On Wednesday, Oct. 23, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer (CDEIO) Ivonne M. García hosted a townhall in Lean Lecture Hall to provide an update on the 2017 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan (DEISP) which, according to an email sent by García, “provided that The College of Wooster communicate to the community about the progress of these efforts.” President Sarah Bolton joined García in the front of the hall throughout the event, which was attended by ap- proximately 90 people.
While the original purpose of the meeting was to provide an update to the campus community about the DEISP, Bolton sensed that the audience would be more focused on the two recent bias incidents that occurred on campus during the month of October. The first incident involved the placing of hate propaganda stickers by the Patriot Front, “an image-obsessed organization that rehabilitated the explicitly fascist agenda of Vanguard America with garish patriotism” according to the Oct. 18 issue of the Voice, across Wooster’s campus and 150 other campuses and cities throughout the country on the morning of Oct. 4.
The second incident occurred on Tuesday, Oct. 22, the day before the townhall. In an email sent by Bolton to the Wooster community, she said, “A member of our faculty received a package through the mail which included a racist, hate-filled message with the intent to intimidate and harass.” The package, mailed from out of state, contained a perfume bottle filled with bodily fluid and was labeled with a racial epithet.
“This community is not where it needs to be,” Bolton said. “Both of these acts are reprehensible, illegal and intolerable and we won’t stand for them.”
After an introduction to these incidents, Bolton and García left the rest of meeting open to questions and statements from audience members, which were mostly students of color.
Evan Jackson ’20 described Wooster as a “ghetto” where the international students and domestic students of color are designated to the campus while the city of Wooster remains predominantly white. He encouraged members of the College community to reach out and make more connections to the city.
“We can’t huddle back and retreat to our campus. In times of distress, we have to go reach out to the community,” Jackson said.
Bolton responded by saying that García and herself have been talking to the Mayor of Wooster, Robert F. Breneman, and stated that “the city won’t thrive if the College isn’t thriving. White folks shouldn’t be the only ones feeling comfortable.”
In response to a comment that students of color are being stopped at places like Walmart to have their bags checked, García related this to her own undergraduate experience 30 years ago. She said that students were being stopped when she was in college and she could not believe that it is still the same. García echoed the comments made by Bolton and said that they were making the Mayor aware that students, faculty and staff of color were being harassed. According to a faculty retention survey, professors at the College were leaving because of racism within the city and their own departments.
“If you are a community member and Wooster resident, if this is your town, it is our responsibility to put pressure on the people we elect,” García said. “This is everyone’s responsibility.”
The students in the audience voiced their concern.
“What are the options for people that look like me?” asked Lesley Chinery ’21, a student from Ghana. “There are places we should be able to go on campus, but we don’t feel comfortable.”
Bolton reassured that there are many outlets that students can go to, not just the obvious ones like Security and Protective Services (SPS) or administration.
When asked what the plan was to make faculty and staff more comfortable at the College, Bolton pointed to changes made regarding the DEISP. There have been trainings for all faculty to prevent bias when doing position searches and honesty regarding what faculty of color should know about Wooster. Part of the DEISP included “ensuring diversity among faculty in each department by 2020” which Bolton said was accomplished.
Jackie Perez ’21 stated that she was from a city much larger than Wooster, but still felt less safe here. She noted that it should be easier, but is not. “How can I feel safe here?” Perez asked. “What can I do to defend myself without being the offender?”
García paused to “take a moment and reflect on the gravity of that statement” and Bolton conceded that people don’t report incidents because it is a lot of physical and emotional work and feel like nothing will happen anyway. She encouraged students to go to the safest place possible and discussed the possibility of having a training for those instances.
Kennedy Pope ’23 stated that she was having a disconnect between what is actually happening and what Bolton and García are saying. “It’s not a good feeling to sit here and think about having these meetings every year of college,” she said. Pope noted that when these issues are brought up, it is the people of color on campus who are forced to deal with the problem which is reflected by the audience of the townhall.
García wanted the attendees to understand that this was her first year as CDEIO and asked for patience even if that’s not what students wanted to hear. She stated that if nothing improves in four years, then she has failed.
Courtney Lockhart ’20, president of the Black Student Association, acknowledged that García is entering her first year, but the responsibility is not solely on her. Incidents have been happening for four years, but Lockhart felt like information was not relayed back to students, which is frustrating given the possibility of a perpetrator walking freely around campus.
“With racism, the bullet does not have a name on it,” Lockhart said.
Annays Yacamán ’22, an at- large representative for Campus Council, was concerned that a student could have been the one to post the hateful stickers around campus could be sitting next to her in class.
“I can’t say for certain that the person saying intolerant things next to me is not a neo-Nazi,” Yacamán said.
García explained that the administration was in the process of reviewing and restructuring the bias incident report process, which did not previously meet Title IX standards, and will be available at the start of 2020.
Alana Smith ’20 stated bluntly that she had not been satisfied with any response from administration during the townhall and anytime over the last four years. She said it was hard for her to care and understand if all of this keeps happening every year anyway and went as far as to say that coming to Wooster was a waste relative to the debt she would be in given her low level of satisfaction.
Associate Dean of Students Ashley Benson acknowledged the feelings of the students of color and could relate to them, but countered by stating, “Welcome to the training ground.” Benson said that this is only the beginning of what these students will experience in the professional world, admitting, “I hate having to say that.”
Eventually, Bolton and García stopped responding to students’ statements and instead just listened and nodded. The meeting ended up lasting three hours and continued in the talk with SPS on the following Sunday.
On Oct. 29, Bolton sent a follow- up email to the campus community regarding the two incidents. The College reviewed footage from cameras around campus but could not get any footage of someone(s) putting up the stickers. Patriot Front posted photos of the stickers on Twitter and eventually their account was removed.
Regarding the racist package, the College reported the incident to the U.S. Postal Inspector and the police since the package was from out-of-state. A case was opened, but the individual responsible has not been identified.