Student Orgs Hold Discussions on the Black Manifesto

Sam Killebrew

Senior News Writer

 

As The College of Wooster community reels from the administration’s response to the Black Manifesto, student organizations have taken it upon themselves to create change from the ground up. Since the response of the administration, which many students believe to be inadequate, student organizations on campus have held discussions and meetings centered around making local change. Two of those organizations, Bodies of Diversity and BIPOC Performing Arts Alliance, recently held discussions regarding the Manifesto. Morgan Ann Malone ’23, president of Bodies of Diversity, and Teresa Ascensio ’23, co-founder and co-president of BIPOC Performing Arts Alliance talked to the Voice about their organizations’ reactions to the Manifesto.

What was the main objective in the beginning of the discussion? Did that change as the discussion went along? How did it change?

MM: The discussion that took place last week was vulnerable, emotionally

charged, yet it was very necessary. Jada Green ’23 — my friend and Bodies of Diversity’s treasurer — and I both felt extremely emotionally and mentally spent after the

meeting, yet slightly hopeful at the same time. We were not expecting the turnout we received that day, and we were so grateful for the amount of interest because we really felt — and still feel — that this particular topic is worthy of extended discussion. That was, I would say, the main objective of the meeting on Oct. 28. The objective of the meeting did not change as the discussion went along, even though there may have been distractions at certain moments that attempted to divert from the primary objective. I am so proud and blessed to have had [Green] with me in that moment, as well as the many people who came to the meeting with solid intentions of making Wooster a better, more inclusive place for the entire student body.

TA: The discussion last week was the BIPOC Performing Arts Alliance’s response to the release of the Black Student Manifesto along with a reading of our solidarity statement and our demands for the music and theatre/dance departments at the College. Our main objectives were to go through these texts and hear audience responses and thoughts, prioritizing BIPOC and specifically Black student voices. These objectives changed slightly as several people in the crowd were not as familiar with the racial and equity issues in the theatre department, and we ended up allocating more time for Black students to reflect on the Manifesto and the school’s response (or lack thereof). However, we still received a good response to the demands we created for the theatre/dance and music departments, which led to a larger discussion of groups of students potentially coming together to create demands for each academic department at the school.

SK: What key points came from the discussion?

MM: Much of the key points that came from the discussion were both critiques and praises of the Manifesto, as well as ways to quickly yet effectively implement these demands into the Wooster community. Many students of color on campus discussed the discomfort and anxiety that often come with being put in a position of having to discuss traumatic events related to racial or gender-based harassment with Campus Security, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, or other offices on campus. Many of those same students pointed out the fact that reliving those experiences can be very traumatic and anxiety-inducing, and that it can often feel as though they are speaking to a brick wall in those instances because of the school’s lack of experience with students of color, as well as their lack of training when dealing with such situations. There is a definitive need throughout all departments of the Wooster community for more representation  within certain academic departments as well as certain sectors of staff. Students of color and marginalized students, in general, need to be able to see themselves in their mentors, their leaders and their superiors in order to truly be able to thrive. Another point from the Manifesto that resonated with not only myself but with many students present at the meeting was the point about making it a top priority to hire two Black mental health counselors in the Wellness Center within the next academic year. Many students struggle with mental health issues, and everyone has needed professional counseling or encouragement at one moment or another. For students of color, especially, there are nuanced, complicated issues within one’s specific culture that can often act as a trigger for negative emotions such as anxiety, anger or depression. It is difficult to relay those issues to a white counselor in a way that they would understand, let alone in a way that would equip them with adequate enough knowledge to be able to help. This is one of the primary ways, in my opinion, that students of color will be able to thrive on this campus.

TA: One of the biggest points that came across was the importance of representation in all areas on campus. For instance, students cannot debrief after a hard week, or work through struggles if they can’t see themselves in the counselors employed. Students can’t envision themselves succeeding in theatre, STEM, history, education and more if they don’t see themselves represented through faculty and staff. The school needs to provide a safer place for BIPOC faculty and staff to feel encouraged to come to Wooster and stay at the College.

SK: What did you take away from the discussion?

MM: One of the biggest takeaways from this discussion actually echoes something interesting that I learned from Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Zoom conversation on Nov. 3 in which he discussed systemic racism, as well as the characteristics that make it “systemic.” One of the main points he touched upon was this idea of “Historically White Colleges and

Universities” — also known as “HWCUs” — that obviously mirror the institution of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Another student discussed the idea of colleges and universities that are historically white: they can implement as many diversity and inclusion initiatives as they

wish, but the system at the core of such institutions will never be inclusive toward marginalized students unless it is destroyed and rebuilt. These institutions are a part of the complex system of white supremacy in this country, and unless they are completely reconstructed to be fully inclusive and accepting, they will always operate within the mold of white supremacy.

TA: There is still so much work that needs to be done. Sure, we have received several responses to our demands from our respective departments, but I feel as though those responses came out of fear and were incredibly reactive. Rather than reacting to the situation at hand once it is thrust in their face, the school needs to be proactive about creating a safer and more equitable campus for BIPOC and specifically Black students. Rather than reacting to the Manifesto or to demands like the Administration did, they need to actively be working on improving campus for those students and faculty members that give Wooster such esteemed status such as being one of the most diverse colleges in Ohio. 

SK: What is your plan of action going forward?

MM: Bodies of Diversity’s plan of action going forward includes a variety of different action points. We will continue to have bi-weekly meetings in a safe and inclusive space about various hot-button issues having to do with marginalized groups in society (our next meeting is Thursday, Nov. 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the Douglass basement!). On a wide-scale basis in terms of the Black Manifesto, we will continue to collaborate with both other student groups on campus as well as faculty and staff to both make the demands of the Black Manifesto known on a frequent basis and to work to ensure that the College is a safe and inclusive space for all. Despite the issues that our campus is currently facing, the College is such an amazing place to me; I get a kick out of telling people that this was the only school I applied to, early decision and all, because since my first visit as an eighth-grade student during a Power of

the Pen competition, I have loved it so much. I love this community enough to want to change it for the better, for both the current and upcoming communities.

TA: My fellow co-founder and co-president Victoria Silva ’23 and I will continue to meet with Lisa Perfetti, Dr. Leslie Wingard and members of the theatre/dance department to discuss specific plans of action moving forward. We are holding folks accountable to listen to both our demands and the demands written eloquently in the Black Manifesto and to respond actively and proactively to what students are asking for and so desperately need. We will also continue to hold General Assembly meetings to discuss these topics further and to continue to provide a safe outlet for BIPOC students to express their truest selves, in the performing arts and beyond.