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‘Facing history head-on’: Black student activists submit demands to President Ryan’s racial equity task force

The students call for the University to directly address injustices and inequalities that the Black University community faces

A group of predominantly Black student activists submitted a list of demands June 12 to the University's racial equity task force recently formed by President Ryan.
A group of predominantly Black student activists submitted a list of demands June 12 to the University's racial equity task force recently formed by President Ryan.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series by The Cavalier Daily exploring a list of demands submitted to President Jim Ryan’s racial equity task force by a group of Black student activists and also a separate list of demands published by the Black Student Alliance. The full series of articles is linked below.


After gathering over 1,900 signatures from University community members and 180 signatures from student organizations on an initial draft of a letter and list of demands to be sent to University President Jim Ryan, a group of predominantly Black student activists submitted a revised statement and list of demands June 12 to the new racial equity task force recently formed by Ryan.

The group of students had initially published their statement and list of demands June 1 in response to a statement released May 31 by Ryan in which he addressed nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. In their response, the students expressed disappointment towards Ryan’s initial statement and called upon him and the University to not “be complacent when it comes to fighting against systemic racism and inequality, which the University regularly fails to do.”

“The lack of substance in [Ryan’s] statement and in the support from this school is a continuation of violence that students have endured since its inception in 1819,” the students’ response states. “It is time for the University of Virginia to reevaluate its priorities and make a comprehensive culture shift. The University must directly address the injustices and inequalities that Black students, faculty and workers face every day on Grounds.”

The Black Student Alliance also released a response to Ryan’s statement and a “reiteration of historic, yet unmet, demands” via social media June 1, drawing from past statements published by BSA and other student activists to compile a list of demands. Those past statements included the 2017 demands of the “March to Reclaim our Grounds,” the “Towards a Better University” proposal released in 2015, the “An Audacious Faith” I and II reports published in 1987 and 2007, respectively, and the “Community Petition for U.Va. COVID-19 Response” released in March. 

“The constant failure of the University to turn verbal affirmations of its dedication to diversity into genuine efforts to address the history of racial discrimination at U.Va. is more than telling,” the BSA statement says. “It is not enough to solely acknowledge the systemic inequality and racism facing and killing Black Americans. If the University of Virginia is truly committed to cultivating an inclusive community, it would take immediate action to fulfill the numerous demands of students seeking liberation from the past.”

Ryan’s initial statement released May 31 was met with criticism from community members for what they saw as its failure to sufficiently address the underlying causes of ongoing national protests. Ryan subsequently released a follow-up statement June 3, in which he recognized his previous statement as having been “inadequate.” 

In his follow-up statement, Ryan announced the formation of a new racial equity task force to be led by Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Kevin McDonald, vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and Barbara Brown Wilson, assistant professor in the School of Architecture and faculty director of the Equity Center.

According to Ryan, the task force was assembled to “address the growing list of recommendations, suggestions and demands regarding the subject of racial equity” at the University. Based upon their findings, the group will present to Ryan in August “a concrete and prioritized set of recommendations about the best steps forward, including actions that can be implemented right away.” 

The statement and list of demands was penned by 18 students — rising fourth-year College students Sarandon C.R. Elliott, John Kanu, Julia Gilliam, Nmadinobi Okafor, Ibukunoluwa Omole and Kara Peters; rising third-year College students Armani Anderson, Ty’Leik C. Chambers, Jehú Martínez, Jada Smith and Stephney Tucker; rising third-year Batten students Donavon Lea, Lauren Cochran and Rasheed Christian; rising third-year Nursing student Korey Busby; rising third-year Engineering student Joshua Franklin; and rising second-year College student Natalie Nuñez.

The students’ list of demands is divided into 13 short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, including the following four short-term goals upon which have been elaborated.


SHORT-TERM GOALS

Reevaluate updated University of Virginia Athletics logo to address the usage of racist imagery with the incorporation of the serpentine walls into the Virginia saber:

Two weeks after the students’ initial statement and list of demands was published, Virginia Athletics announced June 15 a change to the V-Sabre and Cavalier Shield logos following controversy over its inclusion and depiction of the University’s serpentine walls, known by many within the University community to have been originally built to hide enslaved laborers and muffle the sounds of their daily life.

