Whether it’s hearing a talk about courage from a man who stood next to Martin Luther King Jr., learning how the campus can become a No Place For Hate, or boarding a bus to the Boston Women’s March, Salem State’ University’s diverse student body is getting a solid education in human rights and activism.
“In some ways, we are responding to a high level of tension in our political culture,” said history professor Chris Mauriello.
“A Call For Action: Creating a No Place for Hate Campus” event, held during the campus’s weeklong commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. last month, was the brainchild of Lisa McBride, the university’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, and Jeff Cohen, chairman of the City of Salem’s No Place For Hate committee. Included were T-shirts, buttons, and posters “symbolic of where we want to go,” McBride said.
Facilitating student involvement on campus has been building over several years at Salem State. The Brave Space forums, held since 2014, give students and faculty a “circle of safety” where they can speak freely about issues in society, said McBride. Particularly in this election year, it gave everyone an outlet to express their concerns about what the outcome meant for them.
Between Feb. 17 and March 25, students, faculty, and staff will take an anonymous survey on campus climate that will be used to analyze attitudes, behaviors, and the level of respect on university grounds, McBride said. Inquiries about racial, religious, and sexual violence are on the survey.
“It is a way to report with confidentiality,” McBride said. The data will be released in a 300-page report expected in the fall.
“We’re sending a clear message that not only will hate not be tolerated on our campus, but that we all need to be part of the solution in promoting acceptance,” McBride said. “We all have a role in creating a just and equal society. That includes being engaged on and off campus, standing up to bias and hate, challenging stereotypes, and recognizing and challenging unconscious biases.”
Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, was a featured speaker at the No Place for Hate event. He gave the crowd of over 200 a thumbnail history of how the ADL was established 100 years ago during a period of heightened anti-Semitism. Trestan also explained how the legal system distinguishes between bias and hate speech.
The gathering fell during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when several events were held to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader. They included an MLK Vigil and Freedom March; a presidential inauguration community viewing and a preceding panel discussion about social activism; a bus transporting students to the Boston Women’s March; and the 27th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, highlighted by keynote speaker C.T. Vivian, who was by King’s side during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Of the 9,000 enrolled at Salem State, 29 percent are students of color; that figure increases to 35 percent with the current freshman class, according to university officials. About 500 international students come from 68 countries. Most students are from working-class families; 40 percent are the first in their families to attend college. About 70 percent hold down jobs and many are parents and veterans.
“These aren’t the children of limousine liberals,” said Mauriello, who is the coordinator of the school’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “A bastion of liberal thought — that’s not this type [of campus]. We like this kind of student. We work with them; we shape them. Many haven’t had a chance.”
On Feb. 8, Ralf Horlemann, the German consulate general of Boston, and Salem State’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies opened a monthlong exhibit of historical photographs called “White Rose: The student resistance against Hitler, Munich 1942-1943.” It tells the story of Munich University students who called for passive resistance of the Nazis and an end to war in 1942. Seven members of the group were executed.
“Our students need to see that. It’s perfectly timed,” Mauriello said. “It’s a passionate story. Sometimes you feel like you can’t do anything. Your Jewish friends are [being sent to concentration camps]. You are angry. What do you do?”
“Students are unsettled by many of the events that have been occurring,” said Patricia Maguire Merservey, the university’s president. Events like A Call For Action “give them an opportunity to find their voices as a way to be able to respond and understand that they have some control over their destiny.”
Kelly Couture, who teaches eighth-graders at Lynnfield Middle School, earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Salem State in 2002. She returned in 2016 to earn her master’s degree in teaching history and a certificate in Holocaust and genocide studies.
Couture went on Mauriello’s first annual student trip to Europe in 2001, and saw places she had learned about in her Holocaust studies. That experience has infused her teaching and kept her coming back to the university to participate in programs such as A Call For Action, and trips to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“I was drawn to these studies,” Couture said. “I thought if people were more aware, we could stop these things from happening. As it gets further away from the Holocaust, we have to keep the stories alive. We have to stop these things from happening.”