About 100 people gathered Wednesday at University of Southern Maine to protest institutional racism at campuses nationwide, pledging their support of student movements nationwide and demanding changes at USM.
“We also demand more faculty of color in our classrooms, in our counseling services and in our administration,” student Iris SanGiovanni told the crowd in the Woodbury Campus Center. “This is a call to action for equity and justice.”
USM President Glenn Cummings said he supported the students and had formed a diversity council that would hold listening sessions through the end of the year before forming an action plan.
“What’s really important is getting to the core of institutional bigotry that we don’t even understand. I will tell you it exists,” he said. “I’d like to say we’re special because we’re a university, because we’re liberal and open-minded. The truth is, in this university, there is work to be done. The thing I can commit to you today is that we’re going to do that work together.”
Students said later that they planned to meet with the administration in February to discuss the plan.
More than a half-dozen speakers, including Cummings, University of Maine School of Law Dean Danielle Conway, community activists and students addressed the crowd during the hour-plus meeting. The rally, organized by multiple student groups and supported by several academic departments, followed a Nov. 12 rally held in Monument Square that included a march down Congress Street.
Speaker Brooke Bolduc said she had faced racism throughout her life, and was forced to leave another college after unfair treatment from a professor.
“People ask if institutional racism is real. Of course it’s real. How can you look at me and not know that? It’s affected my education. It’s affected my career path,” said Bolduc, a history major. “USM can be better.”
USM has not reported any hate crimes under the federal Clery Act for the last three years. A speaker at the rally said there was an incident in November when students on the Gorham campus displayed a Nazi flag, and campus officials confirmed later that staff intervened after “individuals were found waving a Nazi flag.”
“Knowledge of the incident having taken place has greatly impacted our community and students have shared feelings of sadness, anger, vulnerability, and feeling unsafe as a result. I am extremely grateful for the individuals who have stood up and said ‘not at USM’,” Dean of Students Joy Pufhal said in an email. The incident is still under investigation, she said, and any student found in violation of student conduct policies could face sanctions.
At the rally, Conway urged the students to speak up and “take control” of their situations.
“This is what you are supposed to do … this is what our community needs with every generation,” said Conway, who relayed her own experience of being the lone black student in a college class. “I am happy today because you are speaking up for yourself and others.”
She also backed the USM administration, calling it “wonderful.”
“Trust me. I’ve been a lot of places. This is all right,” Conway said.
USM’s 8,226 undergraduate students include 231 black students, or slightly less than 3 percent, and 6,041, or 73 percent, white students, according to campus data. Systemwide, the student body is 76 percent white.
The new diversity council, chaired by Assistant Dean of Students Sarah Holmes, released a statement supporting the rally and described their work ahead.
“The Intercultural and Diversity Advisory Committee will continue to work collaboratively on issues related to oppression, inequality, injustice, and the “isms” that are institutionalized on our campuses. Some of these “isms” we must address include: racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, genderism, ableism, nationalism, and more,” the statement read. “Members of the committee will work reactively to educate and challenge acts of oppression on the campuses, will continue to create education to increase awareness and address prejudiced acts and policies, and will work to raise up the voices of students and employees who are marginalized.