Virginia Athletics Director Carla Williams said in her June 15 statement that she had not been aware of the history behind the serpentine walls when the logos were first announced April 24.

“There was no intent to cause harm, but we did, and for that I apologize to those who bear the pain of slavery in our history,” Williams said. “As such, we have redesigned the logos to remove that detail. All other aspects of the logos will remain the same."


Enact matriculation for all, especially [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color], undocumented students at U.Va.:

Following years of advocacy by undocumented students and allies at the national, statewide and University level, Ryan announced June 16 that all students, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, are now eligible for admission and enrollment at the University — including undocumented students without DACA status. Previously, the University had only permitted the matriculation of undocumented students with DACA status. 

Ryan’s announcement comes after Governor Ralph Northam, D-Va., signed into law in April new legislation that granted in-state tuition to all Virginians regardless of immigration status.

In their letter to the task force, the students echoed calls previously also made by undocUVA — founded in 2015 as DREAMers on Grounds — for specific resources for undocumented students. Among the listed necessary “proper resources to thrive” are a dedicated Student Financial Services representative who is well-versed in immigration education policy, clear details on University Admissions pages that outline matriculation and application policies for students of distinct documentation statuses, the provision of institutional financial aid to undocu+students and a a full-time Undocumented Student Coordinator who “would be responsible for assisting and advocating for the undocu+ students present at the university upon matriculation.”


Erect clear public signs on sidewalks and lawns to commemorate enslaved laborers in spaces, such as the Gooch-Dillard Residence Area, throughout the University:

The students urge the administration to erect more public signs to commemorate enslaved laborers and to make the signs upright so that they are easily identifiable and legible from a distance. Additionally, the students recommend the creation of accompanying plaques that pay homage to the stories and narratives of enslaved laborers.

The Gooch-Dillard Residence Area is immediately next to a cemetery containing unmarked grave sites of enslaved laborers that had previously not been clearly identified and contextualized by signs until November 2019

In their statement, BSA calls for the University to “rename all buildings and remove all monuments, plaques and memorials in remembrance of white supremacists, eugenists, and slave-holders on Grounds, while simultaneously rededicating and erecting memorials in honor of U.Va. and Charlottesville’s Black history.” A similar demand had been made in the 2017 demands of the “March to Reclaim Our Grounds” organized by BSA in collaboration with other student groups in the wake of the white supremacist rallies of August 2017.

A petition created June 13 by rising fourth-year College student Emmy Monaghan calling for the renaming of various buildings and removal of various monuments that “celebrate slaveholders, Confederates, eugenicists and racists” has gathered over 2,250 signatures as of press time and will also be submitted to the racial equity task force.

“I feel like we should be facing [the history] head-on, and … I think that’s the conversation happening around monuments in general — how do we accurately depict … and remember things?” said Sarandon Elliot, a rising fourth-year College student and one of the letter’s authors. “I think if U.Va. is really serious about tackling [their] legacy, they need to put it front and center. [They should say] these were built by enslaved laborers, this is the history.”


Pay all U.Va. workers and employees comprehensive hazard pay:

The students demand that all University employees “must receive compensation for working regular hours during the pandemic” and that the University “provide all of its employees with a living wage contingent upon the state in which they reside.” 

The University’s employee minimum wage, including that of contracted workers, officially increased to $15 Jan. 1, following advocacy from community members, employees and students.

The students also drew attention to the “majority of U.Va workers who receive hourly wages [being Black, Indigenous and people of color],” who make less than their white counterparts on average. Similarly, among the demands made by BSA were the acknowledgement of the University’s “dependence on the Black Charlottesville community ‘as a labor resource’ without ‘fully [committing] itself to the full development and support of [the] community’” — a reiteration of a demand made in the 2007 “An Audacious Faith II” report.

The University’s “Return to Grounds” website with guidelines for students, faculty and staff, along with the University’s Human Resources website, currently does not mention plans for the provision of hazard pay for workers and employees. The websites do, however, direct workers to apply for assistance from the $2 million Emergency Assistance Fund for employees and contracted workers, established by the University in response to advocacy from students and community members.

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Wes Hester, deputy spokesperson and director of media relations for the University, offered no comment on current plans of the University to provide comprehensive hazard pay to workers and employees. 

“The [racial equity] task force is expected to deliver recommendations about the best steps forward in August,” he said. 



The full series: 

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