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The renovated Multicultural Student Affairs Office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is now much larger, with a spacious lounge area, a classroom for meetings and more office space. In late September, the university added large photo prints of students to decorate the space.
To Brandy Williams, the updates are one sign of the power of students’ voices.
Williams, a senior studying journalism and president of The African American Student Union at UMKC, was also happy about other developments on campus, such as a policy allowing student organizations to choose their own food vendors for small events and plans to create a garden on campus honoring Black Greek letter organizations.
“The majority of these tasks have either been completed or are in progress, but every single thing that we have worked through has been addressed,” Williams said.
Keichanda Dees-Burnett, assistant dean for student support, director of Multicultural Student Affairs and the advisor for TAASU, said she quickly started facilitating conversations about the demands after they went up on Instagram.
High-level administrators were also quick to get involved, she said. “I really love that there wasn’t a lot of convincing that took place. … The chancellor took immediate concern.”
A task force of Black student leaders ultimately took the lead in working on the list of demands with the university, Dees-Burnett said.
“Even though I thought I was a little leader when I was in school, I was amazed at how vocal they are,” said Dees-Burnett, who attended UMKC. “But when I think about it, these students have been through a lot. All they’ve seen is activism. All they’ve seen is injustice.”
Brandon Henderson, at the time the president of UMKC’s Student Government Association, was also involved in facilitating conversations. Henderson later resigned to focus on self care. He is now a work-study student with the chancellor’s office.
“I think they did a really good job of articulating what could be done to make the university more inclusive and better at retaining Black students,” Henderson said of the TAASU demands.
Advocating for UMKC to support Black students
In a letter accompanying the demands, students said they were writing in solidarity with the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and “others who have been unjustly killed due to their skin color.”
“Experiencing each of these killings while also navigating a global pandemic that has proven to disproportionately impact Black communities is exhausting,” they wrote in a letter to UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal.
“There were so many emotions that traveled through everyone’s mind and everyone’s body, and so we really just had to come together and say, ‘What do we want?’” Williams said.
The letter included a list of demands students said could make the university’s commitment to supporting Black students less “performative” and more “substantive.”
Demands included renovations to the African-American History & Culture House, improving visibility of Black Greek letter organizations, renaming UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, hiring more counselors of color, allowing student organizations to use outside food vendors and preserving the Black studies program.
UMKC was already committed to diversity and inclusion, spokesperson John Martellaro said in an email. But in summer 2020, the university “redoubled” those efforts.
Students have been leaders in developing and prioritizing ideas, as well as working with Student Affairs and campus leadership to plan and execute projects, he wrote.
Signs of advocacy progress around campus
Progress to date includes beginning a Divine Nine garden to honor Black Greek letter organizations. Williams, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., said students have been working on fundraising and grant proposals for the garden.
Other progress includes working on a proposal for a new major within the race, ethnic and gender studies department and including more Black professionals in advising and counseling, Martellaro wrote. The university is working on recruiting diverse faculty and has plans to evaluate whether its efforts are succeeding.
In some cases, students have had to adjust or prioritize their requests. For example, after predicting a high cost for renovations to the Culture House, a gathering space for students that has fallen into disrepair and is currently not usable, UMKC instead expanded the Multicultural Student Affairs office space.
Williams is pleased with the renovations but said she still doesn’t want to lose sight of eventually renovating the Culture House.
Students are not prioritizing renaming the Miller Nichols Library, Williams said. They are mindful of the contributions the Miller Nichols Charitable Foundation has made to the university.
J.C. Nichols — Miller Nichols’ father — helped entrench residential segregation in Kansas City while developing the Country Club Plaza and other neighborhoods. Activists called for J.C. Nichols’ name to be removed from the fountain and a street on the Plaza, changes the Miller Nichols foundation supported.
The street is now Mill Creek Parkway, but the fountain doesn’t yet have a new name.
Williams said students suggested the foundation make a financial contribution to some of the students’ priorities, but nothing has been decided.
In an agreement with the university’s food vendor, Sodexo, the university said students can use outside vendors if they are spending less than $500 on food for an event.
“That was very important to us because there are so many different cultures here, and so many diverse people,” Williams said. “No disrespect to them (Sodexo) because they’re a lovely company, but they just didn’t have all the things that students wanted to see. … Sometimes they can’t make our traditional foods.”
Plans to recruit future advocates at UMKC
Henderson, the former student government president, said making the university a better place for Black students is vital to helping them stay in college.
In his view, there are two main reasons Black students might drop out: financial struggles or not feeling connected to campus.
“I do think that the university is serious about trying to address both of those issues,” he said. “It’s obviously hard because the university can’t just print money … but I do think that they’re trying to make it work.”
Williams also thinks UMKC leadership has taken students’ concerns seriously; TAASU even presented Agrawal the Dr. Joseph Seabrooks Jr. Leadership Award.
But she wants to make sure student advocates are continuing to push the university forward, including after she graduates in May.
“There are definitely potential students who can step into big leadership roles,” she said, adding that she needs to help develop younger students as leaders “because I was developed, too.”
Williams also said she is interested in staying involved as an alumna.
“We still have a lot of work to do, and there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” she said. “So we’re not done.”