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Amid a national reckoning on race, college students lead a push for change on campus

UMass Boston sophomore Ariannah Gervais, NAACP Criminal Justice chair, painted a board for a #saymyname memorial ground art installation at UMass Boston.
UMass Boston sophomore Ariannah Gervais, NAACP Criminal Justice chair, painted a board for a #saymyname memorial ground art installation at UMass Boston.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

When the student leaders of an antiracism club at Boston College discovered recently that the official Boston College Instagram account had followed their page, it seemed almost metaphorical.

For months the students had been posting information to fellow students about how to be antiracist, but suddenly it seemed the university was listening.

Leaders of the group, the FACES Council, said for years their organization has filled a void by providing workshops and events about diversity, inclusion, and antiracism, and their work has only ramped up in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Now FACES is planning a training for professors, too, after a surprising number of faculty asked the group for guidance on how to be antiracist in the classroom.

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“It’s this weird total power shift, but it’s also kind of welcome,” said Alyssa Iferenta, a codirector of FACES.

Amid the nation’s reckoning on race, students at universities across the city find themselves leading the way on efforts to confront systemic racism on their campuses. Some of these campaigns are not new, but students hope the unprecedented national spotlight in this moment will finally spark long-needed change.

Efforts are underway at schools including Suffolk University, Emerson College, Northeastern University, Boston University, the New England Conservatory, Tufts University, and Bentley University. Some campaigns center around defunding campus police, but others are about change that goes much deeper, from hiring more faculty of color to revamping curriculums that focus heavily on white perspectives.

College students have always played a pivotal role in movements such as the one underway now, said Quito Swan, an Africana studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture.

“Student energy, student voices, the sense of ‘we have nothing to lose’ matters, and it has always mattered in these kind of moments,” he said. “What is particularly striking is the level of intensity.”

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He compared students’ efforts now to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and its central role during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and said some members of that movement have sought out today’s student leaders to share their wisdom.

The challenge with student movements, he said, is that students graduate and move on, but in some instances, the change they produce is lasting, like the formation of degree programs or community housing. A lot of college Africana studies programs are the result of student organizers in the 1960s, he said.

In recent weeks, some students have caught the attention of campus presidents after criticizing the leaders’ public statements about Floyd’s murder, prompting the presidents to issue new statements and announce actions to accompany their words.

“This time there’s definitely going to be a change in how the administration responds to us pushing them,” said Madeline Bockus, another codirector of the FACES group at BC.

At Boston University, a group of students in the School of Theatre has developed a list of demands they delivered to the school’s new director, with the goal of broad and deep reform of the program. The requests focus in part on the types of plays that are taught and who is cast in what roles in productions.

“As a Black student, I don’t really get to see myself in the things that we are taught in class,” said Angela Dogani, a rising senior studying stage management.

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At Northeastern, activism has focused largely on campus police. Sade Adewunmi, 21, the first executive director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the student government, penned “In Pain and Enraged” and posted it on the student government website, calling for Northeastern to look more closely at its own policies and policing practices. The column went viral within the university community and attracted the attention of the university’s president.

Adewunmi said that although Northeastern president Joseph Aoun wrote two statements addressing the protests and the killings, he had said little about how the university would address its own racial inequities. For example, campus events sponsored by Black students, such as the annual Black Market, a vendor fair, always have a bigger police presence than sorority events which draw many more students, Adewunmi said.

The share of Black students at the university has also decreased over the years, Adewunmi said. In 2018, 4 percent of Northeastern’s undergraduates were Black, compared to nearly 6 percent about 15 years before, according to the US Education Department.

“Why does being a Black student at Northeastern feel like it’s the 1980s?” Adewunmi said. “Being Black on this campus is not as easy as people believe.”

Adewunmi was among a group of Black student leaders that Aoun spoke with recently before he released a statement outlining steps the university will take to address racial equity on campus. Aoun said Northeastern will aim to increase Black student enrollment, hire more diverse faculty, establish a community advisory board for the police department, and elevate the associate dean of cultural and spiritual life to a cabinet position.

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“A message I have heard repeatedly in recent weeks is that our Black students, in particular, need to receive better student support. They must feel valued, included, and safe at their university,” Aoun wrote.

In other parts of the city, alumni are also engaged. A group of graduates of the New England Conservatory recently sent an open letter to the school’s president to push for a host of changes, including a curriculum less focused on European music and composers.

At Suffolk University, the Black Student Union has become a hub for activism. The group cohosted a workshop on the realities of police brutality with the college’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion this month, and union members attended another college discussion about student solidarity. The union plans to work with the university to create more on-campus mental health resources that can address the emotional impact of police violence and inequity in the Black community.

At Emerson College, which like many colleges in Boston is a majority-white school, student government leaders are urging the college’s senior officials to reevaluate the diversity of professors, few of whom are people of color, and encourage the termination of faculty who have frequently popped up in students’ complaints about racism and insensitivity.

“Sensitivity training isn’t going to do anything if some professors just don’t listen,” said student government president Claire Rodenbush. “So they really need to just fire some professors.”

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The BC students plan to hold their faculty training this summer via Zoom. One simple tip, the students said, is that professors should make sure they know the names of students of color and pronounce them correctly.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said there is already a host of programs on campus to help faculty with antiracism, diversity, and inclusion, including an annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit for all faculty and staff. He did not otherwise comment on the student efforts.

Iferenta, the FACES codirector, said although the dynamic of students teaching faculty is bizarre, it is a reminder that learning is a life-long process. She doesn’t fault professors for needing training or asking for help. Any fault, she said, lies with the institution.

“They have either failed to recognize that there’s sort of like this lack of knowledge on race and racism in America and by Boston College, or they recognized it and they failed to do anything about it,” she said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.