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'Our campus has been a battleground': UNC community discusses racial injustice during vigil

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Kia Caldwell, professor in the African, African American and Diaspora Studies Department, speaks during the Solidarity and Action Virtual Vigil on Monday, June 15, 2020.

As Americans have taken to the streets to protest against racism and police brutality, some UNC faculty members and students are concerned with how to maintain the momentum from the last month of a movement years in the making. 

Dawna Jones, chair of the Carolina Black Caucus and assistant dean of students, was one of a series of speakers during a Solidarity and Action Virtual Vigil hosted Monday by UNC’s Undergraduate Senate. Jones and other speakers at the vigil addressed several issues: the pressures and stress experienced by Black individuals and those leading protests, the potential for using art as a form of catharsis, the need for improved mental health support for Black students and faculty at UNC and changes they hope to see on campus.

“It feels like we have been here many times before, and we have to make sure that we find a way to use this moment to the best of our ability to raise our voices and to be heard in service to justice,” Jones said during the vigil. “In the midst of a global pandemic, those who value Black lives have had to take to the streets and to rally, and to riot or whatever you want to call it, in order to show that we value the lives of our people. And that should not be necessary.” 

Kia Caldwell, a professor in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, echoed this sentiment, highlighting UNC’s own history with racial turmoil.  

“I think in so many ways our campus has been at the forefront of these issues, and our campus is a microcosm, and that’s why it’s been so intense,” said Caldwell. “Our campus has been a battleground, and I think our leadership and our administration needs to take that into account, that we’ve experienced multiple traumas on our campus for a long time — students, faculty and staff — and so what the nation is experiencing is not anything new to our campus in some ways, but it’s also not new to African Americans.”

The event, which had over 50 attendees on Zoom, began with a five-minute moment of silence for individuals who were killed in incidents of police brutality. Immediately following the vigil, attendees could choose from three breakout sessions to attend on topics such as “Mental Health and Self Care,” “Racism and Police Brutality” and “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Cherish Williams, a staff psychologist for Counseling and Psychological Services, emphasized the importance of taking time for oneself, and said CAPS offers individual therapy sessions and ongoing group support for Black students and students of color, such as the Empowering Black Women program. 

However, throughout the vigil and in breakout sessions, attendees posed questions about the hesitation some students of color feel before reaching out for support through CAPS. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around 30 percent of Black adults with mental illness receive treatment annually, versus the U.S. average of 43 percent. 

Caldwell said she hopes to also see increased advocacy and options for mental health support available to faculty.

“There’s just a gap, there’s a void when it comes to mental health support for faculty, and especially for faculty of color,” Caldwell said. “We’re bearing a huge burden now with the COVID-19 pandemic in caring for our families, losing loved ones and that kind of thing.”

Actions on campus

During the “Where Do We Go From Here?” breakout session, led by rising junior De’Ivyion Drew, attendees also discussed the role entities like commissions and task forces play in enacting significant change within the University. Drew, who is a member of the Campus Safety Commission, said her stance on the commission has always been to abolish campus police. 

“With the incremental change, how can we really put in place the reality that we want to see without negotiating with the power structures that kill us every day?” Drew said. 

Michael Rashaad Galloway, a UNC graduate, also spoke about a petition he started, demanding UNC’s Board of Trustees overturn a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings on campus. 

“Little did I know that every day that I was walking into a building or every day that I’m walking through Polk Place that I was walking through a place or into a place that was named after someone who enslaved my people — not only enslaved my people, but supported white supremacy,” Galloway said.

The petition, which has over 7,000 signatures, states that more than 40 buildings, monuments and landscapes on campus are currently dedicated to white supremacists. 

Maya Logan, the speaker pro tempore and co-chairperson of the Multicultural Affairs and Diversity Outreach Committee, said she and Finance and Ethics Vice-Chair Lamar Richards are working on increasing support for minority-serving student organizations on campus through the recently formed Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity.

“I know commissions can sometimes be ineffective, but we are trying to structure this one so it can be longstanding and not just something we do in the midst of what’s going on because this is an internal need that has always been talked about on campus, but no steps are taken to actually eradicate why Black orgs don’t get the funding they need,” Logan said. 

“Transformative moment”

Caldwell said she believes students are coming of age in a “transformative moment.” Witnessing the 1992 Los Angeles uprising as a college senior significantly shaped her own eventual journey in becoming professor in African, African American and diaspora studies. 

She said while it’s important for students to remember the power they hold in advocating for change, they should also recognize when to take space for themselves, especially for Black students. 

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“As a parent, I think about the fact that I don’t believe that any of our students’ parents or any parents send their kids to college to have to struggle for racial justice, right?” Caldwell said. “And so this is an extra burden that our Black students carry when they come to a place like UNC, and that needs to be recognized.”

The allyship of non-Black students, staff and faculty is critical, Caldwell said, as well as administrative action to dismantle structures of oppression on campus.