Nearly two weeks ago, a gun was pulled on a group of black students after attending a house party on Kentucky Street.
Kynnedi Grant, a junior from St. Louis and president of the Black Student Union, was at the party. The gun was pulled on her friends.
Grant said she was looking for a friend’s wallet when two males verbally attacked her and her friends and then put her in a chokehold and threatened her.
Grant said the police who arrived did nothing.
Grant is one of many students who spoke out at a town hall meeting about her personal encounters with racism being silenced by the University and in Lawrence.
Another student, a freshman, said she is transferring because she is tired of being targeted for her race and not being able to speak out about it.
“Never have I ever been more aware of my race and that I am oppressed and that I am not equal than in the three months that I’ve been on this campus,” the student said at the town hall meeting. “So I’m through, because there’s not going to be a change.”
The meeting on Wednesday was held in response to recent events at the University of Missouri and Yale University. The discussion, held in the Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union and moderated by Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, was to focus on race, respect and responsibility.
The audience exceeded the auditorium’s 500-seat capacity, with many people filling in along the sides and back of the room. For those who could not find room to sit or stand, a live feed of the discussion played in the Big 12 room across the hall.
In addition to students and faculty members, several administrators attended the meeting, including Tammara Durham, vice provost of student affairs, and Jane Tuttle, assistant vice provost for student success. Student senators were also in attendance, including Student Body President Jessie Pringle and Student Body Vice President Zach George.
After a brief welcome and opening remarks, the chancellor opened the room up to questions from members of the audience. The discussion that resulted lasted more than two hours.
Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, a campus group, spoke out at the meeting. Before the meeting, the group shared stories of racism and discrimination at the University online through #RockChalkInvisibleHawk.
“We are here. We are aware. We are powerful, and you cannot keep pushing us away,” said one member of the group at the forum.
As Gray-Little tried to wrap up the meeting, the group stood on stage behind her with posters expressing their concerns.
The posters listed 15 demands, including banning concealed carry on campus, hiring an Office of Multicultural Affairs director by December, creating a Multicultural Student Government separate from Student Senate, and a plan of action from the University by Jan. 19, 2016.
Others who spoke at the meeting called for a change in retention rates. In the class of 2014, 43.1 percent of white students graduated in four years, and 15.5 percent of African-Americans graduated, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.
Gray-Little said retention rates for all students are a major University focus. She said the current rates are unacceptable.
One student asked for African American Studies or Latino Studies to be a required class rather than an elective.
“There’s no reason I have to know your history, but you don’t have to know mine,” the student said.
Although several members of the audience discussed a need for more inclusive classrooms, some discussed a lack of awareness within the community. An audience member said that not knowing about these problems is not an excuse.
“It’s our job to learn,” she said. “It’s not a person of color’s job to teach us.”
Clarence Lang, chair for the department of African and African American Studies, said staff members need to take a critical look at the University.
“I think that part of the issue — part of it, not the whole of it — is that we have to take a hard look at how our faculty and our staff look at this University, because I think these things are connected," Lang said.
Several audience members critiqued the University for having a tendency to ask questions and facilitate discussions but not take further action.
Administrators came to talk about the issues at hand; students, faculty and staff came to act.
Gray-Little was at the meeting to listen to student, faculty and staff concerns. She often addressed concerns with questions like, “What does taking responsibility mean? What does it look like?”
Gray-Little specifically addressed demands from Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk as something she would look into and discuss with other staff and faculty members.
“I want to do something,” she said. “I agree with most of what has been said.”
Many of the people who spoke at the town hall meeting voiced concerns that University leaders are not ensuring equality on campus. For one member of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, the town hall discussion was gravely overdue.
“It’s embarrassing,” the student said. “There are so many of you in this room — myself included, I am not exempt — who should be embarrassed that year after year after year, that this dialogue that we’ve been trying to introduce for years has not come until now.
"You all have waited until lives have been lost. We have been hurt, stepped on, spit on. Anything you can speak of has happened before we’ve had this dialogue, and it’s been years in the making.”
Francis Soto, a teaching assistant in the communications department, said she is tired of seeing systemic racism in her department.
“When I am asked by a colleague of mine to speak in a Spanish accent because it’s funny, I see the racism, and I see the cultural insensitivity, and that happens in my department and that shouldn’t," Soto said. "I am a student here. I am an instructor here. I do not feel safe here.
“I will not stand for it. I will be going to the head of my department about it, because I’m incredibly angry about it, and it has gone too far.”
Shawn Alexander, professor of African and African American Studies, called the chancellor’s response to injustices “window dressing.”
“We have programs, we have these things, we’re not getting the job done,” Alexander said. “In my time here, you keep coming back to us, saying we need to hear stories.
"These stories have been here. I’ve been here for eight years. I hear them every single day. They have been here. You have been here, but we have fired two football coaches for not getting the job done.”
Quaram Robinson, a sophomore, criticized the chancellor for not responding to the demands of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk.
“People came up. They made demands. Those demands were not promised to be met. That is why black demands cannot be made in a conversational zone, because there’s no conversation," Robinson said. "There’s a demand, and then the demand is sanitized."
One student accused the University administration of purposefully avoiding change.
“Yes, we acknowledge that the University has responded to us, but these responses have consistently served no real purpose except to derail any change," the student said. "The University of Kansas administration has consistently evaded addressing actual issues."
Sam Reed, a sophomore from San Francisco, addressed the chancellor directly, voicing his frustration at the lack of change occurring on campus.
“There’s people at this school being oppressed, and can you honestly tell me that these universities care about these students? Because to me and many people in this room, we don’t. We really do not,” Reed said. “Until there is some kind of tangible change — something happens — then nothing will change. We’ll be having the same, stupid meeting 10 years from now, and that’s the reality whether we want it or not. We can chit-chat and have all these dumb conversations. But if nothing actually changes, it’s all pointless.”
Discussion rounded out toward the end of the evening with many audience members calling for action from students, administration, faculty and staff.
“I think that faculty has a job to do,” Lang said. “I think that administrators have a job to do. I think the staff has a job to do. I think this falls on any one individual or any one office.”
Nicole Hodges Persley, assistant professor and director of theatre graduate studies, said the need to address racism falls to everyone.
“Responsibility looks like every faculty and every staff member is required to understand and be trained in some aspect of diversity. We are all responsible. We are all reporters. If you see something, you should say something, and not just say something, you should do something, and that’s why we’re all here,” Hodges Persley said.
Gray-Little concluded by thanking everyone for sharing their ideas. She said she is committed to working with the community to address issues of race, inequality and justice.
“I know that, as a University, there are a lot of things that we need to do, a lot of things that we have to do, and I am dedicated to making changes, to make this a place that is more welcoming — that is, confirming all of the identities of the different people and groups of people that we have here.
“I’ll make that commitment, to you, to work with you.”