On Tuesday morning, a story ran on Onward State that broke news about an investigation into the Chi Omega sorority stemming from a racially insensitive photo. In just a few short days since then, a lot has happened. The story made its way through national media. A group of 75 students spoke out about race and diversity issues at Penn State, both in a Mexican American Student Association meeting and at a UPUA general assembly meeting. The Chi Omega Penn State chapter was then placed on probation by their national organization. But some good might just come out of all of this.
After just three short days, a Diversity Awareness Task Force was formed, holding its first meeting last night with about 30 students in attendance. The task force was initiated by UPUA following the call-to-order by culturally diverse students at their meeting Wednesday night. The meeting was mostly organizational and preliminary, as the task force wanted to establish the essentials of the diversity issue at Penn State, the best ways to tackle those problems, and what committee breakdowns would be best fitted to handle them.
The meeting opened with a brief discussion on task force membership and meeting frequency. While leaders and representatives from most of the major minority student groups on campus were in attendance, there were plenty of suggestions for others that should be included. In addition, there were a few students at last night’s meeting on their own that weren’t representing a specific group.
Many of those in attendance were hesitant to speak as the meeting began, so UPUA president Courtney Lennartz suggested that they go around the table and express what they hope to see the task force accomplish. One student mentioned that people need to recognize the importance of sensitivity when dealing with race. UPUA vice president Katelyn Mullen said that she wants to “make sure everybody feels welcome on campus and in the community.” Another student said that she would like to see “integration amongst diverse groups.”
Chip Ray, the incoming IFC president, said that the Greek community “needs to do a better job of educating our members about multicultural organizations and diversity.” Outgoing Panhellenic Council president Julianne Robbins said that the Chi Omega picture “doesn’t reflect who we are as a Greek community,” continuing to say that “its gut-wrenching for me that this is how I’m leaving this term.”
But not everybody had high hopes for the task force. UPUA representative and Black Caucus president Ryan Brown said that he “doesn’t expect for [the task force]to do much other than sit here and toss ideas around. We can think of ways to bridge the gap between multi-cultural organization, but I just really don’t see what’s coming of this. We have a very diverse pool of students here, but what makes this any different than any other meeting in which I’ve sat in and tried to talk about these things?”
Faculty Senator and graduate student Brian Aynardi informed the task force that they will have floor time at the next Faculty Senate meeting in January, asking them to come up with a concrete list of classes that promote diversity and cultural awareness that can be presented at the meeting as recommendation to be added to the required classes in all students’ curriculums.
Carlos Wiley, Director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, spoke briefly about the importance of diversity education. “Its not about attending a program. The door to the cultural center is always open,” Wiley said. “As far as a curriculum, it has to be more than learning about my culture. You have to know people, you have to know about ‘ism’s’. You have to realize the importance of learning about diversity and why its important for you to make time to do that.”
The President of the Puerto Rican Student Association informed the task force that he plans on organizing a protest of sorts on the steps of Old Main on Tuesday afternoon to discuss race issues at Penn State, but a large contingent of task force members strongly disagreed with the use of “direct action”, arguing that the Faculty Senate and administration will not take them seriously if they attempt to speak out through protests instead of civil discourse through the appropriate channels. They also argued that unwanted media attention would again come to our campus if the protest route was taken.
There was a lot of talk, but not a lot of concrete ideas to help fix the identified problem of cultural ignorance and racial insensitivity at Penn State. UPUA Chairman Spencer Malloy attempted to refocus the group, explaining that their best course may be to get all of the race-related issues that need to be addressed on paper. They came up with four major points of concert: a lack of diversity education amongst the student body, a lack of collaboration amongst groups of different races and cultures, a lack of dialogue about race issues, and a failure of university police related to diversity.
The task force decided upon five different committees to break into to better focus the group on their end goals. There will be an Education Committee chaired by Ryan Brown, a Policy Committee chaired by Brian Aynardi, a Collaboration Committee chaired by Chip Ray, a Dialogue Committee chaired by Lulu Teran, and a Direct Action Committee chaired by Nia Spicer. There are still some infrastructural issues to work out, but this gives the committee a good basis to begin working on initiatives.
One of the structural questions that was brought up last night was whether the task force should fall as a subset of the UPUA Diversity Committee or operate as its own independent body. The benefit to working under UPUA is that they already have an organized, operational committee that’s purpose is to handle just these types of issues. There was only preliminary discussion on this topic and no vote took place at Friday’s meeting.
There was a lot of encouraging discussion on race relations at Penn State and the most viable solutions to diversity issues at the meeting. It was great to see such a diverse group of students discussion such a serious subject in the Paul Robeson Cultural Center last night, but as of now, it was just that: discussion. It is yet to be seen if the Diversity Awareness Task Force will make an actual change in the racial culture at Penn State, but if they can’t, who will?