Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

One Year After Jena, Still Work to Be Done

On the night of Sept. 20, 2007, about 40 people dressed in black stood in Red Square, chanting, “No justice, no peace,” reading poems and delivering fervent speeches. Afterwards, they huddled together holding candles in a vigil of reflection and support.

The rally for the Jena Six – six black teenagers who were initially charged with attempted murder, later reduced to battery for all but one, because they physically attacked a white classmate – forced America to take a deeper look at its race relations.

But America wasn’t the only one: The event was a wake-up call for the Georgetown campus.

The day after the rally, THE HOYA ran a short article covering the event. On Sept. 25, dozens of copies of the newspaper had been scrawled with the words, “THE HOYA is racist,” across their mastheads, protesting what they saw as a lack of coverage of diversity-related issues. Then-HOYA editor in chief Max Sarinsky (COL ’09) returned to his apartment the following afternoon to find that a rock had been thrown through his living room window.

The issue brought out by these events was a deep-rooted one on campus: racial tensions. In the following weeks and months, Georgetown sprang to action in promoting dialogue about prejudice, and campus leaders took it into their own hands to bring to the surface long-disregarded questions. Now, one year after the rally, campus leaders have noted the steps that have been taken, but also the realities of segregation and discrimination that still tarnish Georgetown’s efforts at unity.

“You don’t need data to tell us that there are problems and issues here at Georgetown, just like there are in the real world.” – GUSA President Pat Dowd (SFS ’09)

A month after the Jena Six rally, more than 100 students from a host of campus groups gathered in McShain Lounge to discuss issues that had long been swept under the rug on the Hilltop – racial awareness, tolerance and diversity.

Looking back, Rosemary Kilkenny, vice president for institutional diversity and equity and head of the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action, said she believes this was a game-changing moment for the Georgetown community.

“I left that room with a great sense of optimism,” she said.

GUSA senator Brian Kesten (COL ’10), chairman of the student association’s Student Commission for Unity, which was founded only a few weeks after this forum, said the conversation held that day was long overdue.

“Many people who graduated said the Jena Six controversy sparked the first dialogue on race in the four years they were here,” he said.

Amelia Colomb (COL ’09), president of the Black Student Alliance, said that this forum was the single biggest step taken for diversity issues over the past year.

“I think there have been significant changes in that there has been a lot of dialogue,” she said.

In March, an open forum on diversity drew several dozen students eager to make their voices heard, or in some cases, just listen.

“We’ve proven that as a community, we can be pretty good at having dialogues,” Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said.

President of Georgetown’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Alessandra Brown (MSB ’09), on the other hand, said that she has not seen much positive growth over the past year.

“I don’t feel like things are much better,” she said. “We don’t interact as much [as we should] with different groups on campus.”

To try and bridge this gap, GUSA is creating and fostering a forum for discussion to promote diversity on campus. Efforts at increasing dialogue have continued into this year: Antwaun Sargent (SFS ’11), GUSA’s first secretary for diversity affairs, has been tasked with holding a series of meetings with student group leaders to talk about diversity. GUSA President Pat Dowd (SFS ’09) said the first meeting, held two weeks ago, drew about 25 group leaders, and Sargent said he hopes to hold such meetings every couple of weeks.

Dowd said he hopes that meaningful dialogue will emerge from these future forums.

THE HOYA, a year since its coverage ignited the issue of diversity on campus, has also taken steps to ensure that it adequately covers all aspects of campus.

One of its first steps was including co-sponsoring the October forum on race last year.

Sarinsky said that one of the reasons that the paper did not cover minority events as extensively as some people would have hoped was a lack of connection between the paper’s staff and members of the minority community at Georgetown. However, he said he believes the paper has improved its coverage of issues important to minority students.

“I think the staff has become more aware of these questions,” Sarinsky said.

“Students at Georgetown really want to learn from each other; they want to get to know their peers and reach out.” -Rosemary Kilkenny

The Jena Six controversy, coupled with two alleged bias-related incidents in which “homophobic slurs” were directed toward students later in the semester, signaled to Georgetown administrators that more needed to be done to ensure an accepting and respectful campus community. One way the university responded was to increase publicity for the bias reporting system, which investigates incidents and provides support for victims. There were about 25 bias incidents reported last semester, with most involving homophobia, Kilkenny said. This was an increase from 10 incidents reported in fall 2007, a rise Dennis Williams, associate dean of students and director of the Center for Minority Educational Affairs, attributed primarily to greater awareness of the system.

