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The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

MRC Student Coalition Seeks ‘Radical Change’

Nick Turner
Nick Turner • The Spectator

At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, their seventh day of occupation in the Casey Building at Seattle University, the Matteo Ricci College (MRC) Student Coalition restated the urgent demands detailed in their petition, “MRC Student Coalition Demands.” At the time the Spectator went to press, the petition had reached more than 1,100 signatures.

Observers mingle after the press conference on Tuesday.
Observers mingle after the press conference on Tuesday.

At the conference, students lined the stairways, sat cross-legged and leaned over the balconies in the Casey atrium as they listened intently to the people seated in front. At the head of the room, several members of the coalition dressed in all black sat in a row with their backs to a massive banner that read “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH #DEARDEANKELLY.”

“Before college, the impression is that you have to take college as is. You bought it ‘as is,’ even though they talk about progress,” freshman pre-major student Vic Vong, a core member of the coalition, said to the crowd. “But you need to question your idea of what you think is possible.”

The current iteration of the coalition began formally organizing earlier this year, but the issues raised in their petition are longstanding—based on existing student concerns spanning and extending beyond the years that Kelly has been the MRC Dean.

“There is no way that [Kelly] will affect radical change in this college,” said Jasmine Schwartz, a 2015 graduate of Matteo Ricci College and a core member of the coalition. “She doesn’t know that she stands to benefit from the liberation of all of us.”

The changes that the coalition wishes to see in the Matteo Ricci College include a curriculum that is non Eurocentric, is taught by a more diverse staff and encourages dialogue about ethical questions regarding racism, sexism and global white supremacy, among other topics. Students in the movement also say they have experienced racism within Matteo Ricci College—specifically at the hands of Kelly—and that their attempts to discuss these instances with administration have been largely unsuccessful.

“The more we [the coalition] started talking about our experiences, the more we realized we’re not alone,” said core coalition member Robert Gavino, a fifth-year humanities for leadership major. “There is something happening in the system and the culture and in the climate that is causing these things.”

The coalition’s sit-in began Wednesday, May 11, followed by a march around campus the next day during which the student protesters chanted “A racist institution cannot be our solution!” and “We need an education that leads to liberation!”

Nick Turner  • The Spectator
Nick Turner • The Spectator

Students taking part in the sit-in brought books from their personal libraries that highlighted the experiences of marginalized voices.

The following day, administrators began to address the group.

Kelly responded to the coalition’s sit-in in an email sent to members of Matteo Ricci on Thursday, May 12.

“I regret deeply that any student feels pain as a result of their experience at SU and particularly within the Matteo Ricci College,” Kelly said in her email. “I cannot speak or account for those who went before me, but as the person who now occupies the position of dean in Matteo Ricci College, I give you my word that voices will be heard and solutions will be discovered—together.”

The MRC Student Coalition said in their press conference on the May 17 that Kelly has not communicated with the coalition since her email on May 12—and that email was not sent directly to them.

Seattle U President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J. attended an event organized by the coalition on Thursday, May 12, and joined members of the group again, along with other university leaders, in a meeting the next morning. In an email sent to the Seattle U community on Saturday, Sundborg expressed his “strong desire” to work with the coalition toward solutions to their concerns, but did not mention the demand for Kelly’s resignation.

“I cannot pretend to know how deep their pain goes, the amount of harm it has caused or the extent of our own shortcomings as educators and administrators,” Sundborg said in the email. “What I do know is that these are serious issues and the way to address them is to work together in a spirit of empathy, solidarity, openness and cooperation.”

His email statement promised the formation of a committee comprised of Matteo Ricci faculty, students, coalition members, alumni and an external consultant to conduct a review of the college’s curriculum. The creation of this committee, as well as the inclusion of an outside consultant, are listed in the demands of the MRC Student Coalition’s petition.

While the coalition has said they are happy to work with Sundborg to take these steps, they do not believe any real progress can be made as long as Kelly holds her position, and they refuse to end the sit-in until she has resigned.

