Editor’s Note: This is a collaboration between the Collegian and the Coloradoan.
Vaniesha Gregory said she feels uncomfortable walking the halls of her home at Colorado State University.
Gregory, 18, said other students in Summit Hall have peppered her with racially insensitive jabs since she transferred to the University earlier this school year. They’ve asked Gregory, who is black, if they could touch her hair, if she could teach them how to twerk, why she was so dark and if she knew her dad.
As tensions escalated across campus with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, they asked her to joke that “white is right.”
She’s one of several minority students pushing for more inclusiveness at the University, most recently campaigning and protesting for a hard-won Diversity Bill that made campus history by adding voting seats for minority offices to CSU’s student government.
The bill was passed March 9 by one vote after weeks of discussion, which included protests and debate on social media about the inclusion and representation of minority groups on campus.
Not all students feel the tension that advocates for the bill say exists.
Alex Teahen, 20, said CSU has “one of the most open and accepting student cultures I’ve ever encountered,” even though demographics demonstrate the campus is not significantly racially diverse.
Teahen, who is white, said the University’s demographics are a reflection of the Fort Collins area’s lack of diversity, not of the University’s culture.
CSU’s student population is 71 percent white. Fort Collins’ population is about 78 percent white, according to a five-year estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.
“If there was a real issue here, I believe the student population would better recognize it,” Teahen said. “I also believe if this was truly a student affairs issue, there would be a lot more of an uproar.”
For Gregory and several other minority students interviewed by the Collegian, however, the uproar is deafening.
Being heard everywhere
Kwon Atlas, 21, has been fighting for representation in CSU’s student government since his first draft of the Diversity Bill in fall of 2013. At that time, he was one of three ethnically diverse senators. He’s no longer a senator, but remains actively involved in the process.
He wanted more representation for students of diversity, a good “first step” to include more socioeconomic variety. Students with different perspectives may vote differently, providing a more balanced student government.
The bill was indefinitely postponed. A replacement bill without voting power for minority offices was passed unanimously. It came with a glaring problem: voting senators can silence their non-voting counterparts.
Another attempt to add voting power failed, followed by another failed bill to add a diversity council. Attempt after attempt met the same fate.
Passing a bill with voting rights for diversity offices was only made possible by “a white, male ally” in student government, Atlas said. Student body president Jason Sydoriak helped Atlas with his most recent Diversity Bill, he said.
“It is important to recognize the power of allies, as well as the lack of power that I had individually,” he said.
Nine diversity offices – Adult Learner and Veteran Services, Asian/Pacific American Cultural Center, Black/African American Cultural Center, El Centro, Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Queer Questioning & Ally Resource Center, International Programs Office, Native American Cultural Center, Resources for Disabled Students and Women and Gender Advocacy Center – now have voting rights.
The bill also opens the door for other campus groups to seek a voting seat with a majority vote of the senate.
“People said this could not be done and you all did it. … It doesn’t seem real,” Atlas said in a speech after the bill passed.
The diversity offices Atlas sought representation for are a safe haven for minority students, Gregory said in a protest prior to the bill’s passing.
She’s found her home in the Black/African American Cultural Center but wants to also feel accepted outside of its walls.
“Why do we have such little offices in here where we just come here to feel safe? Why can’t we feel safe everywhere? Why can’t we be heard everywhere?” Gregory said.
University diversity efforts
More than 17 percent of students at CSU this spring identify with minority groups, up 3.66 percentage points from 2011. International students, which made up 7.44 percent of CSU’s enrolled students this spring, are not included in minority counts.
CSU wants to be “the model” of inclusion for these students, for other universities and for other communities, said Blanche Hughes, CSU vice president of student affairs.
This mission was brought into focus when gunshots in Ferguson, Missouri, in Sept. 2014, and the many events that followed Michael Brown’s death launched national unrest. Though Fort Collins is nearly 900 miles away from Ferguson, the events reverberated across the CSU campus.
The Diversity Office hosted conversations, creating a safe space to “say what was on their minds about what’s going on,” said Mary Ontiveros, vice president for diversity at CSU.
Being willing to talk about diversity is essential, Hughes said.
“We don’t try to say ‘not a big deal,'” Hughes said. “It is a big deal for many students, so let’s not shy away from it. Let’s acknowledge it and talk about what we can do to help people feel more comfortable.”
That’s why the University has weaved the diversity discussion into student orientation, faculty training, student interactions and several “pockets” across campus.
A re-envisioned committee with representation from every college, every division, the President’s Multicultural Student Advisory Committee, CSU student government and employee councils is tasked with finding a multi-system approach to diversity and inclusion.
“We want to show how we can make this work,” Hughes said. “The only way we’re going to make it work is together.”
That includes diverse alumni, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Kathy Sisneros said.
Sisneros said it’s CSU’s responsibility as a land-grant institution to recruit and maintain minority populations, but it’s also important to restore relationships with alumni who didn’t have a positive, inclusive university experience.
“Not all of our students of color or of diversity have had the experience we would want them to have here at CSU,” Sisneros said. “We’re trying to figure out how to invite them back and show them the work we’re trying to do. We want to rebuild that tie.”
Follow Rocky Mountain Collegian Engagement Editor Christina Vessa on Twitter @chrissyvessa or email email@example.com to connect. The Collegian is Colorado State University’s student newspaper. Follow Coloradoan Social Issues reporter Sarah Jane Kyle on Twitter @sarahjanekyle or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reportersarahjane.