Students Organized for Radical Change in 2018-19, not a Day of Action

Taiwana Shambley, co-executive editor

A student movement was sparked at Augsburg University in 2018-19 after news broke that the former director of the now-suspended Honors program used the N-word in his class “Scholar Citizen.” In response, Honors students organized to radically restructure the program, and Augsburg in general, to better serve the needs of students of color. 

Winston Heckt, a 2019 graduate, was one of the students part of this movement’s core organizing group.

“We wanted to remove the structure of whiteness and racism at Augsburg and replace it with structures that empower students,” said Heckt in a statement to The Echo. “We had mixed results. The creation of the Department of Critical Race and Ethnicity Studies is a big win in our favor. There were other demands about increasing admin transparency, greater student involvement in the student grievance investigation process and more equity in scholarships that fell to the wayside.”

“It seemed like instead of addressing our demands and working to change them, we were given the runaround,” said Olivia House, a 2020 graduate who was also part of the core organizing group. “Under the guise of ‘reviews’ and ‘town halls’ and such, it looked as if putting the Honors Program on ‘pause’ was the easiest thing to do to eliminate the situation altogether.”

Administration responded to the movement with a “Day of Action” held on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day in which classes were cancelled and faculty, staff and students were encouraged to participate in anti-racist workshops.

“I thought it was a half-day of white guilt seminars that was more about creating catharsis for white folks, and more cynically a PR stunt for the papers, than it was a day that materially benefitted Auggies of color,” said Heckt.

I, Taiwana Shambley, was one of the people involved in organizing the Day of Action.

For context, it was my first year at Augsburg as a sophomore transfer from Saint Paul College. Passionate as I was about Black and Brown liberation, I was eager for a chance to join the movement. In fact, in an effort to recenter the discourse in student safety and shift it away from questions of academic freedom, I detailed my argument against white professors saying the N-word in my first ever Echo article. Additionally, frustrated at the ineffectiveness of a “We Are Listening Session” hosted in the chapel days after the incident, I just about took the mic from the facilitator to speak my truth. Lastly, I hosted the follow up to that session after being impromptuly asked to by a faculty. 

In my haste, and, admittedly, thinking I knew more than I did, I also agreed to take part in planning the Day of Action with a group of faculty and staff. I continued to participate even after Honors student leaders expressed disapproval of the event and personally asked me to stop. In hindsight, that was wack of me.

While I didn’t quite see it at the time, I was being tokenized by administration. It felt like not much effort was made to include more student voices in the process; in fact, I was the only student present in those meetings. I wasn’t even an Honors student. As a Black student who suddenly found themselves positioned as a valued voice in the movement, it’s clear my participation functioned, perhaps unintentionally on the part of the other Day of Action planners, as a way to legitimize this institutional project that was so off-base from the material demands that students actually said they wanted.

So, what now? How can we do justice to the work of Honors students  in 2018-19 and counter future efforts by the university to co-opt, water down or squash student movements? I think the first step is to actively remember.