“We are so ready to sit at the table and get the work going,” said senior humanities for leadership and sociology double major Feeza Mohammed, core member of the coalition. “But how could you honestly do that work, truly believe in that work, when you’re willing to uphold a racist Dean?”

In an email sent to the Seattle U community just before the press conference on Tuesday, Sundborg asked the coalition not to refer to Kelly as a “racist dean,” saying this language “runs counter to our values of respect and dialogue and to the Code of Student Conduct.” At the conference, the core coalition members said that calling Kelly racist is not slander, but a statement of fact.

Some Matteo Ricci students take issue with asking Kelly to resign, saying this will not solve the lack of diversity in the
college’s curriculum.

“She [Kelly] wants to listen to everyone’s concerns,” said freshman humanities for leadership major Calvin Serrao. “If you’re trying to make change, work with them [the college] rather than against them.”

Serrao said he has developed a positive relationship with Kelly and believes she can help improve the college’s atmosphere. Moreover, he explained that although his experiences don’t discredit those of his peers, his time with the college has been positive.

“I’ve had so many great conversations with my professors, and like I said, this is the best education I’ve ever had,” Serrao said.

In regards to the demands outlined by the coalition, he agrees that there should be a change in curriculum. However, Serrao believes that the process of hiring a new dean, and more diverse professors would be a difficult and long process.

Other students have critiqued the inclusion of white students in the coalition as well as the usage of white caucuses, which separate white folks and people of color in certain but not all organizing meetings. Mohammed explained that while the movement is lead by “womxn of color,” white voices are important.

“It is white folks’ responsibility to teach each other” Mohammed said. “[White members of the movement] have really centered people of color, and women of color and me in our organizing and white caucus has always been a way in which they can radicalize and interact with other white folks that don’t know what’s going on.”

As of Wednesday night, the MRC Coalition has occupied the Matteo Ricci College office as well as the first several floors of Casey Hall for seven days.

The organization of the coalition began “organically” earlier this year, according to Gavino, when students who had already been sharing their negative experiences within the college with each other decided to take action. As conversations began to include alumni of the college who shared similar concerns about Kelly and the school’s curriculum, it became clear that current students were not the first to feel let down by their education.

Schwartz, a member of the first graduating cohort of humanities for leadership students in 2015, emphasized the importance of alumni voices in the coalition’s movement.

“We have been wronged,” Schwartz said. “We will be paying for the rest of our lives for this education that did us a disservice.”

She elaborated on her experiences as an undergraduate student in the college—experiences she characterized as “shaming.” Experiences such as being mistaken for another woman of color in her class, a professor telling her to be aware of “her space in a room,” and what she saw as a lack of sympathy and effective communication of these issues with faculty—specifically Dean Kelly.

“I was told that I was lazy, that I wasn’t supposed to be here, that there must be something wrong at home, that I was weak and unstable and that all occurred at different points when I was trying to tell people what was happening to me,” Schwartz said.

Onlookers pack into Casey Building to listen to members of the MRC Coalition talk.

As an alumna, Schwartz sees her role as seeking the educational space she and her peers could have had—the space she believes they deserved. Alumni, in her opinion, have not only a valid but a crucial role to play in communicating this dissatisfaction with their education.

Even before Kelly’s assumption of her role as Dean, Matteo Ricci students expressed dissatisfaction with the degree programs within the college.

In March 2008, a group of 13 Matteo Ricci students addressed a petition to former Dean of the college, Arthur Fisher, who resigned sometime after. Their letter included many of the same concerns raised in this year’s petition, such as feelings of discomfort within Matteo Ricci College’s classrooms and a lack of cultural competency in the college’s curriculum.

Aldo Reséndiz, one of the students who signed the letter to Fisher, also encountered issues with Kelly during several interactions with her in 2010. That year, he filed a complaint with the Matteo Ricci College about one of his professor’s remarks made during class about Vietnamese women and nail salons, as well as other remarks about a black, lesbian transgender woman. After struggling to make a change to his schedule that would allow him to take a class with a different professor, Reséndiz met with Kelly to try to resolve the issue.

