In posters' wake, WSU community gathers to discuss racism, bigotry

Thursday , September 07, 2017 - 5:30 PM3 comments

ANNA BURLESON, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Jody Perkins was proud to walk his son around the campus of Weber State University as the school year started in August.

Perkins works in Weber State’s outreach program. His son was just starting his college career, and that day, white nationalist signs were discovered around campus.

“As I took him to his dorm, we walked up and he said, ‘Dad look,’ and guess what we saw,” Perkins said. “We saw the sign. Yeah. I was devastated.”

Perkins was one of many to speak at the university’s forum on racism and bigotry Thursday, Sept. 7, which was held in direct response to the discovery of the posters.

“I advise a lot of students, but this is my child. This is my son,” Perkins said. “He didn’t have to see that. He looked at me with his big eyes, and the only thing I could say was, ‘I’m sorry son, this isn’t Weber State. This is not what we’re about and yes, you are welcome here.’”

Conversation at the forum, which was attended by about 80 people, varied from personal stories of racism and bullying to the multiple ways the university community is offering support to anyone feeling unwelcome.

Counselor Juancarlos Santisteban said he has overcome racism and discrimination throughout life, starting when he was a Hispanic child in Los Angeles who didn’t know any English.

“I’m here now, and I’m at the counseling center, and I want to be a resource for you,” he told the audience.

Weber State student Patricia Benally identifies as Native American and said the posters made her worried for her own safety and that of her children. Her daughter has already transferred to a different elementary school after being bullied because of her race.

“We really need to take these kinds of challenging questions, challenging topics, back to our young children,” Benally said. “I think this is personal for me. I just really want to serve as an advocate for diversity.”

Many in attendance said they wanted to find ways to support Weber State’s diverse population, including Weber State College Democrats President Kestin Page.

Page said that has to start with small actions every single day, like telling your friend a racist joke or comment isn’t OK.

“We’re diversity centers at the university, so they’re coming here because they want to shut that down,” he said. “We need to be brave enough to keep pushing, but it requires action. We can’t be passive.”

Some said they were surprised by the sight of the signs, while others weren’t.

Kelly Vause, a Weber State alumna, said many aren’t aware of the racism happening around them all the time, but she has seen it happen with her own children, who are half black.

“I also think it’s good we’re having this conversation, because people, white people, need to realize these things do happen every day, all the time in Utah and at Weber State,” she said. “We’re not any different than anywhere else.”

The racist posters were ultimately removed not for their content but because they violated university policy stipulating where and how such signage can be displayed. So, the conversation also turned to the importance of free speech.

“We have to be able to have open dialogues with people who feel differently than we do and have it in a place that’s safe where we can come together and teach each other,” English professor Sarah Vause said. “We can’t just shut down other peoples’ perspectives and life experiences.”

As the microphone was passed around the room, some brought up the Trump administration’s recent decision to roll back Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, more commonly known as DACA, for qualifying undocumented students.

Student Yasmynn Alacio wiped away tears as she said while she’s not a DACA recipient, many of her family and friends are.

“We work hard here,” she said. “I think we all deserve to be here equally.”

Executive Director for Access and Diversity Enrique Romo explained those with a DACA permit that expires before March 5, 2018, have until Oct. 5, 2017, to reapply.

Those not already enrolled in DACA can no longer apply, and if a person’s DACA permit expires after March 5, 2018, they are also out of the program.

“But we have support from (University President Charles Wight) on down, so that’s important for everyone to know here,” Romo said to the audience. “Yes, it’s a problem, a big issue, but you’re not alone. This is your home.”

Representatives from the school’s Women’s Center, LGBTQ Resource Center, Center for Multicultural Excellence, counseling center, housing department and police department were all in attendance and offered their services to students, as did representatives from Ogden City and the Ogden Police Department.

“We’re working hard to create a welcoming and inclusive community,” Ogden City Diversity Affairs Officer Viviana Felix said.

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.

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