The pivotal moment: Controversial year opens eyes of StuGov leaders
When Dan Breitbarth and Megan Sweere started their reign as president and vice president of Iowa State’s Student Government in the spring of 2015, overcrowding, faculty transparency and incorporating Veishea traditions back into campus were at the top of their to-do list.
That is, until dozens of students overtly expressed their disappointment with university administration the week after a Donald Trump-inspired protest led to a white woman ripping the poster of a Latino student protester, sending the campus community into a semester of tempest debate.
It was a pivotal moment.
“Discussions on diversity jumped to the top of my priority list, that’s for sure. It was at the forefront of my discussions and of my priorities,” Breitbarth said. “The week after it happened, Monday through Friday, I met with student groups until 10 or 11 at night to try to identify stuff. It was eye opening.”
It was during this time and the weeks after that Breitbarth and his team worked with administration and leaders of multicultural student organizations to organize the open forum in September that further exposed minority students’ experiences of racism, bigotry and systematic oppression on this campus.
The panel was scheduled in response to the Sept. 12, 2015, CyHawk football game; however, it was not the sole reason for the event.
It just happened to be the final straw.
A panel of students shared accounts of daily injustices and discrimination that minority students, faculty and staff experience on this campus.
Maria Alcivar, graduate student in human development and family studies, was a member of the student panel questioning the gathered administrators, which consisted of President Steven Leath, former Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Hill and former Dean of Students Pamela Anthony.
Alcivar tearfully described when a woman at the Trump protest shoved a hand into her face and was told "you don't belong here.”
Another panelist, Jazmin Murguia, shared how she felt when she first arrived at Iowa State.
"I have to admit, my freshman year [at Iowa State] was hell," said Murguia, senior in journalism and mass communication.
She said her first roommate made her Halloween costume a "Mexican costume," and used multiple negative stereotypes, such as a mustache.
"I didn't know how to respond to that," Murguia told the more than 550 people in the Memorial Union Great Hall that day.
Leath, Hill and Anthony made a public promise to the students they were going to put their heads together to create a plan to make Iowa State more inclusive.
All of this spurred from Trump’s visit to campus. The week after, Breitbarth said, was a week of late nights, early mornings, angry students and a lot of thinking.
“There were a lot of people pissed at me that week,” Breitbarth said with a heavy breath. “It was eye-opening.”
Sweere, a Muscatine native, said she was thankful Trump came along. He twisted open the cap on a carbonated campus, fizzing with pent-up pressure ready to be released.
“That event has brought so much light,” Sweere said. “I think that was the first time that anybody really made a big statement with there being issues with diversity on campus, at least in a louder sense. Before that I would say that on the larger scale, we weren’t aware of the inclusion issues or people feeling they didn’t belong here.”
Sweere, senior in supply chain management who has been involved in Student Government since her sophomore year, said she and Breitbarth spent weeks combing through campus to identify the top priority issues the two were going to focus on in their spring 2015 campaign for office for the following summer and year. The issue of diversity, she said, didn’t seem as prevalent as it apparently was.
“And we really looked at campus and really tried to figure out where we had gaps,” Sweere said. “And not saying that we could see all, but we spent some serious time trying to look.”
“But I think that in itself tells a story that [inclusion] wasn’t something that got talked about,” she continued. “Even just watching all the student groups that have popped up since then, I think also shows that maybe people were feeling this but nobody was empowered enough ... to create a group or community around those feelings.”
The fact so many people were feeling the same way, and feeling that way under the radar of a vastly white majority, speaks to a larger issue, students said: a largely white campus oblivious to its white privileges and students of color feeling they don’t belong.
White privilege, a term sometimes said, but not often dissected.
It consists of the set of advantages Caucasians experience without earning them and perks that people of color do not receive. White privilege is living comfortably in society, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s project on Teaching Tolerance.
White people see a “skin-colored” bandage, and it matches their skin color. When coloring with crayons, the one marked as “nude” is usually a peachy cream. When a white person goes into a beauty salon, he or she knows the hairdresser can work with his or her hair. If a white person gets pulled over, he doesn’t have to worry about if it’s because of his race.
When a white person walks into the room, he can walk in with the assurance the room will be full of white people.
But when Breitbarth was meeting with multiple student organizations the weeks after the protest, he sat through the slightest sample of what minority students may go through on a daily basis.
“There were times I was the only white person in the room,” Breitbarth said. “It was different. That doesn’t happen very often, especially on this campus. I have no knowledge of what some of those students have to go through, but I kind of felt some of it at certain times.”
Breitbarth, who strives to stroll into his office every day by 7 a.m. to get his homework done, grew up in Ankeny and attended school at Saydel on the eastern side of Des Moines, a school with a more diverse population than other Iowa high schools. He said he has always had friends of color, but experience of serving on the diversity committee for Student Government at Iowa State drastically altered his perspective.
Running a campaign for student body president transformed his outlook on white privilege even more.
“It would be hard,” Breitbarth said slowly, “to run a super successful campaign if you weren’t white, in all honesty.”
When voting for a leader, Breitbarth said people often try to find similarities with that person, whether it be their policies or what issues they want to address.
“Or whether it be the color of their skin,” he continued. “In all honesty, with a majority of our student groups being dominated by Caucasian students, it’s easier to identify with them. I definitely had a leg up without wanting it or having any choice over it. I didn’t run against any multicultural students, but I can still see it.”
He has thought about whether people have the impression his success comes from his white advantage, but he does recognize his advantage.
“I don’t ever have to wake up and think, ‘I’m white,’” he said.
Sweere said she can understand where white students may sometimes feel they can’t contribute to the conversation or push forward initiatives on diversity and inclusion because of their skin color.
“White privilege in particular isn’t something I’ve had to think about,” she said, acknowledging that in itself is part of white privilege. “I think, though, that putting a light on the diversity issues has at least allowed some white people to say, ‘I need to think about the way that I act. Am I treating somebody differently because of how they look or how they speak?’”
Student Government over the years has been criticized for consisting of a white room, a fact Sweere addressed. She said, though, that visual differences aren’t the only forms of diversity, and that someone who may have grown up in the same town, lived on the same street or lives on the same dorm floor will still have a different life and experiences at Iowa State than another person.
This is why, Sweere said, she thinks many ISU students haven’t talked about diversity in the past. People who consider themselves in the white majority of campus feel they aren’t allowed to participate in the conversation on diversity.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in diversity as in cultural or the bigger diversity or you start to feel if you’re considered ‘normal’ by society,” she said. “You start to feel like you can’t take part in those conversations. That’s an important thing to be talking about, as well. You don’t have to be ‘different’ you can still be diverse in your opinions.”
However, Sweere did acknowledge a need for more visual diversity in Student Government.
And she too recognizes her own white privileges, saying she knows she’s never had to worry about not feeling accepted or comfortable because of her skin color.
“I think that’s the shift that needs to happen on campus to really make this diversity and inclusion thing come to life,” she said. “Until every single person on campus feels like they have a voice in the conversation, then we really aren’t reaching our goal of the diversity and inclusion because that includes everybody. It has to be every single person.”
With their time as student body leaders coming to a close, both said they’re proud of the work they’ve done, and thankful for the students whom came forward with their stories.
Breitbarth leaves with a wish for the future of Iowa State.
“I would love it if there would be unity on campus. That students know when they’re coming to Iowa State, yes we’re still in the state of Iowa and yes there are people who are still racist, but I would hope Iowa State is not that place. When you come to Iowa State, that’s a safe haven.”
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