MONMOUTH — A Western Oregon University alum and employee and the Black Student Union are calling for change.
Last month JoeHahn, who works in University Housing and is the advisor for the BSU, emailed a message throughout WOU and posted it publicly.
“Today I am emailing you this call to action from myself and the Black Student Union,” JoeHahn said.
“I am emailing you because our students are in pain. They are hurt. I feel all of this weight on me too. I am sure fellow Black faculty and staff may feel the same way. But that is their voice and story to share, not mine.”
He gave context by talking about local and national history, gave students' accounts of bias they've experienced, and provided short- and long-term actions for the school to improve.
“You might be thinking, 'Well, I’m not racist? I’m not anti-Black. I’m not part of the problem,'” JoeHahn said. “Yes you are. We all are. Every. Single. Person. We cannot move Forward Together until we acknowledge who and what is holding us back...We need to acknowledge our challenges, our biases, our perceptions. And actively work to remove barriers and become more welcoming for the Black community.”
He warned the readers that they may feel many emotions — “sadness, anger, guilt, defensiveness, fear” — as they read the letter.
“I want you to feel all of those,” he said. “I want you to navigate, even for just a moment, a fraction of the emotions Black people navigate on a daily basis. To see and hear how we are feeling.”
JoeHahn listed the names of some of the Black people who have been “killed by police or self-appointed people seeking to create 'law and order'”— “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Micheal Brown, Natasha Mckenna, India Kager, Atatian Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Bettie Jones, Mary Truxillo, Pamela Turner, Tamir Rice.”
He said the email was to honor their lives and create change.
“Before this country was even founded, Black people were othered,” JoeHahn said. “We were not seen as equal. Even with emancipation we were still segregated, with desegregation we were still lynched, with Civil Rights we are still incarcerated and criminalized. We still are not seen as equal.”
Black people were not allowed to live, work, own property or vote in Oregon, he said, referring to the exclusion laws in the state constitution.
“In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan of Oregon peaked with 20,000 members,” he said. “Enough to house our average on-campus resident population 20 times.”
JoeHahn said WOU students in every field need to be taught about bias.
These are among the students' experiences of bias shared in the letter:
During winter term at a nearby convenience store, a student was asked by a white clerk to empty his pockets. He videotaped the incident and posted it online. His mother and community came together and the clerk was fired.
“Shall we bring up the lack of diversity within the diversity scholars as well?” BSU President Logan Jackson asked. “The extremely low number of Blacks within the program to me shows that even the organizations on campus should be helping and supporting us, don’t even really care to.”
Winter term a student’s car had N— graffitied on it. (The word was spelled out in the letter). I do not censor this word because you need to feel how harmful it is. Think of how demoralizing this can be. How empowered the perpetrators feel to do this.
Multiple students and myself have seen a truck drive through campus since February flying confederate flags. A student said they were on the street the “confederate truck” was driving down and “they yelled at me and threw stuff at me. I didn’t report it because the last time I reported discrimination is was my word versus a bunch of white kids.”
Actions people can take now include asking students how they are doing, offering extensions on their school work, and making statements of solidarity, JoeHahn said.
He also advocated for faculty and staff training.
“Give us a seat at the table,” he said. “Include us in conversations about change, in search committees, in events like MLK Dinner. Make sure we celebrate Blackness everyday. Make our work intersectional so it’s not just cisgender Black men and women but also trans and nonbinary people, first-generation, undocumented, queer, neurodivergent, etc.”
Since last month, a group of WOU employees have been protesting on Wednesday afternoons in support of Black Lives Matter at the intersection of Monmouth Avenue N. and Church Street.
Beverly West, project manager for WOU's Academic Affairs, said the number of participants varies by availability, but there have been between 40 and 70 people.
“Our students have protested things in the past, but they’re not here right now,” West said. “We’re trying to show them that we still support them.”
West clarified the protest is not an official WOU event.
“We’re not authorized to speak on the behalf of the university,” she said. “This is us as staff people and faculty.”
She's tried to think about how WOU is structured, she said.
“What it is like for a Black person or person of color to come into a meeting that I’m, for them to not see anyone that looks like them,” West said.
She said in academia in general, not having faculty members who are minorities is a barrier to students.
“If a student sees people who are like them, that tells them there’s space for them there,” West said. “It’s also, frankly, not another white person they have to explain things to. Because that can get exhausting.”
Lisa Catto, WOU assistant director, marketing & communications, said a steering committee is being developed in connection to House Bill 2864 to report on cultural competency.
“(WOU President Rex Fuller) expects that group to be finalized and meet this month,” Catto said. “Part of what that group will do is review the diversity plan. He expects the diversity plan work to continue through the summer and that it will be finalized in the fall.”
Regarding JoeHahn's letter, Catto said “we will use the examples and concerns included in his statement as input for work being done on the diversity plan.”
JoeHahn said he was invited to be part of a committee comprised of people from Monmouth and Independence.
The first meeting was last Wednesday.
"Rex Fuller (was) part of that session, but it was staged as a listening session so he didn't address the letter much," JoeHahn said.
Click here to read the letter.