A new student group called Break ThrUWYO walked out of a forum Tuesday night hosted by the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming after reading a list of demands they said would have to be met before they were willing to talk to members of ASUW or to the institution.
The forum was organized by the student government as an invitation for marginalized students to share their concerns about diversity and inclusion with UW President Dick McGinity.
Although about half of those in attendance left with the student leaders of Break ThruUWYO, ASUW Vice President Emily Kath said the event was still worthwhile for the students who stayed.
“I thought the opportunity to get together and have conversations that were necessary really made an impact,” Kath said. “I know the president made a lot of notes by the end of it, and I think the biggest thing that was stressed was accountability on the issues.”
McGinity and ASUW discussed plans for this kind of meeting for more than a month.
“President McGinity expressed to me that he wanted to start getting involved with students, wanted to talk with students and wanted to hear from them,” ASUW President Brian Schueler said at the outset of the meeting.
McGinity also gave a short speech before the forum organizers invited students to share their concerns. He talked about the history of diversity efforts at UW and his recently announced plans to create a Diversity Strategic Planning Committee and hire a coordinator of diversity. He also discussed how moving forward had to be a group effort.
“The more closely we work together, the better we will all be,” he said.
But some students said they did not appreciate the manner in which the meting was planned and took offense it was organized by members of the UW institution, such as the president, ASUW and ASUW’s United Multicultural Council, rather than by members of the marginalized groups.
Robert West, one of the founding members of Break ThrUWYO, said this, in addition to frustration regarding the school’s recent handling of incidents involving discrimination, was why he and about half the room left close to the beginning of the meeting.
“If the administration and if this institution is truly taking this seriously and truly wants to engage all, they will truly engage all of us, not just the ones that stay at that meeting but the ones who left and left for very valid reasons,” he said.
Before the meeting, students gathered in the Business Building atrium. Leaders of Break ThrUWYO stood on a table and explained their group’s reasoning behind the walkout that would soon take place.
Many of the students present for this pre-meeting were there to take part in the walkout, but others criticized Break ThrUWYO’s plan, arguing that it might be better to stay, listen and share their concerns than to leave.
When students, faculty and community members filed into the lecture hall, they found themselves lining the aisles and walls and sitting on steps because there were not enough seats.
An outline for the discussion, following a few short introductory speeches by the organizers, revealed that the RSOs present would each have a turn to share their concerns before other individuals unaffiliated with RSOs would be welcomed to speak.
While Break ThrUWYO is not an RSO, the Abilities RSO—the first in alphabetical order to have a member present—ceded its time to them and Break ThrUWYO’s four founding members, Chanel Benish, Tawsha Mitchell, Norma Lira-Pérez and West, took to the front of the hall to read their demands.
“We believe that this endeavor by UMC, ASUW and President McGinity will be ineffective and will only dilute the unique lived experiences from each marginalized community because we are competing for both time and space,” Benish said. “…We hope that, by standing in solidarity, we can present the collective demands of our movement to bring about genuine change towards bettering the quality of life for marginalized students on this campus.”
Among the group’s demands were a call for individual town hall meetings for specific marginalized identities and communities, an independent evaluation of university retention and recruitment efforts aimed at marginalized groups, more input from marginalized students in the presidential search and a freshman year requirement to take a cultural awareness or social justice course.
“We filled that room with a lot of supporters and a lot of them walked out with us,” West said. “Our speech resonated with a lot of people. Now, it’s really in the hands of the administration and in the hands of ASUW where to engage in the future.”
He added that Break ThrUWYO wants to discuss the issues this forum was created to discuss, but only once the institution listens to their demands.
“If they do reach out to us, which I hope they do, we will sit down with them and we will develop ways in which our demands can be met,” West said. “But they need to come within that kind of space, acknowledging that they aren’t the experts in this, which they kind of have acknowledged.”
Kath said ASUW would be reaching out to Break ThrUWYO because she and Schueler are committed to addressing student concerns.
“If those students dislike the way we approached the issue this time, obviously there is something we need to do better in the future,” she said. “So I think conversations moving forward are necessary. And one of the most fortunate things about their list of demands is that it highly aligns with the things Brian and I had talked about in terms of what we would like to see at the university. So I think we’re on the same page. We just need to find a means of communication that works.”
Kath said that many students who stayed did share their experiences with ASUW and McGinity and offered valuable insight into their concerns.
Diversity committee, coordinator in the works
UW President Dick McGinity announced plans to form a Diversity Strategic Planning Committee and a coordinator of diversity position at the college via email last week.
The committee will be “charged with creating a ‘UW Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement Plan’ which will include both short-term and long-term goals, objectives, action steps, resources needed to effectuate the plan, a timeline for communication and implementation and a robust means for measuring and assessing progress.”
However, the duties of the coordinator of diversity have yet to be established.
“This would be a person who would report directly to the president and would work with the vice presidents and members of executive councils and others to advise on matters of diversity and to help carry out the university plan that is devised by the committee,” Baldwin said.
The student group Break ThrUWYO listed the creation of a Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion as one of their demands during an open forum Tuesday night.
Members of the group, who walked out of the forum after reading their demands, said they needed more details about the coordinator of diversity position to take a stand on the topic .
“In the email that President McGinity has distributed, he has said that there was more to be done for the university,” said Chanel Benish, a founding member of Break ThrUWYO. “I know that many people are confused by what a coordinator of diversity means and also if this person is going to have access to funds to be proactive in addressing diversity issues on campus.”