Reséndiz shared his experiences with the current coalition and expressed the frustrations he had with Kelly and Matteo Ricci College when he was still a student at Seattle U. In email correspondence, he called his experience “an example of the abuse that for years took place behind closed doors in that office [Kelly’s office].”

According to Reséndiz, during the meeting Kelly told him he should reassess his reaction to his professor’s comments made in class because they were made for humorous purposes. He explained that at one point in the meeting, Reséndiz mentioned an earlier incident in which Kelly compared him with another Mexican American student because of their similar hispanic, working class, family backgrounds. Reséndiz said that Kelly did not admit to comparing the two, but that she did remark that it was “amazing” how the other student maintained “the perfect balance” of both Mexican and American culture.

Reséndiz described the meeting as the event that made him “lose all faith in the university, its administrators, staff and ‘due process.’” Reséndiz just graduated from Columbia University with an M.A. in Applied Linguistics. He said his success as a graduate student was in spite of—not a result of—his experiences in the Matteo Ricci College.

The long history of Matteo Ricci students making requests for changes within the college without receiving what they believe is an adequate response is a major reason the coalition is making demands rather than requests now. For many students involved in the movement, these demands line up directly with the reasons why they chose to attend Seattle U.

“Seattle University has one of the most progressive mission statements of most universities…and right now our curriculum, our teachers, our professors, our deans, are not equipped to empower leaders for a just and humane world,” said senior political science and Spanish double major Olivia Smith.

As one of the students involved in the sit-in, she believes that Seattle U has yet to deal with its own internalized problems. Gesturing to her surroundings in the Casey Atrium, the primary meeting space for the sit-in, Smith pointed out that the books spread out on the tables—which include “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Caramelo”—could be the start to changing a curriculum she believes is unfit for a “broken world.”

“This is what the school is trying to do,” said senior biology major Stephenie Simmons. “Seattle University wants to focus on diversity. This is what diversity looks like, right? I think it’s hard for them to view this as what the university looks like.”

The coalition is quick to dispel the assumption that their sit-in is an act of hostility. Instead, they view the space they have created in the Casey Building as a place for healing, centering on “womxn of color,” “non-gender binary folx,” “differently abled people,” “queer folx” and other marginalized identities. They characterize the movement with words like “love” and “respect.”

Smith explained that for her, while many spaces on campus are meant to be meditative and introspective, there is a lack of connection between those spaces and her identity as a woman of color. In contrast, the space the coalition has created is what her house looks like—complete with color, lights, books, flowers and pictures of people who look like her.

“There’s always been stereotypes of people of color being angry and black, and I think when you come into this space you don’t get that vibe at all. That stereotype is dismantled immediately…it’s not an angry space, it’s a healing space for all folks,” Simmons said.

Both Simmons and Smith are participants in the movement, in solidarity with the coalition, yet are not a part of the Matteo Ricci College. They explained that their involvement is not just about supporting the voices of their peers in the Matteo Ricci College, but also addressing a campus-wide issue.

“It’s been about holding my school accountable for what they said they were going to provide for us,” Smith said. “Living into my identity and being in solidarity with other folks who have felt extremely marginalized on campus.”

A large number of the students participating in the sit-in or showing their support online are not from the Matteo Ricci College itself. Current humanities for leadership major and member of the college Joseph Delos Reyes believes these students should not be speaking on his behalf.

“How dare you try to represent my voice?” Delos Reyes said. “That’s my voice that should be heard…they don’t know what it’s like to be in the college.”

Delos Reyes said he feels that the coalition not only represents a small portion of the actual students of the college, but that it seeks an impossibly fast change to a much larger systemic issue. He explained that he has felt marginalized by the Coalition as a queer person of color who is against the movement.

“They’ve said I’m not Filipino enough, I’m white-washed, that my definition of racism is incorrect,” Delos Reyes said.

For him, change should be about creating a conversation and tackling the issue head on. Through alleged personal attacks and what he sees as internal hypocrisies, Delos Reyes views the MRC Student Coalition as doing harm to real progress.

