Board of Trustees Holds Difficult Conversation about Systemic Anti-Black Racism

Western’s Board of Trustees approved a historic resolution affirming that Black lives matter at its June 12 meeting following an impassioned discussion in which board members, administrative and student leaders shared their own personal stories of frustration, sadness, anger and impatience with the nation’s and the university’s response to systemic anti-Black racism.

Outgoing Chair Earl Overstreet started the conversation by referencing the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

He discussed how far our society still is from these ideals on the 244th anniversary of its writing and in recognition that the work of civil rights is never done. He concluded by referencing the final line of the Declaration, that “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” and implored the Western community to seize this moment to work together on making lasting progress on the university’s strategic inclusive success goals.

Trustee Chase Franklin spoke honestly about being raised in a structurally racist society and confronting his own conscious and unconscious biases as a “lifelong member of the privileged class.” He pledged to continue to educate himself and challenge his biases and spoke of the value that he finds in being part of a university community committed to studying and repairing centuries-old structural inequities.

President Sabah Randhawa spoke of a “failure at all levels of society to protect the rights and dignity of Black people,” and the urgency of listening to and engaging Black students and all students of color as the university pursues strategies to address its goal of advancing inclusive success. He urged university leaders to avoid “drive-by strategies” and to focus on addressing root causes with lasting structural change over the long haul.

Leonard Jones, director of University Residences, spoke of two viruses: COVID-19 and racism. “We need two vaccines, and for 401 years a vaccine for racism has eluded us,” he said.

Jones spoke of the enormous weight that he and Black students and colleagues have been carrying in these final days of spring quarter and the challenge of finding “our right place and our right voice as we support one another through unprecedented times.”

Sislena Ledbetter, executive director of Western’s Counseling, Health and Wellness Services, also spoke of the emotional strength needed to record a recent message she shared with the Western community.

“I am reminded every day of my ancestral resilience and I see that every day in the faces of the Black students I’m meeting with. We have to act, and we have to show up for students and colleagues who may not be able to have their voices heard right now,” she said. “My hope for Western is that we stand strong and lead in ways that are more profound than just making statements.”

Trustee Sue Sharpe spoke of the issue of white complacency, especially for her generation who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s. “I grew up near Kent State during the tumultuous times of race and gender equality protests and Vietnam war protests, and I was a rebel then, but I’ve come to understand that we’ve been self-congratulating ourselves ever since. Incremental measures aren’t always the way to make lasting social change.”

Trustee Karen Lee recounted her frustration as a trustee over the past nine years with the pace of progress on the university’s stated goals of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Each commencement, I like to count the number of Black students crossing the stage, and at each event I’m also struck by an event program filled with images of nothing but white people. Our numbers tell the story and they’re not good and they’re not acceptable.”

Trustee Lee went on to point out that “as long as diversity programs are convenient, we won’t move the needle. We need to make sacrifices and we need to do things differently. I hope this moment catapults this work forward and that we make some real movement on the goals we’ve set.”

Trustee Faith Pettis remarked on how her Asian ancestry doesn’t exclude her from the effects of racism and the duty to dismantle racist systems. “It’s on me to not be silent. It’s remarkable how much of the burden we have placed on the backs of our Black and Brown neighbors.”

Student Trustee Hunter Stuehm, who was officially re-appointed to a second annual term as student trustee, talked about his conversations with Black friends and shared their frustration about feeling that Western only acknowledges their experiences during Black History Month, and he urged university leadership to “dedicate more resources to support our Black, Brown and Indigenous students.”

Stuehm also reminded meeting attendees of the fraught racial history of Bellingham and Whatcom County and how that creates long-term challenges to recruiting students of marginalized identities who may fear for their safety in a predominately white community.

Finally, outgoing Associated Students President Noelani Defiesta read a list of actions that the Associated Students board has committed to take in advocating for and funding actions to remove systemic barriers within the Associated Students structure. (See attached PDF.)

"The AS statement said it best, not only for the Associated students, but Western as a whole," Defiesta said: "The ASWWU mission is that we are 'by students, for students,' but we recognize that we cannot say we are 'for students' if we do not support our Black students."

Defiesta concluded by recalling a valuable challenge she received from a Western professor: “What if the world taught us to feel joy in this discomfort rather than fear? Because what's on the other side of that discomfort is a better you.”

An audio recording of the entire conversation will be posted soon on the Board of Trustees website at https://wp.wwu.edu/live/board-of-trustees/

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Friday, June 12, 2020 - 2:00pm

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