U-Más Fuerte Together: Establishing ‘a beloved community’

AMHERST – It has been over two months since the tragic murder of George Floyd that sparked civil unrest and activism in every state across the nation. Across news outlets and mainstream media, the injustices that the BIPOC communities have encountered for centuries are predictably fading into the background once again. However, the UMass Racial Justice Coalition and UMass for Black Lives are continuing to work tirelessly to ensure that such topics continue to be a point of discussion amongst the campus community.

On July 20, the University of Massachusetts Racial Justice Coalition submitted their list of demands to the University, requesting responses to each demand listed after laboriously working alongside other groups for six weeks to establish it. In their submission of the document, they asked for a timely response of ten days to each of their demands. And on July 30, Chancellor Subbaswamy responded to their requests. His response to the demands and its corresponding cover letter can be found here

In a conversation with UMass RJC’s, Emily Steen, Zach Steward and Carla Montilla Jaimes describe their reactions to the University’s response to their demands, the outcomes of their meetings with the senior leadership and the UMPD. As well as the trajectory of their continued efforts.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

I read through the response that you received from the University regarding your list of demands. How surprised were you by the response and were you at all discouraged by it?

Zach Steward: I wasn’t that surprised. I thought there would be a bit more substance to [their response] but I wasn’t surprised by it, honestly–because you know, we’re talking about not necessarily changing the status quo overnight, but at least starting to change it. Or at least starting to think about it. And one could make the argument that changing the status quo threatens the power dynamic and threatens the bottom line of those in power at the University. And in order to keep those two things the way they are the line would be to appease, to listen and pretend to care but not actually do anything–not actually take any true, actual, actionable steps to improve the lives of those being affected by these events. So it’s definitely disheartening but moreso encouraging, honestly. Encouraged to keep the fight going, and motivated and inspired to continue this work. If I stopped every time an administrator told me “no,” at least in this particular context, I wouldn’t have started to begin with. But no, I wouldn’t say I was discouraged. There was maybe a small part of me was, but the majority of me was like ‘alright, it’s time to get to work let’s see what we can work with here and how we can move forward.’

Carla Montilla Jaimes: We were expecting it and we were prepared for it. So I think we were able to manage expectations so no one was disappointed by the responses or lack of, in certain cases. I think it just made us want to work harder.

Emily Steen: I agree with what Zach and Carla said. It wasn’t a big surprise, just inspired us to keep going.

In the document, it mentioned how the RJC had a tentative meeting scheduled with Vice-Chancellor Hephner LaBanc’s Monday, August 3rd. What were the outcomes of it?

ZS: From my perspective, the one good thing that came out of that meeting was that we were able to see that each member of the ‘senior leadership’ team of the University committed to making the University anti-racist. So that was great. And they also seemingly committed to having future meetings with us. Now, we just have to work on the finer details in terms of how those future meetings are going to work, but I think this was a good, first step that will continue if we can begin to meet each other halfway. And begin to see each other as equals, instead of as administration and subordinates–and go from there in order to create a truly anti-racist and anti-biased community. A true place of acceptance at the University for all students.

UMass’ response to your list of demands also, mentioned that the Racial Justice Coalition met with the UMPD on July 28. What were the results of that meeting?

CMJ: We’ve met with UMPD twice now, up to this point I think the meetings have been really disappointing honestly. When we voiced our concerns as to end the collar at UMass, I think they were very dismissive of [us] and they just gave us more reasoning on their perspective as to why the things we were asking were not valid. It was very frustrating when we were talking about our personal experiences and they were like ‘well, we can’t do anything about this.’ And I think some members of UMPD didn’t understand our perspectives, speaking against the collar and how we might feel about police departments in general. They were [just] very insensitive about our perspective towards police, and why we might be more afraid or distraught of UMPD. It was very disappointing, in general, how they didn’t try to understand our perspective or try to work with us to find solutions. If we presented a problem, they would just explain the way they function and why they do what they do.

ZS: It just seemed more to me that they were on the defensive and more just thinking that we were trying to take their jobs from them. And that argument could possibly be made, but what we were trying to do was get them to understand why it is that we don’t trust them. And why it is that we were having these meetings in the first place. Just to get that understanding, but also to get the understanding that there are other resources on campus that are ready and willing to do the jobs that [they] all get called for. And can do so with the proper training in place, to ensure that no one gets hurt. I think part of it just was the refusal to acknowledge the history of policing, in both the broad and specific sense, but also just the refusal to even understand, as Carla mentioned, where we were coming from. And how [they refused] to at least improve on the relationship between them and communities of color on campus. At least right now, they’re what we have, unfortunately. It’s disheartening and it’s sad, but at the end of the day I like to think of it like what do you do with a cornered animal–it always just attacks, it’s not going to lie down and just take it, it’s always going to just come after you. So frankly, it just seemed to me that they were trying to defend themselves and attack us for trying to help them understand where it is we were coming from.

“It’s disheartening and it’s sad, but at the end of the day I like to think of it like what do you do with a cornered animal–it always just attacks, it’s not going to lie down and just take it, it’s always going to just come after you.”

