Q&A: “Moving Forward” organizers encourage attendees to find out how they can take action

February 17, 2016 By Susannah Brooks

Last year, more than 600 people attended a campuswide Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion – so many that organizers had to add more tables.

Some students, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the timing of the event and a perceived lack of consideration for their needs.

This year, students have taken an active role in planning a major discussion that will share updates on the progress UW–Madison has made through the past year.

“Moving Forward: Conversations on Racial and Ethnic Diversity” takes place on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m. at the Gordon Dining and Event Center. Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf, Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Patrick Sims, and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Lori Berquam will take part.

University Communications spoke with one of the organizers: sophomore Tyriek Mack, an elementary education major and POSSE Scholar from Washington, D.C. A campus leader in the BlackOut movement, he is also a member of the Black Student Union and founder of All Minds Matter, which discusses educational equity in K-12 and higher education.

How do you think this upcoming event has more of a student voice?

I’d say about 90 percent of the topics we discussed came from student recommendations. That, in itself, was a big step.

My main objective is to have tangible results. If it’s just a place to learn, the space turns into a place where it’s not about creative problem-solving. That’s what a lot of students are working for.

The last thing I want is for people who don’t know our experience to be speaking on our behalf, creating recommendations and solutions from an experience they never lived.

More than 50 people aligned with the Black Lives Matter Movement, including UW–Madison student Tyriek Mack (center of photo), hold signs of protest, voice their concerns about racial inequity on UW System campuses and briefly disrupt a UW System Board of Regents meeting on Feb. 5, 2016.

More than 50 people aligned with the Black Lives Matter Movement, including UW–Madison student Tyriek Mack (center of photo) hold signs of protest, voice their concerns about racial inequity on UW System campuses and briefly disrupt a UW System Board of Regents meeting on Feb. 5, 2016. Photo: Jeff Miller

You’re very interested in cross-boundary discussions between faculty, staff and students. What advice would you give to faculty and staff?

It starts with faculty being honest. If a student comes into your office and asks questions about issues affecting them because of who they are as an individual, open communication and dialogue really creates that relationship and trust between students and faculty.

Faculty could really support students by joining shared governance committees where they can voice our opinions through those spaces.

I think a lot of times we see students and faculty as navigating two different bubbles. I know students want a more diverse faculty, and I’m hoping that the faculty wants a more diverse student body. If we can use both of those avenues, we can support each other.

“You can’t expect everyone to jump in the water and just start swimming in this ocean. I think you need to find a nice balance of people who are willing to sacrifice some things to do this work and people who are willing to be water carriers, playing support roles.”Tyriek Mack

What would you say to people who think that this is just more of the same, or that things don’t change?

The reality is that these conversations have happened before. Will we be able to organize ourselves to create tangible action? That will make the difference.

I’ve realized that it does first start with conversations, understanding each other and others’ goals. The students deliberately set up time to think about next steps and action plans. A portion will seem redundant, but it’ll ultimately help us think about where we’re going.

Understanding that you’re in this for the long run helps other students get into the picture. If your expectation is “I need this right now,” it’ll frustrate you; it might take energy away from other important things, like academics.

People are … I don’t want to say naïve, but ambitious. That’s how I was last semester. Then I realized this is a bureaucracy for a reason. There are lots of people and lots of different processes happening. You just have to navigate them.

What would you say to people who aren’t sure how they might fit into these discussions?

You can’t expect everyone to jump in the water and just start swimming in this ocean. I think you need to find a nice balance of people who are willing to sacrifice some things to do this work and people who are willing to be water carriers, playing support roles.

That distinction is critical. Without that, you’ve got a lot of people who don’t know where they fit in, and they get frustrated and give up.

I think a lot of people have a hard time thinking about what white privilege is. If you grow up in a poor community, if you’re living off of welfare or your school doesn’t get funding … you don’t feel privileged.

Some things black people go through — such as microaggressions, racial profiling and systemic inequities in health care — poor white people in rural areas don’t have to go through. But they still can’t pay their tuition, or they can barely get into the school, just like a black kid from Milwaukee.

People don’t get it because people don’t feel included. Any time you feel attacked, you’re not going to want to take the next step forward. For historical reasons, people are uncomfortable talking about race; that fear is why they choose to isolate themselves.

I think we need to work on finding intersectionalities. All of these -isms are the same: racism, sexism, classism … Fundamentally, they’re symptoms of the same disease.