to the difficult conversations ahead if we are to live into the promise of what Augsburg stands for at its best and most inspiring.”

This article was originally published in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue.