Black student leaders seize SLAB

Students of color address concerns with admin, commission proposed

written BY: ALEX BUDZYNSKI, Managing Editor
Newswire photo courtesy of Heather Gast
Black student leaders joined other student leaders of color at Wednesday’s Student Leadership Advisory Board meeting focusing on racial injustice at Xavier after White student leaders ceded their in-person seats.

After administrators failed to organize a meeting with Black student leaders to discuss matters of race on campus, Black students collaborated with a member of the Student Leader Advisory Board (SLAB) to take over the SLAB meeting on Wednesday night. They were met with the guarantee of a new Civil Rights Commission.  

Led by Chief Student Affairs Officer Dr. Dave Johnson and Dean of Students Jean Griffin, SLAB is a monthly meeting that gathers student leaders from clubs across campus to discern and plan for Xavier’s future. While SLAB does invite leaders from identity groups, the typical SLAB meeting is filled with more faces of White students than students of color.

At the Your School, Your Questions administrative panel last Thursday, it was communicated that diversity and inclusion initiatives and the Speak Up XU protest were on the agenda for Wednesday’s SLAB meeting.

“We discussed it actually there at the forum last week and (a White SLAB member) was like it’s a good idea for (senior Cameron Lakes and I) to take the seats over,” organizer Sierra Stennis said. “So we decided to open the doors to other fellow Black leaders right on campus, and it got bigger than we thought.”

“There’s so many Black leaders here on this campus. They’re just not necessarily recognized in these spaces,” Stennis added. 

Nearly every White student on SLAB ceded their in-person seat so that students of color could directly speak with administrators. These student leaders showed support for students of color by showing up to the meeting over Zoom instead. 

Early on Wednesday, Johnson heard of the planned take over and proceeded to open up SLAB meeting to accommodate any student who wished to attend. 

The handful of White students who did attend SLAB  in-person, as well as those who participated through Zoom, purposefully maintained a respectful distance from the conversation, ensuring that it was students of color whose voices guided the meeting. 

Johnson admitted that while SLAB has representation from diverse student groups, it is not nearly representative enough.

“We were extremely grateful that that happened, because as a result… we had a really robust discussion, and it was richer because we had more people at it… I’m grateful student leaders took that initiative,” Johnson commented. 

Stennis was one of 12 Black students who attended the meeting, even though they were not originally invited. 

A plethora of Black student leaders who were involved in the take over could not attend the SLAB meeting due to prior commitments, including a Black Student Association meeting. But the dozen students involved in organizing who were able to attend felt the meeting was productive.

Organizer Adriana Smith was optimistic that she and the rest of her community were finally given an opportunity to have a say in the decisions and conversations happening at the university.

“It’s not even about me, but… I’ve never been a part of any sort of conversation like (SLAB). This is the first time that’s happened and it’s giving me a little bit of hope,” Smith said. 

One of those new ways comes in the form of the new Civil Rights Commission. 

As it was described at SLAB, the Civil Rights Commission will be a springboard for student leaders and activists to name and declare priorities and to develop action plans against those priorities. 

Johnson devised the Civil Rights Commission  with Father Michael Graham, president, Dr. Kyra Shahid, director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, and Dr. Janice Walker, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, after witnessing the passion of Black student leaders at both the Speak Up XU protest and the Your School, Your Questions panel. They were planning to unveil the commission before learning of the take over.

According to Johnson, the commission will be launched in three weeks, in which time the administration will iron out the details of the group. 

“I expect us to immediately go forward, and there’s a lot of details to work out… but there’s clearly a will for it, so we’re going to make it happen,” Johnson said. 

Many of the student organizers had mixed responses to the proposition of the Civil Rights Commission.

“I’m not going to say it’s a bad idea because I think there’s some potential there, but that itself is going to be the right answer,” Lakes said. 

“Even the structure of the meeting really shows how much it was performative… it doesn’t make sense if they were going to be talking about (the Civil Rights Commission) without Black students there,” he further elaborated. 

While the organizers agreed that take over was a step in the right direction, they also explained that the SLAB meeting was frustrating to be a part of. 

Organizer Andrew Michael explained that meetings like SLAB can have a lot of talk but little action. As a Student Government Association senator, Michael  shared that even in spaces designed for collaboration between students and administrators, the resulting change can be stifled.  

This is especially an issue when students attempt to address racial issues on campus.

“They keep asking us what are the immediate changes that you would like to see,” Lakes, who was vocal at the  Speak Up XU protest, the Your School, Your Questions panel and now the SLAB meeting shared. “We’re repeating ourselves years on end and… we’re tired because it is the same students and the same people saying the same things.”

 For many of the Black student leaders who participated in this take over, this is just one step in the process, but it’s a substantial one. 

“Being invited to meetings I should have been invited to a long time ago, is not a small step to me,” Stennis said.

But even with this progress, the organizers remain vigilant.

“I know this is not the first time that a group of Black students and Black leaders have gotten together and tried to hold administration accountable,” Stennis said. “It’s a cycle and I don’t want that cycle to continue.”