More than 100 Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students braved steady rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey to make their way to A.K. Hinds University Center on Thursday, Aug. 31, in a show of campus unity in the wake of heightened racial tension and divisiveness across the U.S. following recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The town, home to the University of Virginia, was the scene of violent clashes Aug. 12 involving white supremacists, including neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and counterprotestors, including self-proclaimed “antifascists.” That conflict, which arose out of differing opinions about the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, has ignited a national firestorm of debate – much of it uncivil and frequently tinged with hatred.
In response, the WCU Faculty Senate and the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity sponsored a campus gathering, titled “A Call for Unity,” to emphasize the university’s emphasis on inclusion, understanding, empathy and communication, said Ricardo Nazario-Colon, chief diversity officer.
“The reason we are here today is to remind ourselves the importance of community, the importance of diversity and the importance of what we do here at Western Carolina University, which is prepare generations and generations of young people to carry on the work that we have been doing for many, many years,” Nazario-Colon said. “In that spirit, I want everyone to come together today, and I want everyone to hear the many voices and the different perspectives about unity on our campus.”
Brian Railsback, Faculty Senate chair, called the events in Charlottesville “the latest signpost” along a “bad road” occasionally traveled by the nation, and urged audience members to help the country change direction.
“As a university community, we renounce hatred and selfishness, and we push back on fear and ignorance,” said Railsback, professor of English. “We begin by rooting these things out of ourselves. Before we scream, rather than listen; before we troll, rather than write intelligently; before we retreat into the safety of our own echo chambers, rather than have courage; it is good to stop and think carefully. ‘Is this angry tweet really me? Am I proud enough to put my name next to the comment I just chalked? Am I helping to bridge divides or am I creating them?’”
Railsback also suggested that the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse that galvanized Americans from coast to coast, including in Cullowhee, should serve as a reminder of the nation’s shared humanity.
“For a couple of minutes, when the lights went out at totality, we were all looking in the same direction, we were filled with a sense of awe and joy, and we were reminded how small we are in a big universe. For a moment, the walls came down and we were a bunch of human beings who were reaching out together at a cosmic scale. It felt good, didn’t it?” he said.
Faculty member Kathleen Brennan, chair of WCU’s Joint Task Force on Racism, said she has heard from many members of the university community a desire for a clear institutional commitment to a diverse and inclusive campus, and that many people are unsure how to support that vision.
“I am here to tell you that members of the task force continue to be committed to a diverse and inclusive community at WCU. In the wake of Charlottesville and similar events in our nation, as well as on our own campus, I am also here to use my voice to clearly state that a diverse and inclusive community does not value or support, nor should it tolerate, voices of hate,” Brennan said.
“I know it is not always easy to use your voice in support of a healthy, inclusive community, but even if you are unsure how to stand against hate and oppression, it is always better to try than to not try. I am here to urge you, as a member of our university community, use your voice. Use your voice if you are committed to and want to see a diverse and inclusive community at WCU,” she said. “Use your voice.”
Representing WCU’s Student Government Association, Adam Lytle urged sympathy and compassion for the disenfranchised.
“We should realize that every person has something to give, and when they are given a chance, they often will,” Lytle said. “We should use that knowledge to unite on the common ground that we all share – common ground that only shines through when we get rid of labels and stereotypes to reveal that we all truly are human. If we carry this mindset, that everyone has something to give, who knows what we can accomplish as a study body, a university and a community.”
International students Teresa Albiez and Alena Lange, who both hail from Germany, provided some global perspective to the WCU gathering.
“I think I speak for all international students when I say we feel very welcomed here at WCU. All of you seem to be very friendly and open-minded, but we also know that this is something that should not be taken for granted,” Albiez said.
“As German citizens, we come from a country where our past has taught us the consequences when people fight against each other. Because of our history, we know how important it is to build a strong community and to speak up for what we believe in. I think we should learn from the mistakes people have made in the past so history won’t repeat itself. When people fight each other, nobody wins,” she said.
Lange reminded her fellow students that, regardless of nationality, they all have the same goal – to study in a safe and strong community.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color your skin is, what you believe in, what your sexual orientation is, or if you are handicapped or not,” she said. “Each and every one of us is an individual, but each of you are an important part of this university. So we ask ourselves, why should we call each other different. Why should we fight each other. Aren’t we all just humans living on the same planet?”
Tanae Turner, from the WCU Student NAACP Chapter, called for all members of the university community to embrace the concepts of unity and inclusion.
“Sadly, Charlottesville was an example of why unity and inclusion are of the utmost importance on college campuses. I’m a firm believer in change coming from within, from within ourselves and within our community,” Turner said. “When under attack, per se, no one underrepresented group should feel as if they are alone or as if they do not have allies, because if we are strongly united, then this would not be true.”
Fiona Buchanan of the Student Democracy Coalition encouraged audience members to break out of their individual comfort zones to become more empathetic toward others, describing her own situation in life as “comfortable.”
“My days have become a continuous cycle of comfortability and, frankly, I can’t stand it. When we are given the privilege to become comfortable in our daily lives, we in turn lose the desire to step out of our comfort zones. We stop challenging ourselves. We stop putting ourselves in situations that could change our perspective, our lives and our world. If we are not uncomfortable, we lose empathy,” Buchanan said.
“There are too many of us who are aware what is going on and take little or no action to make change. There are plenty of excuses that one could use to get out of the obligation we have to be engaged in our society, to make a positive impact on the world, but this apathy, in my opinion, makes us faulty citizens,” she said. “We stop caring, and we hinder the civic process of progression in our nation.”
Student Alexis Garner, who is involved in SGA and Intercultural Affairs ambassadors’ group, said that it can be too easy for students in a safe, comfortable environment such as WCU to feel disconnected from problems elsewhere in the nation and world.
“I challenge the students, faculty and staff here at WCU to go outside their safe zone, to find ways to engage in conversation and to build some bridges that the hatred has torn down. Until we are able to have those hard and honest conversations about race and equality, we will always be vulnerable to the violence and discord that will forever be a part of the history of Charlottesville, Virginia,” Garner said.
Nazario-Colon reminded the crowd that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and he closed the gathering with a message about plurality, democracy and diversity.
“Pluralism is the theory that a multitude of groups, not the collective population, govern the nation. Organizations, such as civil rights groups, business, associations, unions, university systems and other groups of like-minded citizens, have a major impact on the development of American society. Because these organizations are not exhaustive or representative of the whole nation, the public acts mainly as bystanders,” he said.
“Let us not be bystanders in our democracy. Let us be engaged,” he said. “Stay united – Catamount unity.”