Last week, the University of Minnesota’s Al-Madinah Cultural Center hosted an outreach event in its room on the second floor of Coffman Union.
For Minnesota Student Association President Taylor Williams, it was an opportunity to address what he says is a long-standing issue in the the University’s student government.
“It’s pretty much a white boys’ club,” he said.
MSA has been criticized for lacking diversity for years, but now he said they are reaching out “instead of just complaining about the problem.”
Past efforts to promote diversity have amounted to little, said Matthew Wiseman, an Asian-American Student Union board member.
“How do you want to make [student government] more diverse when you don’t even take the time to go out to any of the groups?” he said. “For them to say they didn’t have time to make it to one, one out of the whole semester? Come on.”
A new MSA policy will remove membership restrictions from student groups. Each group will still only be allowed one voting representative at MSA meetings, but others will be welcome to join as basic members.
In addition, student groups with voting representatives on MSA will be given access to free chalk, printing and staple guns.
“If anything, it’s an excuse for us to say ‘Hey, look. Here’s another reason you should join,’ Williams said.
For students at the AMCC event, conversations surrounding the lack of diversity in MSA expanded to broader discussions about about race and privilege. In the midst of end-of-summer outreach efforts, representatives from various second-floor cultural centers offered their perspectives.
Wiseman, an African-American student raised in Houston, said he notices a stark contrast between his hometown’s racial atmosphere and that of Minnesota.
Wiseman said he initially planned to attend Texas A&M University on a scholarship, but a blackface incident at the school made him reconsider.
He said his experience in Minnesota is harder to characterize.
“I feel like [white students] just don’t want to branch out,” he said.
Wiseman said he was surprised when students from rural communities would tell him that he was their first black friend.
They shared stereotypes they heard from their parents.“Then they’d be like ‘I meet you and you’re nothing like that.”
Muna Adani, a board member of the Oromia Student Union said she had similar interactions with University students.
“You can’t blame them for the reality of their life experience,” she said.
Even in social justice classes, Adani said discussions involving race are very uncomfortable for white students.
She said she believes racial dialogue needs to happen, but that it should take place in “safe spaces,” or places in which students of different ethnicities can ask thoughtful questions and confront uncomfortable realities.
On campus, these spaces are the second floor cultural centers, OSU member Kadija Mussa said.
Black Student Union President Kynesha Patterson noted the importance of sustaining cultural centers as spaces for students to relax with people who shared their backgrounds.
Some say the centers will only produce meaningful conversations when students of all backgrounds participate.
“In the past four years the only time white people come is to vote for student elections,” Mussa said. “We should advertise.”
But some do. The ASU sent out fliers, wrote with chalk on sidewalks and got 300 to 500 people to celebrate Chinese New Year, Wiseman estimated.
But when they made their case for funding before the Student Services Fees Committee, none of the board members had heard of the event.
“I found that really interesting,” he said.
Brianna Wilson, president of Voices Merging, has been working with Williams to try to get students of color interested in joining MSA.
“It’s always people of color building bridges to white people,” Wilson said. “How do you get white people to build bridges to people of color? There’s really no interest going the other way.”
Williams said he had received outside perspectives from students of color who feared becoming token voices in MSA.
To avoid looking like student government is simply seeking minorities to fill quotas, Wiseman suggested the MSA step up its involvement, take some time, and learn how each of these cultures work.
“If you can imagine we’re all on the same floor with all the offices, you kind of pick which group you’ll be affiliated with,” Williams said. “The student government kind of transcends every group and every culture as the advocacy body for all students.”
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