As part of our reporting on the “We’re Better Than THAT” campaign’s event in Hirst Lounge on Monday, the Campus Times emailed the following questions to Beth Olivares, Dean for Diversity Initiatives in Arts, Sciences, & Engineering and one of the campaign’s architects:

What was the intended goal of yesterday’s giveaway, and do you think that goal was met?

When the Campus Times interviewed students asking if they believed the giveaway was a good way to celebrate this day, this is what a few of them had to say:

“It was just a mechanical act of grabbing a shirt and leaving. That was it—no conversation.”

“Somebody approached me and handed me a piece of paper with a campaign slogan on it. They then told me to grab a shirt. Walking into Hirst, there were television cameras watching students while the students swiped their IDs, grabbed t-shirts, and left.”

“I don’t know anything about the campaign because they didn’t inform me. I know the idea behind of it, but that’s only from word of mouth. One person gave me a button, a piece of paper, and then said to go get a shirt for this cause.”

“While I agree with the objective of the campaign, I don’t think giving everyone free t-shirts unified the school in any way especially if there’s no attempt to educate people while giving out these free things.”

What is your response to their criticism? Other than giving away free things with the “We’re Better than THAT” slogan on it, how else has the campaign tried to publicize the actual meaning behind it?

Below is an unedited copy of Olivares’ response, provided by the Campus Times because it thoroughly addresses common criticisms of the campaign and contains a wealth of information we were unable to use for our article, yet believe is important for the student body to see:

First, we appreciate the criticism, and were expecting it. Anti-racism campaigns are going to be controversial–some will believe we’re not doing enough, and others will be offended that we’re doing anything at all.

The event on Monday (March 21) was to raise awareness of the “We’re better than THAT” campaign, and to do so on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  

The committee first rolled out the campaign two weeks ago at the men’s and women’s basketball games, with t-shirts, stickers, and buttons.  

Monday was the committee’s second public event, and our goal was to reach as many students as we could through the event in Hirst Lounge. The first part of the awareness campaign (including the basketball games, the website, the posters and Monday’s event) is meant to get people talking. The committee was hoping that students would be curious: What does the slogan mean? Why doesn’t it specifically refer to racism? Are we “really” better than that? We are purposefully not answering these questions, as a means of fostering conversations. Many students did engage with us in meaningful  conversations during the event on Monday; others also provided suggestions on ways we should work together to end hate speech and racism.

(As a side note, student support departments were given the opportunity to purchase the shirts for their staff, and 900 were ordered. Offices including the Gwen Greene Career Center, the Deans’ Office, CCAS, CETL, OMSA, Study Abroad, ResLife, the Kearns Center, Dining Services, and others all also wore the shirts as a visible means of support.  Many others have reached out since to also do so.)

So in terms of increasing awareness, yes, I think we met that goal.  People are talking about the campaign, and arguing its relative merit, which is terrific. In fact, I’ve been at UR for a long time, and I can honestly say that more people, and different kinds of people, are talking about race and racism and oppression, and ways to end them, than I have witnessed at any other time.  This in itself is progress.  Insufficient, of course, but a step in the right direction.

The next part of the campaign is to provide educational tools and resources via events/workshops and more, to help us all learn how to become “better than that.”  Some of these events/etc. will occur this semester, some during the summer for entering students, some during orientation, and some over the longer term throughout students’ careers here. We are at the very beginning of developing the campaign as a long-term sustainable part of the UR campus experience.

The committee’s membership includes students from: MSAB, DLH, SALSA, BSU, Athletics, Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, MGC and the Students’ Association. We meet weekly, and communicate more frequently via email and individual meetings. We encourage feedback directly to the committee, via the website (rochester.edu/better-than-that).  Also, if other students want to become involved, just let me or Norman Burnett know.

Not everyone enters this conversation at the same point, or even believes that racism, hate speech or bias have any impact on their lives at all. Some people don’t know how to react when they hear or see something uncomfortable in the classroom, the residence hall, the library, or wherever. In general, most of the population does not know how to talk about race at all, much less deal with racism. So a goal of the campaign and the committee is to give all students (and others) the tools they need, wherever they enter the conversation.

The committee’s meeting today focused on a set of actions and recommendations that we plan to take, and for which we will need assertional assistance from the student community.These include bringing anti-racism education into many aspects of the student experience.

I (and the committee as a whole) understand the frustration expressed by students in the comments below. We’re not moving fast enough. We’re not addressing the real issues. The slogan is not direct enough. Giving away t-shirts is cute but what’s the point?  I’d respond yes and no to all of that. If all we did, or were planning to do, is give out shirts, then yes, please call bullshit on that, and I’ll be right there with you. But this is just the beginning. Seeing racism as just part of life (at UR and in the world) is longstanding, pervasive and deep; we need all the tools at our disposal to dismantle that worldview and turn it into something new and unique and of which we can all be proud. This work will take more than a few weeks.  We are not interested in quick fixes or ready-made solutions. They just don’t work.

Visible symbols against racism and words are powerful. The phrase “We’re better than THAT” is both aspirational and locates the power of action and ownership of the community in “we.” It also turns Meliora into an action. If we are seriously to become a community in which racism and hate speech are simply not tolerated, then we all need to become accountable for actually becoming better than that.

The committee unanimously approved the blurred YikYak post with the “We’re better than THAT” logo across it as our first poster which we wanted to blanket the campus. The protest was about many things, but the YikYak issues are longstanding and the first demand of the protesters was to ban it. So we were all passionate about making that the first one. We have received equivalent numbers of comments that people dislike it because the post was blurred too much, and that it wasn’t blurred enough.

Finally, I really do encourage those who disagree with the approaches we are taking to contact me, or any of the committee members.  We post our meeting notes and action plans on the website mentioned above.  And we need all of the community’s collective brain and willpower working together on this. So come help!

(I know this is probably longer than you were looking for, but these are really complicated issues.)

Best regards,

Beth

Tagged: Race


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