The city of St. Cloud is no stranger to bullying and hate crime incidents. Earlier this year, a Facebook group called “I hate the Somalians at Tech High” made its brief debut online. Then there was a “vandalism at a Somali-owned grocery store” and later the anti-Islam newspaper advertisement.
The St. Cloud State University (SCSU) prides itself as an institution committed to diversity with “nearly 250 student clubs and organizations.” A recent incident involving Oromo students sets this claim on its head. SCSU is the second largest state University in Minnesota and is home to about two dozen Oromo students. Early in October, facebook was abuzz with Oromo students expressing utter shock at being excluded by the African Student Association (ASA) from the annual African night.
The African Night is where students, mostly of African descent, come together and showcase the beauty and diversity of Africa’s treasured cultures. ASA is a student organization tasked with organizing the gala. ASA’s mission is “to bring people of African descent together on campus and in the community of St.Cloud…shares the culture and tradition of the African nations that are represented within the organization, SCSU campus, and the St. Cloud community.” The African Night features “dances, fashion show, educational segments, poetry and most importantly an all African dinner.”
The Oromia Student Organization (OSO) is a registered student club at SCSU with a mission “to inform the St.Cloud community about Oromo culture, connect and make home away from home for Oromo students.” Oromo being one of Africa’s largest cultural groups, it is indeed shocking for ASA to exclude OSO from performing at an event that is geared towards celebrating Africa’s cultural heritage.
The Oromo people make up more than half of Ethiopia’s 82 million people. There is also a sizable Oromo presence in the neighboring countries of East Africa. The Oromo language is the third most widely spoken in the continent. Yet, there have been a misconception among African groups in and around various university campuses who view Oromo student clubs as splinter anti-Africanist groups, rather a misconstrued view informed by fear and rivaling “Ethiopian” student groups.
Despite a majority status, the Oromo people in Ethiopia have faced marginalization for over a century. When the grievances of the Oromo grew into a coordinated resistance, the Oromo were branded as secessionists, a misconception that is prevalent among Ethiopian Diaspora communities and student organizations. But according to Oromo students at St.Cloud State, ASA took the matter a step further.
According to a letter addressed to President Potter, ASA leaders urged OSO “to either perform under the banner of Ethiopian Students Association (ESA), hence representing a country of origin and a UN member state” or risk alienation. The letter further details, a repeated attempt at reconciliation and a reminder to ASA of the “reasons why the two “Ethiopian” student groups (OSO and ESA) were organized separately in the first place” went to no avail. Oromo students insist, the “African Night is a celebration of African cultures, not UN member states” not mention ASA has allowed individuals and even groups like the Council for African American Students, not representing a UN member country, to perform at this year’s event. The Oromo students did not perform at the November 20th event. The students say, a response to their plea letter to the administration came a little too late and was not of any help.
ASA officers did not respond to emails or return phone calls. The Director of Media Relations at the University’s Communication Office sent the following statement in response to my questions.
Thank you for taking the time to contact us about matters concerning the Oromo Student Organization (OSO) at St. Cloud State University. The cultural nights sponsored by our many student organizations are among the highlight of each fall and spring’s programming both for the campus community and greater St. Cloud area.
St. Cloud State University President Earl H. Potter III received a single letter from the OSO on Nov. 4, 2010. President Potter replied to that letter on Nov. 9 and suggested that the OSO work with their adviser and other University personnel to discuss their concerns about African Night. Prior to the African Night celebration, a meeting was held between the OSO and the African Student Association. Members of the two groups resolved the matter to both parties’ satisfaction.
Oromo students at the school sharply disagree, saying that the club advisers were far too reluctant and unwilling to consider the grievances of their group. “The meetings held with ASA did not produce even a meaningful understanding, let alone being resolved with satisfaction”, one student tells me. Matters like this one, neglected and downplayed, had led to many tragedies and captured a media spotlight in recent years, I hope that the University officials will continue their investigation and arrive at a lasting resolution so that no one student feels unwelcome, harassed and threatened.
In a related and even more outrageous incident, an Oromo student, a member of OSO, claims harassment and emotional abuse by ASA board members. Reportedly, the incident took place on the morning of October 24th, 2010 at a social get-together. Heree Ahmed, a senior Psychology Major at St Cloud State, was visiting a friend when she was hit with a broom, insulted, bullied and was called a terrorist.
In a letter to the University officials, Heree writes;
After leaving the incident scene fearing for my life, I called my friend Ruth to make sure she was safe or if they (ASA board members) were giving her trouble. No surprise, they were. By this time, there were four ASA Board members at Ruth’s place trashing us. When Ruth told me that they have taken the issue a step further and started badmouthing the Oromia Student Organization (OSO), I felt that she was not safe and walked back with my friends to get her. As soon as we got there, we went straight into my friend’s bedroom to pack what she needed for the night.
Despite all our efforts to avoid the ridicule, Alia Abdi, a Member of ASA Board, repeatedly said, “OSO should be considered a Terrorist Group.” At that moment, I broke down, felt let down, helpless and cried because she was with all her friends and leaders of her organization who were supportive of everything she said. Unable to bear the agony of such a hate filled and inconsiderate labeling of our club, Ruth went out her door and pointed to Patricia, the President of ASA, and said, “Patricia, you see this, hear what Alia is saying and just stand and let her trash talk about someone else’s organization and identity? You are the President and you are not doing or saying anything about this”? Ruth had no reply from the President.
A St Cloud State University alumnus tells me;
These issues continue to reoccur year after year. Oromo students were excluded from African Night my freshman year, it subsided sophomore year, and then reoccurred when I was a junior. Last year, I was one of the Oromo performers at the event. I have only seen the issue escalate over years. There is such an unspoken animosity and mistrust among the students. The advisers don’t understand, are sometimes biased and often try to down play OSO’s concerns. This time around, I hope the University will take this matter a bit more seriously and address it –it is discriminatory and unfair to the Oromo students.
St. Cloud State has allowed a minor incident to tarnish its image. The Oromo have been organizing their own independent community organizations, student groups, churches, mosques, political parties, and what not for the last half a century. As one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the Midwest, estimates of the Oromo population in Minnesota range from 20,000 to 30,000. Thousands of Oromo students are going to take notice of the discrimination against their fellow students at St. Cloud State and look elsewhere for education, taking away their talents and financial resources.
The University will therefore be ill-served by its failure to resolve this lingering issue in an amicable and sustainable manner. Exclusion based on whatever reason or rationale is un-American and the University ought to know better. Bullying, intimidation, and harassment are unacceptable anywhere, let alone at a state university. This is a matter that concerns not only would be Oromo college students but also the Oromo populace, whose tax dollars finance state universities, including St. Cloud State. It is tragic that the harassment that the Oromo have faced in their country has to follow them in their adopted homeland of Minnesota. It is a travesty of justice that the Oromo had to suffer everywhere to gain the right to call themselves who they are, and for their identity to be acknowledged.
*Oromsis Adula is the Editor -in-Chief at OPride.com.