In another effort, Kilkenny said it is the little things in addition to larger-scale, institutional changes that can make all the difference. For instance, she said she joined Olson in hosting three lunches last year in O’Donovan Hall with diverse groups of students in an effort to set an example of people from different backgrounds eating together.

“Hopefully five years from now, people will think it’s wrong for people not to sit together,” she said.

While the university has had efforts in place to promote campus diversity long before the incidents of last year, Kilkenny notes that Georgetown has seriously and significantly stepped up its efforts over the past 12 months.

Kilkenny said it is her job to “ensure that diversity gets infused in everything that Georgetown does.” The office does so by providing cultural training to faculty and staff and administering the university’s affirmative action plan for hiring, sexual harassment policy, grievance procedures and bias reporting system.

And while there is no official affirmative action policy for students, “the university is interested in maintaining diversity in the student body,” Kilkenny said.

Last year, the most recent period for which data is available, white students made up 64 percent of the undergraduate body. Asians constituted 9 percent; international students, 8 percent; blacks, 7 percent; Hispanics, 6 percent, Native Americans, less than 1 percent; and 6 percent were categorized as unknown.

Another group, the Diversity Action Council, operates focus groups on diversity, provides funding for diversity-related events and collects and disseminates information on diversity.

“What we do is enable,” Associate Provost and DAC co-chair Marjory Blumenthal said.

But administrators said that the ultimate solution lies with the students.

“Creating respect on campus is in part about policies . but in large part, the responsibility that every student and faculty takes on their own,” Olson said.

“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction”- Todd Olson

Despite the progress that has been made, many parties still feel there is much more work to be done.

The SCU recently released the partial results of its survey on racial issues, which found that 76.2 percent of Georgetown students “believe Georgetown has a self-segregation problem.” While several administrators and student leaders objected to the term “self-segregation,” claiming it was a loaded term, they acknowledged that the survey indicated an underlying problem.

“If three-quarters of people on campus see it as a problem, three-quarters of people on campus are the solution,” Williams said. “I don’t know what the university can do about it.”

Kesten said the key lies in students of all races working together to promote understanding and more interaction.

“It’s easy for the majority to put the onus on the minority, saying they self-segregate,” he said. “It’s easy for the minority to say the majority oppresses them.”

While some say this self-segregation generates a strong divide on campus, Blumenthal and Williams said that progress on racial issues should be viewed in the greater context of diversity as a whole.

Last year saw strides made on addressing the concerns of the LGBTQ community, and the controversy caused by Georgetown University Grilling Society T-shirts that were viewed by some as degrading to women brought gender issues to the forefront of the community conscience last spring.

“I think last year was a banner year for people putting energy into those issues,” Olson said. “That’s not to say we don’t have room to grow, because we do. We’re certainly not where we want to be, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction.”

Daniel Porterfield, senior vice president for public affairs and strategic development, said that the faculty plays a crucial role in promoting a more inclusive community.

“We should always encourage students from different backgrounds to learn from and with one another,” he said. “Some faculty design entire courses or portions of courses to foster multicultural learning and discussion. I respect that and very definitely see that as part of my own role and Georgetown’s larger mission.”

Porterfield added, “This is not work that needs to be done one time or some times; it needs to be done all the time.”

However, Brown and Colomb, leaders of NAACP and BSA, respectively, said they still feel racial tensions on campus.

“If we were to do something like we did that day for Jena,” Brown said. “I’m not certain the response would have been different.”

Colomb said both overt and covert racism remain a presence on campus, noting that some of her friends have been the victims of racist comments from fellow students.

“I think racism is very much present,” she said.

But most agree that the future looks brighter than the past. Colomb said that the BSA has reached out to other student groups to improve interaction and create relationships, and that other organizations have done the same. Sarinsky said he has received positive feedback from some group leaders regarding THE HOYA’s news coverage, and Sargent is looking forward to open, frank discussions among group leaders during which people can speak their mind without having to worry about being attacked as a person.

“There are a lot of great conversations that could happen if people just start them,” Olson said.

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