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Painful but steady: FGCU works to become more diverse and inclusive

Painful but steady: FGCU works to become more diverse and inclusive
Photo by Reid Banish.

By Sabrina Salovitz

Assistant Editor

This past November, signs promoting a Nazi group were posted across the campus at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). The stickers, which read Hitler is Right and Smash White Guilt, were taken down immediately.

The FGCU Police Department held an investigation, and the individual who posted the stickers was issued a trespass warning. The person was not a student or university employee and had no other affiliation with the school, so that was the end of it.

Except, for many at FGCU, this incident was just a reminder that this was not the first time the school has been impacted by bigotry.

In 2016, a message that read KILL (N-word) and a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree appeared on a whiteboard in Seidler Hall. Soon after, Noose Tying 101 was written on a library whiteboard.

“Please know that we hear you,” Susan Evans said in a 2016 email sent to staff and students in response to a protest about the school’s response to the incident. “We will work with you to do all we can together to make everyone who studies, works and visits here feel safe, respected and valued.”

For some, that promise has not been enough. Students have begun organizing and coming together to push for change.

Yvedlie Dauphin is one of those students. Dauphin is the secretary for the FGCU branch of the NAACP and a part of one of the student groups that formed the Coalition for Racial Justice (CRJ).

The CRJ was founded in May of 2020, as protests erupted across the world following the death of George Floyd. The student founders were members of other campus activist groups, and they aimed to create greater cooperation between those groups.

“The reason why we wanted it to be a mixture of different organizations was so that it didn’t have to rely on individuals,” Dauphin said. “But [instead], on different organizations.”

CRJ meets biweekly and has 37 members. The group’s purpose is to work with the university’s administration, and Dauphin praised the school’s leadership for its willingness to listen to students of color.

“I think the fact that [FGCU] has been willing to hear us out is a step in the right direction,” Dauphin said.

CRJ has spoken to the administration about a variety of issues. They held a meeting after the Nazi stickers were posted across campus to voice their concerns, and they have discussed diversifying FGCU’s social media.

Dauphin said that when she first started at the university, she struggled with a sense of isolation at our majority-white school. She continued to feel alone until she attended a Black Student Alliance event, where she met other students of color.

“It was an amazing feeling,” Dauphin said. “I come from a diverse area. So, when I came here and it was mostly white, I felt the need to find groups that had people who look like me and shared my culture.”

Although the population of FGCU is just over 8% Black and/or African American, Dauphin said there is a community here, and she praises the organizations that helped her find it.

Rose Charles is the treasurer of the Black Student Alliance and is also involved with several other Black and minority-based organizations on campus. She believes that FGCU has made great strides toward fostering a more diverse and inclusive environment.

“I think they’re really starting to understand the importance of the Black students on this campus,” Charles said. “I think FGCU is doing a much better job than they originally were at just making sure we feel more included.”

In the last year, FGCU Athletics appointed Jeremy Boreland as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and launched their Eagles against Injustice initiative.

Charles said that there is a great community for Black students at FGCU. She believes that it is essential for them to have a place to go to feel heard.

“I think more Black students are starting to realize that there are spaces where they can come and feel welcome,” Charles said. “We do all that we can to make the black students on campus feel like they can talk to us.”

A pivotal event in FGCU’s history was the introduction of a course called White Racism in 2018 by Ted Thornhill. The class caused backlash in the Southwest Florida community. Thornhill even received death threats. Campus police officers were stationed near the classroom, which made national headlines.

The course, and the attention it drew, started a larger conversation at FGCU. For Black students, this conversation was vital.

Certain departments at the school are more open than others, Dauphin noted, saying that the University Police Department has not been receptive to input from Black students and organizations.

Dauphin criticized UPD for disabling comments on most of its social media posts since April of this year.

“Every instance of power should be held accountable,” Dauphin said. “I feel like disabling the comments was a way to decrease accountability.”

Dauphin believes that a lack of communication between the UPD and the student body has meant that students of color are less likely to call when they need help.

She also stressed that the CRJ is not anti-cop and believes that the UPD can still work to improve its relationship with students of color.

“I think that they will have to work hard to restore that trust in the future,” Dauphin said.

She also said that one of the biggest issues that students of color have with the UPD is the department’s unwillingness to say black lives matter.

“Their excuse was that it was a political statement,” Dauphin said, referencing an email that she received in June from UPD Officer Myles Kittleson.

Officer Kittleson addressed questions about the UPD’s accountability and its support for Black students in the email.

“BLM is a political activist group that, in its beginning, was extremely anti-police [with] one of the platforms to defund police,” Officer Kittleson wrote. “We want to be inclusive, not exclusive. So black, Hispanic, Asian, white, gay, lesbian, trans… it doesn’t matter. All people need to be treated equally with respect and dignity.”

Charles also questioned the sincerity of the UPD’s claim to nonpartisanship, explaining that the group’s Instagram follows several conservative pages, including the group Students for Trump.

Dauphin also referenced a now-deleted 2018 post from the UPD’s Instagram that included an image of the Thin Blue Line flag. The flag, a black and white American flag with a single blue stripe, represents all law enforcement but has been used as a symbol for the Blue Lives Matter movement since 2016.

Blue Lives Matter is a countermovement to Black Lives Matter. The group is controversial because critics believe that it glorifies a broken policing system and creates an us vs. them mentality. The flag has also been associated with white supremacists since as far back as 2017 when it was flown alongside Confederate flags in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.

UPD Chief Steven Moore said that he has met with the NAACP of Lee County, and he has sent out emails stating that the UPD was willing to speak with any student group on any topic. He said that he had not received any requests.

“Concerning BLM, it is not a slogan; it is an organization,” Moore said. “Like most organizations, there will be some parts I agree with and some I don’t. I don’t agree with the general across-the-board statement ‘defund the police.’”

On the other hand, President Martin has been very clear in his support for the BLM movement.

Martin said, “Yes, black lives matter.”

President Martin, an NAACP member for 40 years, has stated that diversity, equity and inclusion are central to FGCU’s commitment to excellence.

“One thing I noticed about President Martin is that he has done a good job at acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement,” Charles said. “I know how passionate he is about making minorities on this campus feel safer and more included.”

Charles said that she believes that the school has done better at reaching out to minority students.

Dauphin and Charles both said they were pleased with the direction that most of FGCU’s leadership has taken toward creating a more diverse and inclusive environment. They also said there is hard work to come, not only at FGCU but nationally.

“We are much better off now than we were 50 years ago in terms of racial equality, but we’re still not truly equal,” Dauphin said. “It’s up to us now to take action and create change.”

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