Gavino said the movement is meant to support all members of the Seattle U community. They believe the concerns raised by members of the sit-in don’t just affect the students of Matteo Ricci College, but the campus as a whole. Through conversations with students that have come in and out of the space, they have learned about different experiences across the campus.

“The fact that we are seeing these patterns not only here but everywhere indicates that yes, this is the Matteo Ricci College’s problem, but it also implicates the community at large,” Gavino said.

Gavino elaborated that there have been graduate students, other undergraduate students and non-traditional students that have expressed desire for the same general changes as the coalition itself.

Some students believe that although the movement itself may be justified in its critiques, the composition and drive of the sit-in damages its purpose. Freshman humanities for leadership and communications double major Isaiah Powell said the movement is not representative of the college itself.

“There are so many people [in the coalition] that are outside of Matteo Ricci College. They’re trying to get change, and that’s all good and well, but the focus should be on people who are in the college taking classes…students, former students, staff,” Powell said.

He reiterated Delos Reyes’ point that the sort of radical change detailed in the coalition’s demands couldn’t just happen overnight. According to Powell, an increased focus on diversity and inclusiveness would benefit the students of the college as well as the greater community, yet he believes that the demands go too far.

“I think asking the dean to resign is huge…I think it’s asking a lot,” said Powell. “I don’t have a lot of personal interactions with her, but I think just getting rid of her isn’t going to solve everything.”

During this time, the group has received varied responses from the Seattle U community as well as the broader Seattle community.

Allies such as Draze, a local rap artist from the central district, supportive faculty from Seattle U, former captain of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers Party Aaron Dixon, Seattle Pacific University students and City Council Member Kshama Sawant have made appearances in the space to show their solidarity. Community members and student allies of the movement who are not participating in the sit-in have donated food and supplies.

“Faculty who have our backs…love being in that space and love showing us support…and have expressed to us behind closed doors how courageous we are and how much they’ve been needing this because now they can move forward on things,” Mohammed said.

People from other parts of the community have responded more negatively to the movement. On Friday, May 13, two phone calls were made to the MRC office phone in response to the sit-in. The calls, which were directed at the students occupying the space, used racial slurs and blatant hate speech.

“That space is paid for by predominantly white tax payers. We are going to demand that every single foreign student here on a student visa, racially harassing white students… you don’t like this predominantly white country? Then we’re going to make sure that your foreign student visas will be revoked and you can go back to your racist, Asian-only China, Asian-only India, racist, Hispanic-only Mexico,” the caller said.

Later that day Sundborg sent an email statement to the Seattle U community addressing the incident and condemning any kind of hate speech.

“There simply is no excuse or place for such behavior,” Sundborg said in the statement. “While I have been assured none of the incidents involved threats to specific members of this student group, we take each incident seriously…”

On Saturday, May 14 a police report was filed with the Seattle Police department after several men—a group of allegedly intoxicated young white males—were seen outside of the Casey Building pushing over the MRC Coalition’s signs and yelling racist slurs at the building.

“The white supremacy is starting to show,” Simmons said.

Speaking to these negative responses to the sit-in, interim director of Public Safety Craig Birklid explained that though these incidents are few, they have a massive impact on the community.

“[These kinds of statements] are hurtful to the people that intake those calls, they’re hurtful to the general community, because really it’s an attack on the community when people do that,” said Birklid. “We take that seriously.”

Birklid elaborated that Public Safety holds the safety of the community as paramount. In regards to interactions with the MRC Coalition, he explained that while there is a duty to protect the property, human lives are of a greater concern.

Despite these incidents involving hate speech, the MRC Coalition remains steadfast in their goals. Schwartz is confident that the movement will lead to change.
“A lot of us are really exhausted, and that’s indicative of all of us putting in 100 percent of ourselves into what we’re doing,” Schwartz said. “I think that with that much passion and that much capability to learn and grow with each other, and for each other, and through each other, that just shows how loving the space is and how we’re going to win.”

The coalition has been asked to testify at the Academic Assembly on Monday, May 23. They said they are waiting for a formal invitation this Friday, May 20.

The editor may be reached at [email protected]

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