SA plan addresses racial inequality, uses student input

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The Student Assembly at the College of William and Mary announces new plans and policies for promoting inclusivity and diversity on campus. COURTESY PHOTO // WM.EDU

As discussions evolve regarding racial inequality and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May, the College of William and Mary’s 328th Student Assembly is examining its role in addressing racial inequities on campus through forming new SA committees that emphasize student input.

In June, SA began discussing ways to bring national conversations and change to the campus community, leading to the creation of “The Buck Stops Here: Plan to Tackle Systemic Racial Injustices at William & Mary”.

“As chair, a problem I saw a lot was we have committees, but we don’t have a focus effort,” Senate Chair Meghana Boojala ’22 said. “We have senators working on things, but we have three students starting a petition for the same thing outside of SA. … I think we are going to come out of this as a stronger organization but also the student body is going to feel that they have power in these conversations.”

After expanding discussions to include members of different Black organizations at the College, the different committees under the plan began to come to fruitition.

Alton Coston III ’23 is one of the students from outside of SA who has impacted the plan’s evolution.

“What made me want to get involved was that I saw an issue that needed to be fixed or improved upon,” Coston said. “And I knew that William and Mary, we tout and display a For the Bold campaign, yet now is the time to be bold, now is the time to truly put those bold statements and bold issues into action. So that’s truly what made me get started.”

“What made me want to get involved was that I saw an issue that needed to be fixed or improved upon,” Coston said. “And I knew that William and Mary, we tout and display a For the Bold campaign, yet now is the time to be bold, now is the time to truly put those bold statements and bold issues into action. So that’s truly what made me get started.”

After releasing two petitions — one calling on College President Katherine Rowe to release a statement regarding the murder of George Floyd and the other outlining more actionable changes that the College community should pursue — Coston met with SA President Anthony Joseph ’21 to discuss the work Coston was doing to bring about change for the plan.

After witnessing students like Coston who had passion  for tackling systemic issues in Williamsburg and beyond, Boojala realized how vital student input was for SA to include as they drafted efforts to address racial inequities at the College.

“That’s our goal is to have students who are passionate about this and if there is one thing we have found out in the past three months is that students are very passionate about this,” Boojala said. “… And it’s finding a way to channel that energy into one consolidated platform.”

Originally called “The Buck Stops Here: Plan to Tackle Systemic Racial Injustices at William & Mary,” the plan is currently in the process of being renamed after concerns arose about the usage of the term “buck,”  a racist slur that was used in the postbellum United States to portray Black men as aggressive and hostile.

SA Chief of Staff Loni Wright ’21 acknowledged the term’s racist history and said it was a regrettable oversight on SA’s part to include the word in the plan’s original title.

“‘Buck’ used to be a derogatory term for Black men, during enslavement and into Reconstruction,” Wright said. “And if you know anything about minstrel shows, the brute caricature from Jim Crow is kind of synonymous with that, and that’s something that we completely overlooked, was not our intention at all, and is not where the Buck Plan stems from. ”

The plan calls for the creation of five distinct committees and teams, which will include an equal number of voting members from inside and outside of SA. A senator and non-SA member will co-chair each of these committees, which include the Reparations Committee, the Police Policy Project, the Student Rights Initiative, the Academic Diversity Project and Community Reconciliation Initiative. 

The Reparations Committee describes reparations as “active reconciliation and elevation of historically disenfranchised communities,” and rejects the idea that reparations are a one-time check or handout. Going forward, the committee plans to incorporate suggestions from the Lemon Project and the Task Force on Race and Race Relations.

The Police Policy Project will include the creation of an advisory group that will work with WMPD and the  Williamsburg Police Department to review their policies and advocate for policies that protect BIPOC students.

“We’re really trying to work on those relationships as well and making sure that the police departments around us don’t become the next police department we see on the news,” Wright said.

Coston was heavily involved with developing this aspect of the plan, including writing a policy recommendation letter specifically regarding police interactions with the student body.  The letter led to a meeting between WMPD Chief Deborah Cheesebro and leaders of multicultural organizations on campus.

“I believe that this will bridge the gap, and I believe that the more gaps that we bridge and the more gaps that we fill, the better the conversation on racial reconciliation will move forward,” Coston said. 

Related to the Police Policy Project is the Student Rights Initiative, a project that was spearheaded last year by Sen. Jahnavi Prabhala ’22. The SRI has an ultimate goal of creating a student rights card that can be downloaded onto an Apple Wallet for interactions with honor council and the police.

The only committee without a non-SA student lead will be the Academic Diversity Project, which aims to focus on the hiring and retention of a more diverse faculty at the College.

“The Academic Diversity Project is a little bit different,” Wright said. “It does not have a student co-lead. This will be chaired by Student Assembly. There will still be student and faculty participation in the committee, they’ll still have voting rights. But with this one, since it’s a lot more political, I guess you could say, because there’s a lot more dealings with admin and trying to work around the curriculum.”

Finally, the Community Reconciliation Initiative team aims to consolidate efforts vested by other committees by creating events and opportunities that will support and elevate historically underrepresented communities, at the College. SA will soon make applications available to the student body.

Coston does not plan to apply to be a member of any of these committees. Instead, he plans to continue focusing on his work on campus as the president of the African American Male Coalition, a mentor to children in a juvenile detention facility, and the other organizations he has joined. He says that he believes he can make the most impact on campus without being tied to any one committee.

“I believe that I make the most impact without being constrained by the walls of SA or any committee,” Coston said. “… it just goes to show that you don’t have to be in SA, you don’t have to be the President, you don’t have to be this, or that, or a senator, or whatever it may be … You can do and make impact solely based upon how much you want to be heard.”

Coston emphaiszed that students hoping to make a change on campus should learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“The best innovators, the best thinkers, the most intellectual people, have always thought outside the box,” Coston said. “I would also say that, you have to understand that, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because uncomfortability is where growth happens. If you’re willing to be uncomfortable for a little while, you can truly find and hone and shape your voice.”

“The best innovators, the best thinkers, the most intellectual people, have always thought outside the box,” Coston said. “I would also say that, you have to understand that, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because uncomfortability is where growth happens. If you’re willing to be uncomfortable for a little while, you can truly find and hone and shape your voice.”

Boojala and Wright both stressed the importance of new members of the class of 2024 getting involved in the new SA initiatives, whether by running for an SA position or through the committees.

“These projects are not going to stop in a COVID world,” Boojala said. “… Because I think we have a lot of continuous projects that have been happening the past two years that are going to continue happening after this national crisis. So, I think that’s something freshmen should know.”

Both Wright and Boojala said the efforts forged by this current senate will improve the responsiveness of further SA sessions.

“We’re hoping that with this plan, with the way that we’re doing things this year, that we’re setting the precedent for Senates going forward,” Wright said. “… if they’re learning that this is the way we do things in Student Assembly that can only carry on, because they have so much time to continue it and to get to the next generation.”