University of Missouri protests inspire reaction from students

Colombia, Missouri is 543.9 miles away from Brookings, South Dakota, but in terms of the issues that the University of Missouri and South Dakota State University are facing, the distance seems a lot smaller.

During the week of Nov. 9, the University of Missouri encountered threatening posts on Yik Yak directed at black students. Another student conducted a hunger strike that he launched in hopes of motivating the president of the university, Tim Wolfe, to step down from his position due to the students believing he was not addressing the issues of race on their campus. The football players refused to play in a football game against Brigham Young University until the president and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down from their positions. The dissatisfaction with how the university officials handled the sitution grew to protests across campus.

 Before last week’s events took place, the campus had been experiencing racial tension on campus and lack of action by administration.

In the past, the events that took place at Mizzou may have been secluded to their campus and their town, but in the digital age, all it took was people to start posting about their experience on social media. Now the issues are nationally known.

 “I am certainly proud of the students [at the University of Missouri] for standing up in what they believe in,” said Kas Williams, the program adviser for African American programs at SDSU. “[When you see that] students are affecting change on their campus, I think it’s a good thing. I think it just started out with a hunger strike, it took one guy and now it has national attention.”

 Some students, such as Shane Bartz, are surprised that racist comments and incidents still occur today.

 “I kind of thought as a nation we had moved past that,” Bartz said, a sophomore advertising major.

 Bartz thought it was great that students created the change that took place on campus. They held a hunger strike, they walked off the football field and then protested.

 “I consider myself to be a minority because I’m gay,” Bartz said. “I think that being able to cause a change like that is really amazing.”

Bartz said he wanted to transfer to a different school last year after he saw individuals posting negative comments about gay people in the SDSU campus area on Yik Yak. Bartz instead got involved with the Gay Straight Alliance.

 “For me personally, it gave me a safe space where I knew I was …welcomed and supported by everyone in that group,” Bartz said. 

He is now on the GSA executive committee.

There are places students can go if they experience discrimination of any kind, Williams said. These include the Multicultural Center, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, American Indian Education and Cultural Center, student organizations and Title IX and Employment Opportunity office.

 “What I love about [having these resources] is that we make a concerted effort to make our students feel included because people always talk about diversity, but it’s diversity and inclusion, so what are we doing to make our students feel included,” Williams said. “I think what you see at the Missouri campus is that those students did not feel included.”

Michelle Johnson, the Title IX and employment opportunity coordinator, said SDSU is determined to figure out what causes “race-based discrimination” and the campus wants to take steps to stop the behavior.

“If you don’t know even that a simple comment was made, then the next time a comment is made it seems like that is an isolated incident then the next time,” Johnson said. “We need the information so we can link these isolated incidences together.”

 Semehar Ghebrekidan, a senior global studies major, has encountered discriminatory comments during her time at SDSU. She said she is happy with how the students at Mizzou reacted to the discriminatory comments.

“They paved the way for other schools to do the same thing,” she said. “What students can do is realize that these things are happening on campus and not just realize it by acknowledging it as ‘it has happened in the past.’ No, it is happening.”

 Iman Ali, a fifth-year senior biology and microbiology major, has experienced racism on campus. 

Two years ago, she said, she was in a physiology lab when a classmate was having trouble with the assignment. Ali offered to help the student. When Ali and the other student finished the assignment, the other student said, “You’re really smart for a black girl.”

 “I never knew my skin color signified my intelligence or like even in the equation. … That was just one of the big ones that have happened to me here on campus,” Ali said. “I want people to know that as much as people think racism doesn’t exist, racism does exist and it is still really a huge deal.”

 Other students support the activism and protests that took place at Mizzou.

“I am a strong believer in standing up in what you believe in and equality, so I really appreciated their efforts and having peaceful protests and fighting against it,” said Iris Le, a junior nursing major. “Mizzou showed the nation, the power of solidarity, the power of getting together as students and standing up for what you believe in.”

 Le believes that there is racism at SDSU, but it is institutional racism, which is more engrained in the system than people realize.

“It’s not as outward as it is in like Missouri,” Le said. “We know that being racist is wrong. We know that hating on other people’s races and spewing out hatred is bad, but we don’t realize the institutional racism.” 

Le has experienced institutional racism when people don’t believe that racism exists at SDSU or discuss reverse racism.

To Le, the next step would be to have a dialogue.

“One thing I’ve realized is that people don’t like talking about it,” Le said. “They like to put it off to the side or they want to dismiss it. I think that’s really dangerous because if you don’t talk about it then you don’t learn.”

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Community is starting “The Difference is Dialogue” program. This program will focus on bringing together different groups of students to have discussions about issues happening on campus. These dialogues will begin on Jan. 26, 2016 and will last for five weeks, ending on Feb. 22, 2016.

“I would like to see our students more engaged in the process before it gets to the point of complete communication breakdown,” Williams said. “If you’re doing the work on the front end, you don’t have to worry abount the results on the back end of things. I do think our school is headed in the right direction. [We are] putting people in place to show we are an inclusive campus.”