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Forum held in wake of diversity crisis

by Brianna Bush - Editor-in-Chief, Contributing: Kari Ashworth - Executive Editor, Zach Wagner - Lifestyles Editor
Wed, Mar 4th 2020 03:00 pm
Egypt Page (left) and Justin Crawford (right) of Men of Color speak at the first Woke Forum on Sunday, March 1. Photo Credit: Marios Argitis/ Photo Editor
Egypt Page (left) and Justin Crawford (right) of Men of Color speak at the first Woke Forum on Sunday, March 1. Photo Credit: Marios Argitis/ Photo Editor
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In response to diversity, discrimination and in honor of Black History Month, Men of Color (MOC) hosted The College at Brockport’s first ever WOKE Forum. The forum was held in the Seymour Union on Sunday, March 1.

The forum consisted of a Keynote Address and a panel of alumni, faculty and students. One organizer, Egypt Page, discussed the importance of having this event on campus, as well as opening it up to the community.

He said “the event was to open the community’s eyes of what’s taking place in front of us,” and it offered a platform to “inform people who may not know the full story and to wake people up in general about life and how we can be restricted.”

Page wants the student body to make sure they are being heard, especially when it comes to decisions about the college they attend.

“We want to know more than what we see and get told by administration,” Page said. “For example the climate report, even though it was bad. Why didn’t the officer talk to students? The people who attended the institution. I think it’s more than the student body because the culture has been like this for over 40 years, as we heard from former alumni and employees now. It still is the same. So it looks more like a systematic thing, an administration thing.”

Earlier in the week, Monroe County Legislator Vince Felder, who was also a keynote speaker at the forum, sent a letter to SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson in regards to the issues on campus. 

“I am writing to discuss what is happening at SUNY Brockport and to offer my perspective as a 2001 graduate of SUNY Brockport, former president of the Organization for Students of African Decent (OSAD), former President of [the] Brockport Student Government (BSG) and an African American male,” the letter read.

In the letter, Felder spoke on the firing of former Chief Diversity Officer Cephas Archie and how it “only serves to undermine whatever trust the college has built over the years within minority communities.” He also spoke on the timing of the termination and the questions that arose over Sandra Vazquez’s resignation, the discrimination charge against the college by Victoria Elsenhiemer and the call to the woman in Texas who previously worked with Archie.

Johnson was scheduled to be in Brockport on Friday, Feb. 28, but her trip was rumored to be postponed due to weather. Johnson has not yet responded to The Stylus to confirm or deny her arrival or to provide an explanation for her delay.

“I asked the Chancellor, the board of trustees and the governor to appoint an independent investigator to look at this college and deal with what happened and what is happening,” Felder said. “And I think that there needs to be some truth put behind what’s going on. And I think that the danger is, this is all bad publicity. And so you have the college and our SUNY Central, only doing what’s necessary to deal with the public relations issue and to quiet the noise but not really deal with the structural problems that are causing this — what was happening now — what we did today, and so it’ll come back and have it all over again.”

Felder continues to observe multiple problems faced in society.

“We are good at dealing with optical and superficial things in terms of creating the perception of change but not really creating real lasting change,” Felder explained. “I was still the [BSG] president 2001-03. We had a diversity problem then, and now it’s 17 years later. When I first came to this institution originally 1983, we had a diversity problem. It’s 37 years later, and we still have this issue. So what is causing this to persist for so long?”

Felder believes the campus community has not seen a commitment from a president for the entirety of the student body, but rather subtle commitments to certain groups.

“Let’s go back to the problem with Dr. Yu [Brockport President, 1997-2004] who I dealt with, who I didn’t think was committed, at least not to black and brown people; he was committed to Asian people,” Felder said. “I managed to make some progress with him. The problem is, because the dominant mindset has not changed, the problems cycle back over and over again, until you get to the point where you are actually dealing with the root cause of the problem.”

Like Felder, Assistant Professor William Turner, Ph.D., found the lack of commitment and action to be a problem at Brockport. 

“I’m gonna be very honest with you,” Turner said. “I’m a critic of the methods that Dr. Macpherson is using. If you really want to be diverse, you have to have diverse voices. You have to have stakeholders and I think anyone who’s heard me since this issue has come out. My issue is not whether or not the president had the power to separate Dr. Archie — one, it’s the way in which she chose to do it. It’s the timing that has created chaos in communities of color on this campus. There does not seem to be a real appreciation or acknowledgement that what you did and how you did it has created chaos, not just for students of color, faculty of color, staff of color.”

Turner explained Archie was primarily an advocate for students, but he also stepped in for faculty and staff as well. He further explained how Archie’s termination not only impacted the students and faculty of color, but every staff and student on campus. 

“I find Dr. Macpherson’s statements problematic,” Turner reiterated. “I find her tactics to be those that maintain systems of oppression rather than tear them down.” 

Moving forward, Turner sees the students wanting more Town Hall meetings to discuss matters that pertain to them in an open setting in order to get their questions answered as a unified body.

“One of the big issues is there has to be a tangible offering of putting someone of color on your cabinet, putting people of color in decision-making positions,” Turner said. “So as I pointed out LGBTQIA+, represented on her cabinet, collaborators for people who are differently abled, on her cabinet, transgender allies on her cabinet. What’s the one thing missing? Racial diversity.”

During the monthly Faculty Senate Meeting, the Senate President James Zollweg didn’t allow any of the faculty to give any input in his call of support for Brockport President Heidi Macpherson, Ph.D. He also explained he recognizes, as a cisgender male, he is prone to certain heteronormative biases.

“The Faculty Senate President Jim Zollweg, in a faculty senate meeting, called on the faculty to support the president, but [did not give] faculty of color or any faculty any chance to offer an opposing opinion on whether or not she should be supported; that privileges institutional racism and white norms,” Turner said. “I do not blame Jim as a mean person or an evil person, but it’s a racialized response and he is following the white norms on the white norm campus. You need people who are experts at institutional racism and also who are people of color to help white faculty, staff and administrators see some of their blind spots, does that make sense? I’m a man; I have blind spots. I identify as a heterosexual cisgender black male, right? So I engage, unwittingly sometimes, in sexual oppression of women. I need women and other allies to show me when my behavior is oppressive. Because as a man who identifies as cisgender, I’m going to have blind spots when it comes to male oppression of females.”

MOC Director of Academics Justin Perez and MOC Director of Communications Justin Crawford were some of the collaborators of the WOKE Forum. Perez explained how Archie helped push them to do the forum, especially with how “everything going on [on campus] is controversial.”

“It wasn’t just about the tension, it’s also that students of color, we really have a hard time finding support, usually on a daily basis; they only get in contact with one or two student faculty that will support them,” Crawford provided. “This event was also to identify our resources that we have, and see that we have more of a presence than we actually think because one of the things that happens with our group is divide and conquer. So when we’re divided, we really don’t see that we have that full support.”

Jovani Figueroa, MOC director of finances, gave his side of what he has seen on the campus and how it affects the students.

“For me, it was like it was seeing the trend of controversial topics when it dealt with race with Dr. Archie, Dr. Vasquez leaving, the discrimination lawsuit,” Figueroa said. “It just constantly shows people of color just how unwelcoming Brockport is to students of color on this campus. And at the end of the day, frankly, it’s also very hard to find a mentor or advisor of color to help you through certain times. And when you are taking away those resources, at the end of day that’s hurting us. And that’s making it harder for us to graduate, harder to find internships, and so at the end of the day it just hurts our chances of graduating and being successful students.”

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