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Local students take cue from Missouri race protests
Brenau, University of North Georgia students keep eye on protests
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Nicole Vernon, a member of the Black Student Association at Brenau University, writes what the group means to her in light of protests against racial discrimination on college campuses across the country in recent weeks.

When protesters at the University of Missouri forced the school’s president to resign last week after his perceived mishandling of racist incidents on campus, students at Brenau University and the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus took notice.

“Being a student of color and going to a predominantly white school, we know about these issues that are happening elsewhere,” said Chelsey Brown, 22, president of the Black Student Association at Brenau and a middle grades education major.

Local students said they got the “wake-up call” and are now ready to learn from these protesters about how to address racial inequities and discrimination on campus. 

“It’s been a constant conversation,” Michelle Zuluaga Valencia, 23, the next president of the UNIFY student group at UNG and an international affairs major, said.

A few dozen students gathered on the Brenau campus last week to show solidarity with the Missouri protesters, drawing a response from university President Ed Schrader.

“At Brenau, we certainly want our students to feel free to engage in thoughtful, considerate discussions about today’s most pressing social issues,” he said in a statement afterward. “In fact, our entire first-year seminar revolves around the 1960s civil rights movement, and how many of the same themes of the era remain relevant — and empowering — to young women in the 21st century. As a matter of truth, morality and equality, Black Lives Matter and Brenau encourage the realization of that basic reality throughout all societies and cultures across the globe.”

These same students gathered again Monday to discuss the lessons of the last week and commit to furthering their cause in the future.

They described their life at the university with the words “motivated,” “misunderstood,” “challenged” and “joy.”

Peyton Edmond, 19, an accounting major at Brenau, said the solidarity gathering on campus last week was a success because students of all races showed support.

“It wasn’t just black power,” she added.

But while there is a sense among members of the BSA that Brenau has responded decisively and appropriately to acts of discrimination on campus, students also expressed a desire to remain vigilant.

“I do think what happened (in Missouri) has the potential to happen here,” Edmond said.

Brown said minority students were not surprised that the racial tensions on the Missouri campus had boiled over into protests and hunger strikes, but were shocked by the success of the movement and toppling of high-level officials.

“Now we’re just looking at what is actually changing on their campus,” she added. “We really want to focus on not only making our campus better, but making a difference in the community.” 

About 34 percent of all students who take at least one course at Brenau are African-American.

UNG, meanwhile, has a student enrollment of more than 16,000 across its multiple campuses, but just 4.3 percent are African-American.

UNG spokeswoman Kate Maine said personnel had discussed the events and fallout in Missouri, but no formal talks have yet taken place to address similar concerns locally.

One of the reasons Brenau has a higher percentage of black students stems from the founding of two predominantly African-American sororities on campus — Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Brown said that while these sororities and student groups like the BSA provide a sense of identity for minorities on campus, more African-American educators are needed to reflect the diverse student population. That’s also a demand made by protesters at Missouri.

About 15 percent of Brenau’s faculty, staff and administration is African-American, according to school officials.

Brown said the ultimate goal is to ensure “all students feel safe and well-represented on their campus.”

At UNG, Latino students said they were impressed and inspired by the events at Missouri and hope to take cues from protest leaders there.

Zuluaga Valencia’s family hails from Colombia, but she was born in New Jersey. She parted time growing up between the two countries.

Promoting social justice, awareness and tolerance are critical takeaways from the Missouri protests, she said, and plans are in the works to piggyback on the successes of this student movement to address the prejudice directed at immigrants.

“Here, what we want to do is bring awareness to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students and immigrants,” Zuluaga Valencia said, adding that UNIFY plans to hold forums next semester to “slowly but surely try to humanize these people. This is Gainesville. We have a lot of Hispanics.”

Paul Glaze, a progressive political organizer at UNG studying communications, said the support for the Missouri protests among local students has been “measured.”

The message is embraced even if all the tactics are not. A debate about free speech rights, and the access of journalists at the protests, became part of the narrative in Missouri.

“It hasn’t been a huge issue among students in my political science classes,” said Mark Pettitt, a UNG student, active Republican Party member and chair of the Hall County Library Board of Trustees. “I overheard some talk that surrounded mainly around confusion. It seemed that there’s been little evidence presented to support these claims of racism and protests. That’s just what I’m hearing.”

Because other schools across the country, including Emory University in Atlanta, have seen similar protests and demands from students in the last week, Glaze said he expects treatment of minorities on campus to continue to be a national issue.

“If you can’t create an environment where the vast majority of your minority students feel safe and welcomed,” more protests are likely, he added.

As a white student, Glaze said his support is about leaving no doubt where his sympathies lie.

“My role has been as an ally,” he added.

For Kenya Hunter, an African-American communications major at Brenau, the protests at Missouri and the larger Black Lives Matter movement is simply a response to the social conditions of the day. She wishes change wasn’t necessary.

“We’re doing this so we won’t have to keep doing it in the future,” Hunter said. “We don’t want Missouri to be happening.”

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