“This event was the first of many that needs to keep happening to wake up our campus to different aspects of dealing with people that are different than us,” said Activities Coordinator of the African Student Association (ASA) Willet Debrah.
On Mar. 3, ASA sent out a challenge to the Valpo community to step out of their comfort zone and engage in conversations relating to systemic racism in the US in the wake of Black History Month. The challenge introduced a series of events ASA would be hosting throughout the month.
“So, we really wanted to get our campus more involved on race-related issues, especially within the black community,” Debrah, a junior engineering student said. “We kind of felt that with everything that's been happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, the murder of George Floyd or even Breonna Taylor, we haven't really seen a lot of stuff around campus has been happening that show awareness… or people interacting with the Black community.”
Each event is preceded by a week of participants actively engaging literature, podcasts or documentaries about the reality of Black people in America. After a week of learning, participants meet up on Zoom at 7 p.m. Saturday evening to step out of their comfort zones and discuss what they have learned and continue to learn more about each other.
The first week included a selection of poems by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Amanda Gorman which participants would read and then discuss over the weekend.
The second week featured podcasts by Tori William Douglas on her “White Homework” blog. The discussion included a guest speaker, and the participants conversed about issues relating to colorism and racial identity.
The final two weeks include participants reading a book and watching documentaries before the Saturday discussion.
“I really wanted to do something that was really passive, but also very encouraging, so people are actively thinking about race, actively thinking about other spaces where they normally aren't the majority,” Debrah said. “Really try to learn how to build empathy for each other in connected, you know, different spaces.”
This event sprang out of a conversation Debrah had with one of her friends where she challenged them to engage more with different cultures on campus.
“And so the challenge is really to challenge everyone on campus whether you're black [or] white, to really step out of your comfort zone and get into spaces that are different than the ones that you're used to and to ask that we start working on issues that are impacting our world right now,” Debrah said. “Issues on race and issues on not supporting other people that are different than you.”
However, the turnout at these events was not as high as was hoped. Debrah explained that at each event they have not had more than 15 or 20 people and the majority of attendees have been professors or members of ASA.
“[That] shows how not diverse or inclusive, our campus actually is because … we've always talked about this like ‘oh Valpo we’re so diverse and we're so inclusive and hate don't live here,’ but then when we actually look at our environment and actually look at the spaces where we create, it's very segregated on campus,” said Debrah. “When we go into Founders, most likely, you don’t see a lot of people really sitting down with other people. You have the swim team, you have them with their people. You have the track team. You have like all the white kids and all the Black kids and all the Hispanic kids. Everyone isn’t really together, and it's like, it was kind of sad honestly.”
Almost three weeks into this event, Debrah has not seen much change on campus regarding students actively trying to step out of their comfort zone.
“I would say no I have not seen a change, and it just kind of like verifies the fact that we actually on our campus, we need to have these conversations more often, who need to do more events like this more often to kind of like get more people involved,” said Debrah.
Despite the low community participation, Debrah believes the event was successful.
“We would love to have more people involved in this event, but we also believe that no number is too small. So, even if we had one person that came to this event, and learned something and took something away from it. That's a win in my book,” Debrah said.
In order to create lasting social change, Debrah thinks that conversation and the willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone are a step in the right direction.
“We've had great conversations that hopefully I believe will impact the lives of the people that showed up and really create a chain reaction of growth and their children will be more educated on race and different cultures and different ethnicity,” Debrah said. “[It’s] just really working within your circle and creating that space where you're actively choosing to do this, be on this journey with people that are different than you, and so I definitely believe that this was a positive event.”
While Debrah believes that the Valpo community still has work to do in order to be fully inclusive, she also believes learning about each other will help make this community and society better.
“In order to be one, we have to learn how to learn about each other and have to unlearn our biases and all the things that have separated us for so many years and start learning about the things that bring us together and the things that are going to help us create a better society for all people,” said Debrah