'Whose Diversity?' resists cooptation, wants more than 'sprinkling a few faces of color in catalogues' for University of Minnesota

“Whose Diversity?” members (l-r) Rahsaan Mahadeo and Tori Hong (Photo by Charles Hallman)

The issue of diversity is ever-present at the University of Minnesota. However, this may be the only thing both top administrators and a diverse group of students can easily agree upon.

“We all want to make the university a better place, and we are glad that they are raising these issues,” declares U of M Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young when asked about an independent student group calling itself “Whose Diversity?”

The “Whose Diversity?” collective is a diverse group of both undergraduate and graduate students “from underrepresented and marginalized communities.” They presented a list of “diversity demands” to top school officials in late April, including Brown Young, President Eric Kaler, and Vice President for Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert that included “substantive engagement,” a high priority on recruiting, retaining and graduating students of color, and a “comprehensive educational experience for all students,” according to the document.

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“We decided as a collective that we didn’t want to [be] backed by the university and be formally recognized as a student group or student organization,” said Rahsaan Mahadeo. “We’ve seen examples of how student groups have become co-opted by the university and made to adhere to their demands, and we didn’t want to do that.”

Both Albert and Brown Young told the MSR in separate interviews that efforts to meet with “Whose Diversity?” leaders have been unsuccessful.

“We don’t want to keep going back and forth, bantering in the media about some issues that are real, and I think are doable and solvable if we all can come together at a mutually agreed time and date and talk,” said Brown Young.

Although the group is not officially sanctioned, “They have the right to assemble without a permit as long as it’s 50 or fewer people, and they are not being destructive or disturbing University business,” said Albert. “We hope students understand that when you are passionate about an issue, it’s easier to drive a path forward when you come together, especially around issues of diversity, to have a collective understanding about what is actually happening.

“We have offered “Whose Diversity?” collective multiple opportunities to meet with Dr. Brown Young, to meet with me, and also to meet with President Kaler. All of those invitations have been rebuffed.”

However, in an interview last week at the MSR, both Mahadeo and fellow “Whose Diversity?” organizer Tori Hong disputed this statement. “They [school officials] have never asked [the group] to a meeting. When they are making these bold statements, like inviting us to meetings and such, that’s a lie,” stated Hong.

Mahadeo added that meeting with university officials would be on “an unequal playing field. We are very cautious in engaging in these conversations because we don’t want the university to present their opinions and weaken ours. [Instead] it should be held at a community center [and] shouldn’t be held on university territory,” he said.

Kaler sent a written response to each demand in a 14-page “good faith” letter May 8, but Mahadeo called it “superficial.”

“Most of what they said in the letter was examples of what the university is already doing toward their commitment to diversity. It didn’t really engage with the real important questions we were asking in our demands,” said Mahadeo, who added that U of M officials misunderstood their demand for more students of color as wanting quotas established.

“We weren’t asking them to use quotas. It’s not really about numbers to us…[but] use of statistics and percentages really obscures the real experiences of students of color at the university,” said Mahadeo.

Hong added it was only an attempt to “pacify and patronize us” and downplayed such concerns as installing more “gender neutral” restrooms in all campus buildings and facilities. “People who have a biological need are not being fulfilled by the university. All you have to do is take the sign [down] and place a new one up.”

“We want faculty of color that represents us in multiple dimensions, not only in racial and ethnic backgrounds but also in our social justice orientations and personal ideas on how to create something for change,” continued Mahadeo, who said the school’s current diversity efforts are simply “sprinkling a few faces of color on catalogs and websites and saying it is diverse.”

“They probably are hoping that over the summer we are going to stop working, but we are not going away,” said Hong.

“Both are very nice people,” Mahadeo said of Albert and Brown Young. “I don’t want to question their integrity in any way, [but] as strong as their convictions are, you know that you are up against a larger power structure that seeks to diminish those convictions and don’t want to see radical voices in their administration.”

Instead, “Whose Diversity?” hopes to “speak up for those…collective voices [that] are constantly suppressed,” said Mahadeo.

Albert reiterated that she’ll meet with “Whose Diversity?” leaders during the summer, or she and Brown Young, “or with what administration [official] they feel comfortable meeting with.” Hong said “Whose Diversity?” members will use the summer months for planning.

“We are not saying that diversity isn’t an issue during the summer,” added Mahadeo. “We don’t think the university does enough of a good job of looking at themselves in the mirror and asking themselves really thought-provoking questions or doing everything they can. We are here to be that mirror to sometimes show its guilt and culpability.”

“I don’t think they are out of pocket on the issues they are raising,” said Brown Young. “I’m hoping it doesn’t die down, because diversity issues never go away.”

“We are truly rooted in love for our community, for ourselves and for our families, and hope for our university,” said Hong of “Whose Diversity?” “That’s where our convictions come from and where our drive comes from.

“We are not looking at diversity as an end point. We are talking about it as a process, something that is a continual struggle, because it can be very messy.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com." target="_blank">challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com.

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    Charles Hallman's picture
    Charles Hallman

    Charles Hallman writes regularly for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and blogs at Another View.