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Student groups address issues of diversity

Student leaders gathered last night to discuss ways to increase diversity in historically white organizations at a forum sponsored by Student Council Diversity Initiatives.

The event centered around the efforts of four groups -- Student Council, the Honor Committee, the University Judiciary Committee and The Cavalier Daily -- to advance race and diversity-related issues within their organizations.

Leaders of organizations within the Minority Rights Coalition responded to the statements and questions of the group leaders and of audience members.

Student Council President Darius Nabors noted the importance of looking at diversity in two ways, both in representation of diverse backgrounds within an organization and in the actions an organization takes to respond to the issues of different underrepresented groups.

Nabors said that while he does not think there is a large problem with current participation in Council, he believes the organization can "do a better job of representing minority issues on Grounds and having continued involvement."

Eli DeJarnette, UJC vice chair for trials, and Honor Chair Allison Tramba both noted their groups' efforts to reach out to underrepresented student populations while recruiting support officers who could eventually become leaders in their organizations.

Tramba noted that Honor has revived the once-defunct Diversity Advisory Board this year in order to encourage discussion of issues that affect minority groups at the University.

DeJarnette noted that while UJC does not have a standing diversity committee, it created an ad-hoc committee last year to deal with hate crimes and also recently changed its constitution to allow the Committee to take bias incidents into account during the sanctioning process.

Cavalier Daily editor-in-chief Michael Slaven said there has been an effort in recent years to improve coverage of events sponsored by cultural organizations. The paper is also "trying out" a commission with the Black Student Alliance in order to increase dialogue between the two organizations.

Despite these recent efforts, leaders of minority organizations and the historically white groups agreed that more can be done.

Black Student Alliance President Tamara Dottin noted that minority students who join these historically white organizations often feel they are treated differently than others, noting that minority students are often encouraged to play visible roles in organizations in order to present an appearance of a diverse organization.

Slaven agreed with Dottin's concern.

"Avoiding the issue of tokenism is an important thing," he said. "When a person joins, we don't want them to feel like they've joined as anything less than a full member."

Audience members also contributed to the discussion on why minority students often do not feel welcome in certain organizations, specifically citing a lack of common social activities shared between the minority students and other group members.

Asian Student Union President Patrick Lee said he thinks it will take time to implement change. Lee added, however, that he is encouraged by recent progress.

"We've had more progress this year than in several years in recent memory," Lee said.

Nabors noted his frustration with the process of enacting lasting change.

"You're a leader for a year, involved for two, three or four years," Nabors said. "That's not generally time enough to entirely change the culture of an organization."

Lee agreed with Nabors' sentiment, noting that the University administrators and faculty could help solve the problem of short institutional memory.

"I think the University should step up to the plate," Lee said. "We're doing the best we can. We're hitting brick walls. [The] retentive memory is in the faculty, is in the administration."

Some student leaders noted that historically white organizations should work to make students feel welcome and encourage participation in multicultural groups' activities.

Nabors said he thinks the historically white organizations and minority groups should work to "meet somewhere in the middle."

University Chief Diversity Officer Bill Harvey asked the student leaders present whether their organizations can be as good as they would like unless they reflect the totality of the student body.

If the organizations do not reflect the population, Harvey said, leaders "have an obligation to figure out an approach to get more students into the organization [who] are being excluded for whatever reason."

Harvey noted, however, that leaders must act for the correct reasons.

"It only works if you really believe that you improved the institution while also increasing the measure of diversity."