Students of color still say campus climate has room for improvement

by David A. Bumpus / Beacon Staff • January 22, 2015

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EBONI members in 1969.
Courtesy of The Emersonian
EBONI members in 1969.
Courtesy of The Emersonian

In 1969, Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, or EBONI, sent a list of 10 proposals to the school’s administration detailing changes they said would increase the number of black students and improve their campus experience. Now, 46 years later, issues from the list are still discussed by students of color and white students.

A History

In 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the civil rights movement was well underway, and Moonyene Jackson-Amis, a senior at Emerson that year, talked with two other students about forming a group to capture the thoughts of, and advocate for, black students at the school.

“There were some things happening in the country and there were some issues I had been involved with before I came to Emerson that gave me the impetus to pull some individuals together to start the formation of EBONI,” Jackson-Amis, now 68, said.

Jackson-Amis, the first president of EBONI, said her idea to start a group for students of color resonated with her peers. She said the original group was made up of about 13 students.

Her family imbued her with a background of social activism that she said, in part, led her to start EBONI. Jackson-Amis had a brother who participated in the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and her brother and sister, who both attended historically black colleges, marched in Atlanta.

Jackson-Amis recalled being proactive at a young age when it came to racial issues. 

“I went to the march on Washington when I was only 15 years of age, which was when I first saw and met John Lewis over in Charlottesville,” Jackson-Amis said, referring to the civil rights leader and current U.S. Representative for Georgia.

EBONI gained more prominence in 1969, during Jackson-Amis’ final months at Emerson, when the group released a list of 10 proposals to the school’s administration demanding change.

“We all had dialogue. It was no one person who decided what the 10 would be,” Jackson-Amis said. “But we decided the 10 demands would best demonstrate the beginnings of a better process of inclusion.”

The proposals included having Emerson enroll no fewer than 30 black students in the next freshman class, hiring more black faculty members, having a mandatory class for black culture or history at the school, and having the school’s dining hall serve soul food. For several months, the college was gripped in what Jackson-Amis recalled as a peaceful but tense debate. Hundreds of students, black and white, walked out of classrooms and staged sit-ins at the administrative offices, according to Boston Globe reports from the time.

“We needed to have more people that looked like us on the campus—in more important and relevant educational positions—and students who were able to reap the benefits of those faces,” Jackson-Amis said.

Jackson-Amis said she believed Emerson needed to be a place of equal opportunity for black students for them to have a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

“The whole idea is that we need to have shared experiences across culture and ethnic groups in order for us to have some sort of sanity as we go through this life, and some kind of enjoyment as well,” Jackson-Amis said. “It’s a measure of respect that we include the human experience in all of its varieties.”

Fast Forward

Forty-six years later, EBONI’s current members and other students around campus are still discussing ideas that were showcased in the organization’s proposals.

When presented with the 1969 proposals, current EBONI Co-President Alexis Bradley said the suggestion of a black history or culture class stood out to her.

“I think one of the things I’d love to see established is to have students be required to take a racial relations class,” said Bradley, a sophomore from Georgia. “I feel like coming from the South, you do see blatant racism, because people are set in their times.”

Bradley, a visual and media arts major, said she chose to pursue a career in the media in part to better represent her race.

“People are going off of the stereotypes they see in the media. One of the things that influenced me into the media/TV field is the desire to strip away those stereotypes,” Bradley said. “That way, we can have a better understanding of these things, instead of easily taking in what is being fed to us through the news and TV shows.“

Other organizations around campus are discussing similar issues, such as Flawless Brown, the first theater troupe for women of color at Emerson, founded by Nyla Wissa in 2014.

Wissa, a senior performing arts major, said she agreed there should be a mandatory cultural competency class for students and faculty.

“As a student of color, I have been in classrooms being the only black girl in my class and not feeling safe in my own community, and I’m paying $60,000 for it,” said Wissa said, who said that she was once silenced by a professor during a conversation about police violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

Wissa said EBONI’s proposal to admit more black students was still relevant today.

“We look at Emerson today, and the percentages, and it’s a 70 percent white school. All of the smaller percentages are Hispanic, black, Native American and are Asian,” she said. “It’s kind of sad to see that things haven’t really changed, but I think they are slowly starting to make changes.”

In 2013, the latest year for which Emerson has released demographic data, 64.7% of undergraduates listed their race as Caucasian. That year, Hispanic, black, Native American, and Asian students, combined, made up 16.3% of the undergraduate population.

Lucie Pereira, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major, said that a lack of diversity in her classes can limit conversation.

“I haven’t experienced racism directly, but I will be in a lot of classes where I’m the only person of color in a class discussing issues of diversity and race,” Pereira said. “It’s definitely hard to want to share your perspective in a place where you’re the only one being that voice.”

Students of other races have also shown their support for change at the school. Josephine Bryan, a freshman performing arts major, said being in her department can be challenging for students of color.

“We are brainwashed to believe that European traits are better, which transfers over into a director reading a play and envisioning blue eyes and a pixie nose,” she said. “The evidence lies in the need to create a performance group like Flawless Brown. It's great that we now have such a troupe, but it won't solve the casting issues with other student organizations and EmStage.”

EmStage, or Emerson Stage, is the performing arts department’s producing organization.

Pereira said that while Emerson has room for improvement, she feels optimistic seeing students making their voices heard about race.

“I’ve seen some pretty cool demonstrations of students caring and going out and participating in protests,” Pereira said. “I think it’s good that people care enough to learn and get involved, and that’s just something we need to see more of.”