A group of Willamette students known as Students for Transparency, Equity, Accountability through Mobilization, or the STEAM Collective, hosted a town hall meeting on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 21. In this meeting, STEAM aired a list of 13 long-standing grievances against the University, as well as nine formal demands. The document containing these grievances and demands, called STEAM’s Petition of Demands, was spread across campus and social media earlier Thursday morning.
STEAM’s grievances concern WU’s “lack of policies for racially biased” incidents, its “inadequate sexual misconduct policy” and the cancellation of the Theatre Department’s spring season, among other issues.
STEAM’s demands include “an official institutional Land Acknowledgement to recognize the Kalapuya land that the University colonially occupies,” clear and formal “policies for racially-based/racially biased incidences” and “a review of Greek Life on campus” by an “unbiased, third party.” The petition says the demands are to be addressed “no later than the conclusion of the spring 2019 semester.”
During Thursday’s town hall, STEAM members spoke before a Cone Chapel packed with students and faculty, and addressed nine administrators they had requested be present. The following day, The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion invited STEAM to a meeting with the Willamette Board of Trustees. Members of the Collective attended the meeting to read aloud their demands.
“They invited us to talk to them and they just sat and listened,” said Akerah Mackey-Watkins (‘19), a member of STEAM. She said the trustees had no lengthy discussion of the petition while STEAM was in the room.
Mackey-Watkins said the trustees seemed to be thankful to hear from STEAM. “They’re really invested in knowing what’s going on with the student body.”
Mackey-Watkins added that people in the meeting were “taken aback” by the Land Acknowledgement STEAM read. This Land Acknowledgement describes how the territory on which campus is built was stolen from Kalapuya people. “Other than that,” Mackey-Watkins said, STEAM’s reading of the petition was “well received.”
In their petition, STEAM requested that by Friday, March 1, administrators reply with a proposal for how they plan to tackle the demands.
On the morning of Monday, Feb. 25, a group of University administrators met to begin developing this plan. Seven of the nine administrators invited to Thursday’s town hall were present in this meeting, as well as Colleen Kawahara, the University’s Chief of Staff, and Gordy Toyama, the Director of Multicultural Affairs.
Jade Aguilar, Vice President for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, said it will take time to meet all the demands. “We realize that embedded within these nine demands are a really complex mix of factors and people and budgets, and they’re not going to be addressed in a couple of meetings.”
Because of this complexity, the group of administrators decided each demand needs to be handled individually. In the case of some demands, the University requires more information from students.
“Some of them are like, ‘We want a Land Statement.’ Okay, that’s clear. But others are more broad, like, ‘We have concerns around the workload of our faculty of color.’ Let’s talk more about that,” said Aguilar.
The morning of Tuesday, March 26, Aguilar emailed STEAM on behalf of the administrators present at Monday’s meeting, outlining their proposed plan and possible processes for meeting the demands. Part of the proposal is to make time each week for conversations among STEAM members, faculty and administration representatives to discuss each individual demand.
Mackey-Watkins said of the plan, “It didn’t outline any particular actions that [administrators] are actually going to take, but rather they turned to us… to take time out of our days to help them further these issues.”
Ericka Bryan (‘21) is also a member of STEAM. “Willamette administration is making a mistake in thinking that STEAM speaks for all the student body,” she said. Bryan believes that when conversations continue, the University should not rely exclusively on input from members of the Collective. “I think they’re exploiting and tokenizing STEAM members.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Aguilar had not received a reply from STEAM.
STEAM’s petition says their demands are to be addressed by the end of the semester. When asked if the University will be able to meet these demands on time, Vice President for Student Affairs Ed Whipple answered, “Certainly… it would be my goal that by the end of the semester, we have a plan for each demand.”
Some of the demands will take longer than the remainder of the semester to meet, Whipple said. For example, STEAM’s demand for a reviewal of Greek Life may take longer to complete, since an outside third party would not be available to conduct the review until April. Whipple said, “We know we’ll have a review of our fraternity and sorority program in the fall.”
Although STEAM is comprised largely of students planning to graduate in May, Aguilar pointed out that having younger students active and involved will help the University remain focused on these goals after this year’s seniors have graduated. “There’s a whole group of folks who will be coming back next year, who will continue to hold us accountable to what we say we’re going to do.”
“We hold ourselves accountable too,” said Whipple of the group of administrators who met Monday morning. “We have to.”
Students have also responded to STEAM’s town hall meeting. Many have been supportive, but there is also a sect of students on campus who take issue with STEAM’s movement.
Careful not to speak on behalf of other members of STEAM, Mackey-Watkins said, “We have received some verbal backlash from the students after they received the petition.”
Some of this backlash has come from students affiliated with Greek Life. On Thursday evening, members of one Willamette fraternity confronted STEAM members immediately following the town hall. Other incidents involving Greek Life-affiliated individuals have occurred since Thursday.
“We just need the space to exist,” Bryan said. “If you genuinely believe that your organization wasn’t problematic, wasn’t harassing and sexually assaulting women, if you believe that your organization at its core was actually good structure, you wouldn’t be so upset when people are critiquing it.”
When asked about backlash STEAM members are facing from students, Aguilar said, “If people are feeling defensive, I think that is a good opportunity to sit with yourself and think about why you might be feeling defensive.”
Whipple said that on Friday he sent an email to the student leaders of Willamette Greek Life. “I was not accusatory,” Whipple said of his message, “but [I] also reminded the leadership that they have a great opportunity to be leaders and to be role models, and that the University does not tolerate intimidation or harassment.”
Whipple continued to say that campus struggles with a lack of communication. “I think that’s our bigger challenge. These are all symptoms of a community that I think needs to have more conversation.”