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At Town Hall Meeting, UNC Students Demand More Inclusive Campus

A group of student protesters interrupted a UNC town hall meeting about race and inclusion to present their demands.
Reema Khrais

A town hall about race and inclusion on UNC’s campus Thursday drew loud protests and candid reflections from students. The discussion comes on the heels of several campus protests across the country related to racial issues.

When the event began, a group of more than 60 students interrupted the moderator, Clarence Page, a journalist from the Chicago Tribune, by shouting the slogan: “Whose university? Our university!”

UNC senior June Beshea read the group’s very long list of demands.

“And you’re going to sit here and listen because we have things to say and problems that need to be fixed,” she explained.

Some of the demands included taking down the Confederate monument solider known as “Silent Sam,” publicizing the admission and graduation rates of black students on UNC’s website and a moratorium on tuition increases. They also called for a space on campus to remember black leaders and mandatory programming on the racial history of the campus and town.  

“We demand the immediate firing of Margaret Spellings,” Beshea added.

The reference to the newly-hired UNC system president received the biggest cheer. Then, the group listed its demands for the University of Missouri, the University of Cape Town, and the demands of UNC black students from almost 50 years ago.

After 20 minutes, the audience grew less receptive.

“We can spout demands all day,” said Sakile Trowers, a UNC sophomore. “We can yell and scream that ‘Black Lives Matter’ all day, but until we get together and make a solution, nothing is going to change.” 

The protesters eventually left the room chanting. Then, one by one, students in the audience shared what was on their mind. Aja Crayton talked about the moment she “realized she was black at Carolina.”

She remembers introducing herself to another student, who asked Crayton what sport she plays.

“And I’m like ‘excuse me?’ [She was] basically implying that I’m not smart enough to be here, that I have to have a sports scholarship to be here.”

Several students talked about micro-aggressions they’ve experienced on campus.

“A lot of people have spoken, we all have different views, but we all agree on one thing: systematic racism exists,” said sophomore Madrid K. Danner-Smith.

Danner-Smith suggested a popular solution.

“What I suggest is mandatory racial equity training for every administrator,” he said as the audience loudly cheered.

Throughout the evening, many students demanded more from faculty, staff and administrators.

“I identify as black, as a woman and as a lesbian, so I already have three strikes against me,” said Sophia Nalhi Allison, a first-year graduate student at the School of Media and Journalism.

She said she recently searched for an African-American course to take, but could only found one, and it was taught by a white man. She looked to Duke instead and is currently taking a class called “Black Women, Black Freedom” taught by a black, female professor.

“I don’t need to tell you what inclusion looks like because I’ve been talking about it all my life,” Allison said. “But I think we need to turn the mirror around and for you to answer, what does inclusion look like to you and does it make you uncomfortable?”

Most of the people who volunteered to talk during the meeting were students. Several of them mentioned how they expected more participation from faculty and staff.

Jennifer Ho, associate professor of English, was one of the few faculty members who stood up.

“The faculty care,” she said. “I think one of the things that you can do as students is actually take our classes. There are amazing classes being offered here at UNC on topics of race and intersectionality.”

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt had the last word.

“You can’t have been listening to this without feeling the pain that people are feeling, the frustration,” she said. “I hear it loud and clear that people want action.”

Folt didn’t share any concrete ideas, but she said administrators are working toward creating a safer, more inclusive campus.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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