The purpose of this blog post is to share information on student activism happening on a campus in Minnesota that is going unnoticed. My hope is that this information can help guide professionals in case this happens on their campus, and to highlight big changes happening on college campuses.
We have heard about widespread campaigns that have reached larger, and more well-known, college campuses in the US such as the #IAmTooHarvard and UCLA spoken word on race relations, or the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” campaign in recognition of the Ferguson case. The social capital that these schools have to reach millions across the country allows for widespread change to happen. Just like Berkley in the 1960’s, Black Campus Student Movement, or the activism by students that ultimately ended apartheid in South African in the 70’s and 80’s, these events gain steam very quickly. However, I want to touch on a struggle that has been going on for nearly 3 years now at Winona State University.
Winona State University (WSU) is a medium-sized, public 4-year, predominately white institution in southeast Minnesota, across the river from Wisconsin. In January of 2012, diverse student leaders attended the Power in Diversity Leadership Conference held in St. Cloud, MN each year. This conference focuses on cultivating change and advancing inclusion and diversity in personal and professional environments. The Director of Inclusion and Diversity at WSU told students that, if he would provide funding to send students to the conference, they must come back and share their learnings.
This conference provided a great opportunity for these student leaders to meet and discuss widespread feelings of discontent about the cultural climate at the university. They all felt marginalized, tokenized, and experienced the harmful effects of institutional racism and wanted to do something about it.
Upon returning to campus, these students created a student group called Power in Diversity – Winona Leaders, which allowed for them to continue the conversation. From this, they had meetings discussing what could be done about this situation. As a result, they decided to focus their attention on the lack of space they had on campus to have these conversations, thus creating the NoSpace Coalition/Campaign.
During the NoSpace Campaign these students (1) created a cardboard structure that was posted up in the middle of campus with petitions, information, and where they stayed overnight, (2) A 30 page Diversity Report highlighting data on the increase in diverse student but lack of increase in services/resources, student testimonies on their experiences, recommendations, and support from university personnel. This event also took place during the Higher Learning Commission Visit, where students had the opportunity to speak to the panel about their experiences and reluctance from administration to accommodate their needs.
As a result, the HLC charged the University with the task for addressing the diversity need on campus. From this, via the recommendation of the HLC and President of the University, the Vice President of Student Life and Development created a task force, which included students, staff, faculty, and administration, to address these needs. Through this task force, the first ever Diversity Summit was created, recommendations were passed along to the President, diversity was becoming an institutional priority, and collaboration with administration and student senate brought forth a physical space in a university building 2 blocks off of main campus.
The issue, in addition to being off of main campus, was that no funding or resources were given to support the creation of this center. The students used funds from each individual student group to provide supplies and used old, unused, furniture to decorate. With no additional staff added to support this center, it was mainly left to the students to figure out how this center would function. One of the first tasks was to name it; it is now called the Knowledge, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Pluralism (KEAP) Center. Then, it was a matter of finding a model to implement structure. Finally, it was determining what it would do and how it could support the Inclusion and Diversity Office.
Many of the founding members graduated or left in May 2013, but the momentum and activism continued. Since then, the KEAP Center has moved into the student union with furniture and decorations donated by the student union and other personnel; the KEAP Center Council has established a diversity committee on student senate, has worked to add a diversity and inclusion cause in the University mission, as well as the syllabi for faculty; a gender neutral bathroom was built; they have been working on a University wide Diversity Strategic Plan; the KEAP Center now has student workers and a Graduate Assistant; and they continue to advocate on behalf of diverse students.
The KEAP Center has seen many accomplishments and changes, however they’re still lacking the accountability from administration to be funded, create institutional change, impact reporting methods for discrimination and sexual misconduct, and addressing other matters of diversity beyond the space.
As you encounter situations like this in your professional life, think about how you can’t support students, especially at predominately white institutions. Personally, if it weren’t for my involvement with the creation of this center, there’s a great chance that I would have transferred. Campus climate becomes so important for students and it is our job to do what we can support that. We wouldn’t have our jobs if it weren’t for students, so we need to be willing to go above and beyond to make sure they persist at the university.