Students demand anti-racist action

President Martin offers solidarity in email, students respond with email asking for tangible action.

a building with a clock tower
President Martin sent an email to the SPU community on May 30 regarding the protest in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Students responded by asking for action. Martin’s office is pictured here in Demaray Hall. (Julia Herman)

President Daniel Martin sent an email to Seattle Pacific University students and staff on the afternoon of Saturday, May 30, addressing the nation-wide unrest surrounding racism and police brutality taking place around the country. The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many other black people sparked protests in cities world-wide, including Seattle.

He also mentioned the “rise of anti-Asian racism, and the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color [which] continue to take place in a broader social context.”

The email was sent out the same day that crowds marched through the streets of downtown to protest police brutality and white supremacy. The university also shared a post on Instagram with a statement discussing the Christian values the university holds, and listing resources such as the counseling center, the John Perkins Center and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“We hear the cries and feel the pain from our brothers and sisters in their ongoing struggle for justice, respect, and fairness,” Seattle Pacific wrote in the post.

The email and Instagram post were met with backlash from many SPU students. The post quickly had over 50 comments, many demanding that Martin and SPU do more than just acknowledge racism, but take tangible action against it.

Later Saturday evening, a text message circulated via SMS among students about a plan to send an email to Martin Sunday at 11 a.m. The text attached a Google document with a prewritten message that was to be copied and signed by the sender.

The message starts by expressing feelings of hurt and shame over how SPU has addressed racism in the United States and on campus. The rest of the message contains a list of demands detailing the ways they feel SPU can take action.

“We demand that Seattle Pacific University publicly denounce the killing and violent racism against black people with rhetoric free of the mindset of a white savior. We demand a statement that asserts the dignity of our black family,” the email reads.

Written by a group of students, many of whom are from the group Conditionsea, the email calls for direct action from administration to address racism as well as provide resources for black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students to comfortably report incidents of racism.

Hundreds of SPU students sent the email to Martin starting at 11 a.m. Sunday and continued to do so throughout the day.

Sophomore English major Malia Alexander sent the email to Martin because she questioned the sincerity of his email.

“I felt like he was generalizing a lot of other people’s voices because it did not seem to be genuine, but something that was done out of obligation,” Alexander said over email to The Falcon. “As a person of color on campus, I saw it necessary to reach out to the president of our university to seem genuine.”

Similarly, Social Justice and Cultural Studies major Patricia Sydenstricker sent the email because she was disappointed by Martin’s announcement. Sydenstricker felt that Martin’s email was forced since it came after students insisted he make a formal address.

“I chose to send the email to him because I have witnessed microaggressions happen to my peers in class. I have heard the stories of the racism my BIPOC peers have experienced and the inability SPU has shown to create a zero tolerance policy towards,” Sydenstricker wrote in an email interview.

In Feb. 2016, similar action was taken when students, alumni and members of the SPU student body started a petition to implement changes in SPU’s policies and structures, such as their requirements for student leaders, as well as an office that addresses diversity on campus.

“We believe that the current structure of SPU in all areas pertaining to student life, community involvement, faculty development and internal relations, suppresses minority cultures and identities by perpetuating the notion that Western white evangelical culture is socially and theologically normative,” the petition stated.

The petition demanded that a “Chief Diversity Office” be created, justice and culture understanding requirements for SPU staff and leaders be established, and changes be made to the hiring process to allow more diversity among faculty. The following year in July, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion was created.

In a Feb. 3, 2016 Falcon article titled “Staff, faculty seek sense of urgency,” Assistant News Editor Manola Secaira and Features Editor Tori Hoffman wrote that the authors of the petition wanted to see the administration respond to their demands. Martin and other administration members were criticized for their lack of urgency by students.

On the administration leadership board that signed Martin’s email, Dr. Sandra Mayo, the Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, is the only person of color. In the email from students, the authors explained that when reporting incidents of racism, they are first pointed to Vice President of Student Life Jeff Jordan, who is a white male. This fact, the authors noted, makes many BIPOC students uncomfortable because he cannot understand their experiences.

In an email interview, Mayo said that she does not see a disagreement between students and administration over the fact that racism exists, but that their approaches to the problem differ.

“I understand why students of color are exhausted and demanding change, because the pace of change in higher education is too slow to counterbalance the historical inertia of racism,” Mayo said.

As vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Mayo is trying to meet the demands of the students. When asked how SPU can better address these needs, Mayo stated that part of her role is to create a strategy for dismantling racism on campus. This includes providing training for SPU faculty, improving the hiring process and changing curricula to better reflect the diversity of students at SPU.

In response to the campus reaction and the email blast, Martin emailed a follow-up with the subject “SPU leadership hears you” on May 31. In the third communication of the day, he repeated that he is listening and condemns discrimination on campus.

“We are aware that students of color want a safe and effective system for reporting incidents that create a hostile educational and living environment,” Martin wrote. “The University believes this is important and is committed to continuing to improve its policies and procedures to be responsive to the needs of the campus.”

In a follow-up interview with The Falcon, Martin commented again that he is listening to students and hoping to understand their perspective.

“Seeing the frustrations and pain that our students have experienced is painful but important to understand. So we will continue to listen to them and seek ways to become more of the community that we desire and that God calls us to be,” Martin wrote. “What I want to understand is if there are gaps or needs that our structures do not account for and that may be the next challenge we need to address.”

In regard to questions about his plans to address racism, Martin said that he does not accept racism on campus and that it needs to be recognized. But Martin did not indicate that SPU has any specific plans for addressing racism.

“It is my expectation that where it exists, it is identified and addressed. I have zero tolerance for any racism on our campus,” Martin said.

“We are called to be people who set the world right in systems, structures and relationships — and this certainly includes setting the world right by fighting against the evils of racism.”

Residence Life, which is largely composed of white staff members, sent an email Saturday evening echoing the message of Martin and providing the email addresses of Residence Life and Area Coordinators as resources for students to turn to during this time.

“We know that recent events have been deeply impactful to our campus community and we want to do our best to be with you and provide support,” Residence Life’s email stated.

“As a part of this, our Residence Life professional staff will be available for follow up conversations and making sure students get connected to resources as needed on campus this weekend and into next week.”

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is holding Zoom discussions till the end of the quarter for students, staff and faculty. The sessions only allowed thirty people at once, so they will continue to hold more if students express interest.

Many SPU students are still waiting for administration to take formal action to address racism on campus.

“I would like to see SPU recognize these issues themselves and take ownership of the mistakes they have made. I also feel like SPU needs to work on being more inclusive, not just diverse,” Alexander said. “In order for things to change, I believe that SPU first needs to recognize the racism that is present and deconstruct these ideals from there.”

Follow @conditionsea on Instagram