The lack of safe spaces at UW-Madison is directly impacting and harming the mental health of the Black student body, according to Jasmyne Short, a junior studying welfare here on campus.
“I feel like there should be more places on campus that students of color should feel comfortable in,” Short said. “Even spaces that were supposed to be created for us are still not really safe spaces. They're not really doing what they were supposed to do.”
At UW-Madison, lack of diversity has always been an issue that students of color have had to face on a daily basis. Every year, UW-Madison releases a preliminary enrollment report that outlines the predicted age, gender and race and overall demographics of its student body. In the Fall 2020 report, the school predicts that out of its 45,537 student body, only 1,001 or just over 2% are Black.
In a July 2020 memo titled “Addressing Racial Inequities On Campus,” UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank expressed her concerns and hopes for changing the racial divide that the campus faces on a daily basis.
“Our Black students, faculty and staff have consistently shared the discomfort they experience negotiating spaces on campus that are defined by White culture, and about the regular stream of microaggressions they experience – comments and behaviors that show misunderstanding (at best) and hostility and disrespect (at worst),” Chancellor Blank said.
One of the key issues Black students at UW are pushing for is to create more safe and inclusive spaces on campus. Currently, there are only a few places on campus where Black students can feel safe and comfortable in. While the university says it is trying to diversify its campus, by creating these “safer” spaces, it is not being put into practice.
Along with the importance Black organizations bring onto the campus, Short feels that the lack of safe spaces is harming the mental health of the Black student body.
Short is a junior at UW studying social welfare. She is on the executive board for the Wisconsin Association of Black Men, as well as in other large Black-oriented clubs like Wisconsin Black Student Union and African Student Association on campus. Like Kennedy, Short understands the benefits of diversity can bring to a campus like UW.
“I think it's very important here. These clubs make it feel like home or like family, for people on campus, and they just build community,” said Short. “It's hard to feel like your voice is being heard, so I think those orgs are important in building community and getting to know other people to create stronger bonds and build better networks.”
Unfortunately, these concerns that Black students, faculty and staff have shared are not new to the public eye. Since the 1960s, Black students at UW have been pushing for more reform and demands regarding racism on campus.
Harvey Clay, a student at UW during the 1969 school year, was born in a small town in Texas. Coming to Madison, Wis., was a huge jump for him, and the racist culture that existed in the South was something that he was hoping to leave behind.
“There was no Black food, there were no Black clubs, there was no Black community. Racism isn’t regional. It exists all over,” Clay said.
Jordan Kennedy is a junior at UW-Madison studying finance and economics. Born in Burnsville, Minn., Kennedy is another student of color who knew that coming to a place like UW-Madison had a lot of challenges.
“People make the excuse that because we're in Wisconsin, it's impossible for us to be diverse,” Kennedy said. “Within an hour's reach, either direction, we have the most diverse metropolitan areas in the entire country in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. There's no excuse for us to not be representative of that. There are students in those cities that would love to come to this school. They just don't want to come here because the school is not creating those pathways needed to create success.”
Like Kennedy, many other students of color feel that UW is not doing enough to diversify its student body. Though the administration releases monthly reports about their efforts put forth to an agenda to increase diversity, many students feel that these reports are just a way for the administration to show that they care without meaningful corrective action.
Pieran Robert is a UW sophomore double majoring in Computer Science and Computer Engineering. Recently, he started a “Diversity and Inclusion” (D&I) Chair position in his fraternity in hopes that it would diversify and impact the minds of members in and outside of the Greek life setting.
Similar to the thoughts and ideas shared by Short and Kennedy, Robert knows that UW can change its stance on diversity, even if it takes longer than expected.
“Wisconsin will always be a place where a lot of the state population is going to be white,” said Robert. “I feel like you see that in a lot of Midwestern states. Kids will want to come here, you know, people want to feel at home. And I think if people know that, it will make you feel at home.”
The UW BIPOC Coalition, an activist group advocating for students of color on campus, recently had a conversation with Chancellor Rebecca Blank in the hopes of establishing a plan of action for increasing inclusion and diversity at UW as a whole.
In that meeting, the Chancellor agreed to ongoing meetings — twice per semester — with the coalition and other multicultural groups. ButBlank repeatedly insisted that in order to see their goals through, the students calling on her for action should instead work with lower administrators who deal with policy in specific areas of the campus experience, like Lori Reesor, UW’s Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and Dr. Cheryl Gittens, Interim Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion and the University's Chief Diversity Officer.
In the future, the Coalition said, the university should create specific timelines for responding to various demands from activist groups, involve more students in crafting plans for the UW’s COVID-19 response and increase transparency in university operations by including students of color in administrative meetings.
Overall, Short, Kennedy, and Robert hope that the school will finally listen to their pleas to push for more diversity reform. If the school listens and adjusts their practices to other student concerns, then diversity should not be an issue that is hard to fix.
“Everybody knows how to make somebody feel wanted, if they really want to do it. It just comes down to how much effort they are willing to put in to see the changes,” said Robert.