Students of color continue to lead calls for more identity-based spaces on campus
Creation of HOME in Mary Graydon Center is not enough, students say
As AU carries out its diversity and inclusion strategy and takes a closer look at improving the University’s campus climate, students and administrators have pushed for the creation of more spaces for students of color.
One of the spaces born out of those conversations was the Hub for Organizing Multiculturalism and Equity, or HOME. The space is located on the third floor of the Mary Graydon Center and aims to be a space where students of different identities “can just come and be,” said Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence.
But while some students and administrators praise HOME for fostering a sense of community and belonging among students of color, other students say the room falls short of what they think a space for students of color should be. Their complaints range from the small size of the space to how HOME has been marketed to students of all backgrounds rather than to students of color.
“HOME doesn’t provide people with a sense of security, with a sense of belonging, when everyone from all types of affinity groups can be there,” said senior Othniel Malcolm Andrew Harris, who has been involved in organizing protests at AU.
HOME was created in reaction to racist incidents over the past two years and a reported lack of a sense of belonging on campus, predominantly among students of color. Only 34 percent of African-American students reported that they felt a sense of belonging at AU in a 2017 survey.
Prior to the opening of HOME, there was not a space for students of color to build community, said Ayana Wilson, AU’s student activities director.
“There were no spaces where students of color felt safe,” Wilson said.
Any student can request access to the space by applying on the Student Activities’ website and thus agreeing to the “mission and goal of continuing to foster a sense of community and belonging for our communities of color and allies,” as stated in the application form.
“I would say it’s a concept that should expand beyond a single room,” said Michael Elmore, the director of University Center. “When I’m walking around campus, this should be the principle that we’re all living under: basic respect, basic agreement on civility and human rights.”
However, some students say that the purpose of the room is lost by making the space open to all students.
“I understand why they would’ve opened it to everyone because exclusivity isn’t something that’s really garnered on campus,” sad Sam Liang, a sophomore and finance co-director for the Asian American Student Union. “But it makes it feel like the point of it isn’t there anymore.”
Wilson reported that 331 students requested access to HOME last spring, and while data is not yet available for this semester, she said the biggest challenge is making sure students know about the space.
“The more students that use it, the more that we can advocate that this is a necessary space,” Wilson said.
Several students reported positive experiences at HOME. Danielle Vinales, a senior political science major, said that she often brings underclassmen to the space to “study and chill.” She spends a lot of her free time there, she said.
“Communities [have] to learn how to work together and how to hang out together, and HOME was that,” Vinales said.
Like Vinales, AU graduate student and former Student Government comptroller Christine Machovec said she often used the space to hang out with friends, do homework or have movie nights while an undergraduate student last year.
“Some of my fondest memories of AU were made during my senior year, and many of those memories were made in HOME,” Machovec said in an email.
Several students interviewed about HOME said that they were disappointed in the size and location of the space, including Vinales. She would like to see the room expand throughout the third floor of MGC as a multicultural center, like the Multicultural Student Services Center at George Washington University.
Elmore said that while the permanent use of space in MGC won’t be finalized until the next strategic plan, the University would push for a larger space if there was demand.
“It’s also a matter of convenience,” said Danielle Germain, a junior in the School of Communication. “[The University] stuck us upstairs in the middle of nowhere, and that’s kind of annoying.”
The location was chosen for practical and philosophical reasons, Elmore said. The space needed few renovations, was centrally located on campus in a building where most students go for food, was located near other office spaces for multicultural groups and, ultimately, where space was available.
“One of the first things we have to recognize is that the University doesn’t have any space for anything at the moment,” said Rafael Cestero, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Student Government.
Black students continue to call for black house, living-learning community
Following racist incidents and a hate crime targeting black students at AU in 2017, many students in the black community pressed the University to create a black house or black space on campus.
“What we needed was a large community space that the entire black community could get together and support one another,” said Ma’at Sargeant, a senior who has been an organizer of several student protests at AU.
After then-Student Government President Taylor Dumpson helped to launch HOME last fall, several students said they viewed HOME as a response to their request for a black house.
“I don’t think [HOME is] meant to check the box saying ‘now our black students have a space, we can move on to another thing,’” Wilson said. “I don’t think it’s ever been advertised like that or marketed like that.”
But Germain said that was the perception among many black students.
“I understand that they weren’t trying to make it a quick fix or a Band-Aid, but that’s what it looked like to everyone,” Germain said.
While the idea of what a black house would look like at AU varied among students who spoke to The Eagle, many students and administrators have pointed to Georgetown University’s Black House as a model.
Black House, along with Casa Latina, are physical houses and living learning communities where residents participate in an application process and interview to be selected, according to Vanice Antrum, the program coordinator for the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access at Georgetown University.
“The houses contribute to the student experience by creating a space dedicated to creating a welcoming environment to students of color on campus,” Antrum said in an email.
Aw said that she is continuing to develop the idea of creating a living learning community for black students, and that the next steps include surveying the interest for a space and comparing that with AU’s inventory of housing.
“For the students who had made that request two years ago, their chagrin is that ‘it didn’t happen while I was here,’ and that I can understand,” Aw said.
In building a black house and living-learning community, Aw said that it’s important to assess whether other affinity groups may be interested, and whether the University can also respond to that interest.
“Because we go to AU, if we give space to one minority group, every single other minority group is going to be marching outside of MGC,” Cestero said.
The University used to have “a plethora of identity-based offices” before consolidating these offices into the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Elmore said. CDI was established in 2012 as part of the 2008 strategic plan, and Elmore said it reflected a national trend to organize diversity under a single umbrella.
But some students said that they seek a space where they can be with people of their same identity. Harris said he’d like to see a black space that puts on events about the history of black students at American University.
“It’s very hopeful for people in administration to want for spaces to be inclusive, but I don’t think at this time in American University’s history – I don’t think that’s happening right now,” Harris said.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's November 2018 fall print edition.