A panel discussion about diversity and inclusion on Wheaton’s campus was held on Wednesday, Nov. 17 between members of the Senior Administrative Cabinet (SAC), student leaders from the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) and other interested students. The “SAC Dialogue with Racialized Minority Students” event consisted of an hour of prepared questions generated by Student Government and the SAC, and another half hour of open discussion where students anonymously directed questions to the SAC members.
The Q&A discussion was the second-ever panel of its kind, with the first occurring in the spring of 2021. This year, the panel was facilitated and organized by Brianna Barba, a senior psychology major who is the EVP of Community Diversity in Student Government.
According to Barba, the purpose of the panel was to “foster open communication between members of the Senior Administrative Cabinet and racialized minority students, especially regarding diversity, unity, justice and inclusion, and also [to] allow there to be a sense of accountability with SAC so we can hear what progress has been made.”
SAC is the administrative body responsible for overseeing specific departments, bringing matters before the College’s Board of Trustees and making day-to-day decisions about college operations. SAC members present at the dialogue included President Phillip Ryken, Chief Enrollment Management Officer Silvio Vasquez, Provost Karen An-Hwei Lee and Vice President for Student Development Paul Chelsen. Other staff members in attendance included Interim Chaplain Greg Waybright and Dean of Student Wellness Toussaint Whetstone.
During the first hour of the event, SAC members answered questions prepared by Student Government about topics such as the expansion of mental health counseling, the creation of new ethics programs and changes to scholarships and funding for minority students. The last half hour of the event consisted of open questions from students; these ranged from changing the name of Buswell Library to inquiries about the firing of SAC members.
Jordan Burton, a senior Bible and theology major who also serves as president of the William Osborne Society, said he wanted the dialogue’s impact to extend beyond words and lead to practical changes on campus.
“It was a necessary conversation, but words and actions are two different things,” Burton said. “I’d like to see what the practice will look like. It’s a good starting point, but I just hope that we don’t stay here. It’s not simply things we’re discussing but things we’re doing.”
While the dialogue did provide a space for students to ask sensitive questions anonymously, Barba, Ryken and Reyes said that they were not surprised by the content of the back and forth.
During this section of the event, Burton asked SAC why the College focuses on proving the existence of racism rather than proposing ways to actively fight against it. He expanded on his question later in an interview with the Record.
“The bar is really low for what is to be expected for staff and faculty in terms of understanding race and racism and I just wonder when we’re going to move further,” Burton said. “It’s not simply enough to talk about racism and say ‘we need to prove its existence.’ It’s 2021. We shouldn’t still be stuck on whether racism exists. Instead we need to be analyzing what we can do to change structures, to change systems. [The dialogue] was a way of doing that, but it seems like such a small step.”
Some students, such as Julio Reyes, a junior math major and the Chaplain of Unidad Cristiana, said that they doubt the session will lead to real change.
“What I expected to come from this meeting was just entertainment,” said Reyes. “I knew that this meeting was just a performance by SAC to have it on paper that they’re listening to feedback from students of color when in reality, they’re not.”
While Barba also felt the dialogue did not completely fulfill her expectations, she expressed hope that the event represents a starting point for continued discussion.
“One of my greatest dreams with this is that we increase the proximity to power for racialized minority students in order to create really tangible change on campus,” she said. “My main goal with this is that every single time we have one of these conversations, we can look back on them in a semester, or maybe in a year, and say that a change happened because we had this conversation. This is where this change started.”
Panel discussions between SAC members and minority students are now scheduled to occur at least once every semester, providing set opportunities for students to directly engage with the College leaders.
Ryken expressed his desire to continue the dialogue with minority students in the future.
“I’m actually as interested or more interested in connecting with student leaders on these topics in other venues in various cabinets in the Office of Multicultural Development,” he said. “So I think there are more opportunities for us to have these conversations and we need to take advantage of them.”
Interim Chaplain Waybright said that additional discussion is needed in order to better welcome minority students on Wheaton’s campus.
“I still think we need to have more times to actually sit down and listen and say, ‘Help me to see what you’re seeing, help me to understand what you’re experiencing’ so that we can do this better already and prepare a place that is more of a home for future racialized minority students,” said Waybright. “I really am thankful that we have gatherings like this, but still we have a lot of work to do.”