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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

U SEE Me? Panel Discussions Show Campus United Against Prejudice

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

Professor Darrell Walsh speaks at the U SEE Me faculty panel. Friday, March 25, 2022. Seth Carpenter, Photo Editor

U SEE Me returns to UTC to help students better understand, support, empower and embrace minorities on campus.

SGA’s Social Issues, Equity and Diversity Committee held panel discussions featuring faculty and student leaders on March 25 and April 1, respectively, in Derthick Hall. 

The questions and topics might have been tense, but the panelists rose to the occasion, occasionally stirring rousing applause as they spoke truth to power. 

Participants more than doubled at the student panel, including a cameraman who filmed the event from the third row. A slideshow featured the organization and faculty leaders, with an inspirational quote from each. 

The discussions were part of the U SEE Me? Campaign, described in the University Echo article “Antiracism Campaign Enters its Sophomore Year” by Sydney Taylor.

Kayleigh Barron, Chairwoman of SIED, moderated the events and ensured audience members participated in the discussion as well. For her first question, she asked faculty and students panels to score UTC’s equity, using standard “A” through “F” grades.

Faculty did not seem keen to answer, initially.

“If I had to give it a grade, it would be a ‘D-’ or ‘C+’,” Diversity Initiatives and Outreach Coordinator and Counselor Akeyla Madison said.

Takeo Suzuki, executive director for the Center for Global Education, lightened the mood. He joked UTC would be undecided, with a variety of grades in each category, but A.J. Davis, coordinator of Engagement for the Division of Diversity and Engagement, disagreed.

“We’re at an incomplete,” Davis replied. “We might need a parent teacher conference.”

The Echo reached out to Davis for more information via email. He found assigning a grade to be limiting, especially when there aren’t set standards and UTC could always strive for better.

“The idea of a grade can make us complacent… makes us think we’re doing good enough,” Davis wrote. “But an incomplete says no, you’ve done something, but there is more to do.”

After they evaluated UTC’s equitability score, the two panels moved on to discuss how UTC earned its score. 

Associate Professor Gail Dawson, Ph.D., prefaced the faculty panel withempirical evidence. She cited studies detailing discrimination injob callbacks,pay gaps, andresume whitening.

The audience and panelists debated whether UTC’s Black leadership do enough for the campus—noting low-awareness of POC leaders and the challenges they face.

“I should know that A.J. Davis is a Black person of leadership on campus,” Hall stated; he did understand black leaders—who have their own bills to pay—struggle to say everything they want. “[You] can’t expect them to risk their job.”

Darrell Walsh, Ph.D. added that it’s easy to forget the institutional barriers holding progress back.

The Chancellor’s Chief of Staff, David Steele, agreed with Walsh’s view— it’s a systemic issue; although, he approached the questions from a holistic standpoint.

“In almost every case, the cost [of change] has been born by the oppressed,” Steele said. “The pride has been taken by the oppressors.”

According to the faculty panel, change occurs whenever minorities break their silence—and majorities allow them to speak. The status quo, as it stands, oppresses minorities by overlooking their voices.

“Silence is the… deadliest thing you can do,” NAACP President DaVeon Hall said. “People are scared to hear the truth.”

Ayub Farah, president of the African Student Association, leaned in and dabbed Hall’s hand in support.

“People fear that by allowing open communication, they will lose a privilege or material possessions,” Walsh warned a week prior. “They’re fearful of losing their position in society.”

A participant helped shift the topic from social barriers to financial struggles, causing the student panelists to thoroughly explore the issue of securing funding. Since UTK’s infamous battle with its student organizations, funds have been locked away from all student organizations within the University of Tennessee System.

“Every time it’s the same excuse,” Williams said. “UTK had a *** week and took it too far, so everyone got reprimanded.”

The organizations plead with alumni, local organizations, and school executives, but this drains their time they need for school. Hall lightened the air, asking who would run the NAACP if he skipped and failed his classes to secure funding. They often fund events themselves, fundraise, or donate their time instead of money.

“School is extra-curricular at this point,” Farah joked. “Campus culture is made by student organizations.”

Other than the Black Student Alliance, two other relatively new organizations are the Asian Student Alliance and Vietnamese Student Alliance. Their representatives focused on creating safe communities for their groups.

Representing the Asian Student Alliance, Emma Sprayberry, president, summarized herself, “I want to leave UTC doing something for the people behind me.”

“VSA was started by our President, Tony [Nguyen], because he simply wanted to meet with other Vietnamese students,” Vice President Trish Nguyen shared. “I wanted to be able to emulate that rich culture here, and honestly make a close group of friends here too.”

Audience member Shelby Exline steered the student panel towards hope, asking how majorities could be better allies. Dayjah Williams, vice-president of the Black Student Alliance, welcomed them to their events.

“If you’re here, you’re invited,” Williams answered, but she also cautioned against faking allegiance. “Don’t just support us when it’s easy—show it all the time. When you see someone being discriminated against, stand up.”

She spoke passionately about the future of BSA, as well as warning she will always prioritize her group’s safety.

Delali Gadzekpo, upcoming Student Government Association President, participated at times from the audience. She discussed the struggle with finding funding, and how they plan to use the upcoming semester to lay new groundwork. 

Davis argued anyone—student or not—could benefit themselves in simply learning more about minority communities.

“To be more inclusive, students can make a conscious effort to get to know people who are different,” she replied. “…go by yourself… and spend at least two hours interacting with them, and do some honest reflection on the experience.”

“Overall, it was a very important experience, especially as a white person,” Naomi White, an audience member, said. “I feel that having the more seasoned responses were vital, and you could see the ferocity and passion in both faculty and student panels, but especially the students.”

“I am so grateful to hear from so many amazing people… to share their perspectives and story,” Barron wrote. “There was such passion and care surrounding this campaign, and I am very proud of everyone who came out and actively participated in this conversation.”

Throughout the discussions, several names and organizations were shouted out or recognized as particularly impactful for the panelists. These included: The Multi-Cultural Center’s Assistant Director and National Pan-Hellenic Council Advisor Christopher Stokes, Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Engagement Stacy Lightfoot, upcoming Student Government Association President Delali Gadzekpo, Student Support Services and Student Success Programs.

To celebrate the U SEE Me? campaign, Barron extended an invitation to a cultural dinner on April 8, at 6 p.m. in Lupton Hall and thanked her committee members—Jenna Butler, Chaslyn Crews and DD Hailey—for launching the second year of the U SEE Me? campaign.

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