— Zach Steward

ES: And I would just [like to] clarify, that these meetings were so disappointing because it was UMPD  that set them up, specifically with students of color to get our input. It just so happens that several of us are involved with the RJC, but they were meetings that were set up by the chief of the UMPD to better understand where students were coming from, especially with this current tension in the country. So that just adds to the discouragement, from their disregard regarding everything we had to say and providing excuses as to why they get so much funding than the diversity programs at UMass. Which is more funded than the Amherst PD, and they’re policing the same area so it’s a very interesting dynamic. Especially, going into these meetings to provide input and all we got in return was excuses.

Will there be any follow-up meetings with the UMPD?

ES: So those two meetings were ones that UMPD set up with Students of Color, specifically. But after the first meeting, Students of Color didn’t want to keep going with the meetings, so that format will likely end and it will be more the RJC taking over meetings with the UMPD. To ensure that we are working together in order to get to a solution as opposed to just bringing students of color into a place where they’re not going to be heard.

CMJ: I just want to add that UMPD gets $6.3 million, and they just said at the meetings how they get more funding. And that really spoke volumes to us, because we feel like there [are] other programs at UMass that actually do need more funding and are more helpful, for us, as students at UMass. And to just see them give more money to the police, rather than these other programs, was really disappointing.

ZS: And to just add a bit more context to that, in light of UMPD getting that particular amount of money, UMass is having their academic departments cut $30 million from their budget in order to make up for the financial losses from the pandemic. Which begs the question, because [one] could argue that part of that funding could come from the funding of the UMass Police Department. But, it’s just a thought.

I can’t imagine what a taxing experience this has been for all of you. How have you all been adjusting to the unification with UMass for Black Lives?

ZS: I would say it was a little bumpy at first. Only from the lack of communication [between groups]. I can say for myself, I don’t normally talk to grad students, at least outside of African-American studies. That’s pretty much it, I don’t really know any other grad students outside of [UMass for Black Lives]. So it was just a little bit bumpy, but after that initial hump it’s been pretty much smooth sailing from here. It’s been nice to know that there are grad students, willing to work on this with us on our solutions to the massive problems that UMass has. It’s also nice to know that they have ideas and things that we can weave in with our own and to present a united front. And to show the administration that this isn’t just a small group of people coming together to call for an anti-racist UMass. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s multiple groups coming together as one big group, saying ‘enough is enough’ it’s time for you all to own up to what you’ve done, or really what you haven’t done. And basically, that it’s time to go to work.

ES: I would just add that it’s basically blended smoothly to this point. They came to the senior leadership meeting with us on Monday, [August 3rd], they come to our task-force meetings [and] they bring in new recruits. As Zach was saying, it’s nice to have new perspectives from differing groups of people. We all have different experiences at UMass, given the segmentation, so we all come to the unified front [in order] to present a common goal.

In the mainstream media, the Black Lives Matter movement has faded into the background. What other presumptive measures are you taking to make sure this remains a discussion, not only amongst the faculty and staff, but amongst the student population at UMass?

ES: Recruitment. A whole lot of recruitment on many, many social media platforms. We’re trying to get a lot of incoming freshmen because what administration has done in the past five decades is wait that four-year cycle for people to leave and the entire campus to shift. So we’re trying to make sure that we have incoming freshmen that will be in for the long haul. And honestly, this is for them, to make sure that they have a better four-years than the rest of us did. All of our meetings are open to everyone and anyone. And we really try to incorporate input from beyond students at UMass; from undergraduate, graduate, staff [and] faculty. One of our demands is from a faculty member, and in our meeting with the senior leadership team we brought up concerns from the staff. It is a big platform that we’re trying to share with as many people as possible. But again, staff and faculty will be here longer than any of us, students, so it’s good to have their support as well in order to get the whole community together. To ensure that when we’re creating this, it’s truly a better community for everybody. As John Lewis said, ‘a beloved community.

“We’re trying to get a lot of incoming freshmen because what administration has done in the past five decades is wait that four-year cycle for people to leave and the entire campus to shift. So we’re trying to make sure that we have incoming freshmen that will be in for the long haul. And honestly, this is for them, to make sure that they have a better four-years than the rest of us did.”

— Emily Steen

ZS: Also, just engagement with [the group], this work is definitely not for the faint of heart. We don’t just want to throw all this information at people and have them walk away feeling confused, we want this to be serious work but know that this is a place where they can come to us with their concerns, hopes and fears. They can just find [a] community in a place where there might not be one for them yet, at least if they’re incoming freshmen. And just acknowledging the fact that this was five decades in the making because there are not a lot of spaces for BIPOC [students] on the UMass campus. At least for me, part of this has turned into a space for BIPOC students, and just people in general, [where] they can come together and just be in the presence of each other without that pressure of feeling watched, judged or like they constantly [need to be] on edge.

CMJ: I think from my perspective, coming from SGA, is ensuring that the student government keeps supporting this. And just keep the pressure on administration to stay on [top of] these issues.

The organization’s Instagram is @umassrjc and its Facebook group is “UMass Racial Justice Coalition.” If any UMass community members, especially BIPOC, would like to get involved with their work they can go to bit.ly/rjcumass for email updates.

Email Joanna Buoniconti at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @JBuoniconti

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