Christian Carrion, assistant director of Diversity Affairs for the Undergraduate Student Government, asked students in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center ballroom to grade the diversity and inclusion at USC. Students raised their hands to signal which letter grade they would give the school. Most students raised their hands for a “C” or a “D.” Only one raised her hand for an “A.”
Students gathered Wednesday night for an open forum on racism, sexism and diversity in the USC community at the first Voices of USC event, “Diversity Climate On Our Campus” hosted by USG.
The exercise set the tone for the rest of the event — intense, emotionally charged and mostly frustrated. Students and faculty shared stories of switching housing to avoid homophobic slurs, being stopped at night as they crossed campus and wincing at a professor’s microaggressions in class.
“Everyone is ready to boil over,” said Boka Agboje, a junior majoring in interactive media. “A lot of people when they were talking had a lot of channelled and controlled rage that they were trying to temper down. That lid might come off if issues are not addressed.”
USG Director of External Relations Katherine Wilcox, Director of Diversity Affairs Moira Turner and Carrion served as a moderating panel that allowed students to share their own stories and voice personal concerns. This format was designed to connect administrators and students directly in an effort to create a safer campus environment.
“USG is supposed to work as a liaison between the administration and students, but sometimes that makes it really easy to create a disconnect between the two,” Wilcox said. “We’re hoping that forums like this will let the administration hear how students are feeling directly and let them react and respond to that.”
Wilcox and the panel encouraged students to provide solutions whenever they shared a story. This led to a variety of suggestions, most of which involved creating proactive resources for minorities and suppressed groups. The moderating panel pointed out that current resources on campus — such as hotlines, resource centers and online bias incident reporting systems — can only be used after an incident occurred.
“We’re talking about diversity in this room, but we should really be talking about justice,” said Brianna Thorpe, a junior majoring in policy, planning and development. “How do we teach students to care about justice?”
There were many answers to this question. Some students suggested censoring speech when it verges on harassment; others asked for diversity training for student leaders at the start of each year. The most common suggestion was a broad system of education for students and faculty alike. Students called for a system of education similar to the AlcoholEdu and Talk About It modules required for new students every year. This idea was repeated throughout the forum and was openly received by faculty.
“I get a whole bunch of complaints about those trainings that [students] have to click through, but at the same time I hear that more and more students want a module or a training involving racism,” Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry said. “I’d love to continue this conversation, but it has to address every side — it has to be the education side, prevention side and the policy side.”
Another concern, ironically, was the lack of diversity among students in attendance. Despite the turnout at the event, multiple students noted that the majority of the students in the room were minorities or women. This created a concern that multiple students voiced — that the conversation wasn’t reaching those who need to hear it the most.
“We’re talking amongst ourselves so we never get any change,” said Krystal Chavez, a junior majoring in policy, planning and development. “No one’s listening. We can talk as much as we want and talk about what we’re passionate about. But who’s accountable? Where’s the change?”
Wednesday’s event came on the heels of an incident at USC involving USG President Rini Sampath, who shared a story on Facebook of a student who allegedly screamed a racial slur and threw a drink at her through the window of his fraternity house.
According to Wilcox, a discussion on racism and diversity had been on the agenda for later this year. But after Sampath’s post garnered thousands of Facebook likes and national media coverage, USG agreed that the topic was too pressing to wait to discuss. Sampath, however, stressed that this issue extends far beyond her isolated incident.
“This story really isn’t about me,” Sampath said. “These are the same stories that students have been telling for years. I know it’s frustrating to wonder why my story is getting so much attention. I just want [students] to know, it’s been your turn, it’s always been your turn, so share your stories.”
Sampath was the final student to speak, and she echoed the sentiments that had been repeated throughout the first 90 minutes of the forum — students might not have all the answers, but they can agree that change is needed to make a safe, comfortable environment on campus.
“All of you [administrators] have so much power, and the students trust you so much,” Sampath said. “We have been carrying this torch for so long, and it’s time to come together as administrators and students alike to work on a solution.”