There’s a long table in the middle of the office within the Casey Building at Seattle University (SU). The area is filled with spring blossoms that cover every shade of purple and pink. Surrounding the flowers are stacks of photos of parents and grandparents, zines, embroidery hoops of art and books — stacks upon stacks of books.
One might instinctively think that these are the school’s required textbooks students have gathered. But upon further inspection, it is clear that these paperbacks and hardcovers — with names of social thinkers such as James Baldwin, Malala Yousafzai and Audre Lorde printed in bold on the covers — are representative of an education that the students at SU are fighting to bring to the campus during an office occupation that has lasted more than two weeks. Their demands: an education that is liberating and relevant to their diverse lived experiences.
On May 11, students and allies began an ongoing occupation at an office lobby of the Matteo Ricci College (MRC), an intimate program within the larger institution of SU that graduates students with majors in Humanities, Humanities for Leadership and Humanities for Teaching. The students have formed a multiracial coalition and are calling for a complete college overhaul, with a list of demands that address immediate changes within curriculum, faculty, culture, evaluations and marketing. MRC student Fiza Mohammad said that the MRC is not preparing students to enter a very racist and sexist world. Students deserve better, she said.
“Leaders and teachers who don’t know how to communicate about race, White students who do not know how to engage their whiteness, students of color who have not felt empowered within the classroom — it is very disappointing,” said Mohammad, who will be receiving a Humanities for Teaching degree. “I feel embarrassed that I am graduating with this degree.”
The coalition is demanding the resignation of the MRC’s dean, Jodi Kelly, who the group argued is racist in a variety of ways, including how she runs the college, the curriculum and interactions she has had with students behind closed doors, including use of offensive terminology and microaggressions — the offensive comments and actions that reinforce negative racial stereotypes.
“What we’re asking for is systemic change,” Mohammad said in a press conference. “We truly believe that while Dean Kelly is the dean or is in any administrative position or power within MRC or SU, that radical change will not happen.”
Kelly, reached by email, rejected the accusations of racism.
“It is extremely upsetting and completely wrong,” she said. “I am an advocate for free speech, but when that turns to character assassination based on false claims, the limits of the First Amendment have to be understood.”
Kelly said that she remains committed to the school.
“I have been dedicated to my students and their future my entire career,” she said. “I have helped educate more than 1,300 alums and 195 current students. I’m going to work hard to build back trust with any student who feels differently.”
Kelly claims that she has tried to work with the MRC Coalition while also claiming that the group has not communicated with her. However, the MRC Coalition has spent several days and nights sitting outside of her office and met with her for three listening sessions in May.
Organizers say Kelly — who has been dean since 2012 and involved in the college for 40 of its 41 years — is a symptom of a larger problem of administrators and professors who they feel have not confronted their own biases and are not equipped to effectively teach people of color how to become leaders and educators.
“How can you teach the humanities when you’re just focused on one part of the world?” Mohammad asked. “It would be one thing if we were learning about colonization and imperialism and were going to deconstruct it and see what’s relevant in today’s world, but we don’t have professors equipped to have that conversation.”
The MRC Coalition and alumni have been organizing to address racism and curriculum for the past decade, through formal and informal channels. Activists say they have been speaking with the college about this and sharing stories the entire time.
Kelly said that claim is false.
However, according to SU’s newspaper, The Spectator, in 2008 students addressed the need for an external review of the college — a process that occurs every seven years for every college within the university. The last internal review for MRC was in 1991, with current plans for a Fall 2016 review.
“In essence, Dean Kelly has had 10 years to take initiative and address student concerns through her role as associate dean and dean,” according to a statement from the MRC Student Coalition. “If she has not responded to these concerns organically or under pressure, the Coalition has no reason to believe that she will do so now. We are taking our concerns to the appropriate parties.”
Students are also concerned that a university has become a bastion of fear — a place where students and professors have felt unable to voice their concerns.
“There is a culture of fear at Matteo Ricci College, and professors behind closed doors with us have told us they are unable to stand against Dean Kelly and to stand for the curriculum that they believe is liberatory education, which we have been sold,” MRC student Olivia Smith said.
At the press conference, Smith explained that grievances, dating from 2006, had been brought forward through proper channels at SU, but have not led to change.
Since the occupation began, the MRC Coalition has received threatening phone calls from parents of students at SU. They have also been attacked on social media. While they have not been in direct communication with Dean Kelly since the occupation, students have met with SU president Father Stephen Sundborg and other administrators.
Throughout the occupation, which at the time of print is still occurring, the Coalition has received tremendous community support — alumni letters and visits by local organizer Seattle Black Panther Aaron Dixon, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and organizations such as El Centro de la Raza and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism.
Students across the city are making similar demands of their universities in a series of unprecedented protests and organizing led by young people of color. University of Washington (UW) and Seattle Pacific University (SPU) students have joined SU students in protesting a euro-centric curriculum and racism on their respective campuses. Collectively, they’ve employed a number of tactics: forums, petitions, sit-ins and walk-outs.
Undergraduate and graduate students at SPU released a petition in February with the goal of holding the university accountable to its social justice-focused mission. They have shown up to the MRC Coalition sit-in and see the occupation as an opportunity to show solidarity but also to learn new tactics and language from each other.
“We recognize that the White dominant culture, the White supremacy culture was not changing at all,” said Dae Shik Kim-Hawkins Jr., a second-year graduate student. “We decided to think of practical ways we could directly change the culture of SPU to not be so White dominant and white male dominate.”
That consisted of curriculum change and hiring change amongst other demands, to make sure these things would continue to take place long after the 2015 core members of SPU Justice Coalition graduate.
The protest at SU could have ripple effects at other campuses, Kim-Hawkins said. If SU listens to the MRC Coalition, it could influence how other campuses respond.
“SU’s fight for justice with their movement would mean a huge win for us at SPU,” Kim-Hawkins said. “Our school is watching to see if students fighting for liberation can actually change a school by standing up and fighting. SU’s decision to listen to and liberate MRC Student Coalition will influence other universities, especially SPU, in their decision-making processes as well.
“Whatever happens at SU, good or bad, will cause a chain reaction to take place on campuses everywhere. Especially the smaller ones.”
To stay up to date on what is happening with the MRC Coalition, visit: http://bit.ly/mrccoalition
To see an updated timeline of the events please visit Seattle University Spectator: http://bit.ly/1TExNNI