Students, faculty, and staff met last Monday for a heated discussion about institutional racism, both in the department of global health and at the UW as a whole.
The forum was originally planned to address what students said was racial inequity in the department, including a lack of diverse faculty and a tendency by professors to deflect blame when discussing problematic behavior. The format was changed to a planning meeting after claims about departmental leadership being unequipped to manage such a public conversation, including one on a change petition to the UW's leadership.
The meeting came in the wake of a hostile interaction between Amman Girma, a black academic adviser in the department of global health, and the UW Police Department (UWPD) on March 6.
The full circumstances of the incident are still unclear. Girma is currently on leave, and the UW is conducting an external investigation, according to Norm Arkans, associate vice president of media relations and communications. An initial request for information from UWPD was referred to Arkans.
The results of the investigation will be released to the public when it is concluded, Arkans said.
Girma documented his version of the encounter in an email to Julia Ismael, a student involvement coordinator at Seattle Central College, who was inquiring about the whereabouts of a student who was with Girma when they encountered the UWPD.
According to the email, forwarded to The Daily by a student who wished to remain anonymous, Girma was giving a tour to four Seattle Central students when they were stopped outside his Raitt Hall office by UWPD officers. Girma wrote that officers held the group at gunpoint and detained one of the students.
Officers found a federal felony warrant for the student’s arrest upon checking his identification, according to the UWPD. He was taken to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center, from which he was released March 11.
“Our students feel they were profiled,” Girma wrote in his email. “We were humiliated. Treated as common criminals while on a college campus. We were held at gunpoint.”
Frustration surrounding the vagueness of the incident could be felt at last week’s meeting, which was facilitated by Anu Taranath. Taranath, a faculty member in the English department, has been serving as a consultant to global health this year to run workshops on undoing racism.
“What is happening in global health is reflected elsewhere on campus, in our community as larger Seattle, and our nation,” Taranath said. “There was a lot of energy put into making a forum today to hear a lot of voices, but even that became difficult because there’s so much to discuss.”
One woman said it was difficult to speak at the meeting without knowing everything that happened between Girma and the UWPD. Taranath agreed that the difficulty in discussing Girma’s case specifically came from the lack of details, but that the external investigation would help.
The best way forward, she said, is to continue “our razor-sharp analysis of institutional racism.”
Eric King, a current undergraduate and incoming master’s student in public health, along with several others in the room, said a “razor-sharp analysis” of racism isn’t possible if most people feel like the department and the university do not actually have one. Many echoed the sentiment that racial literacy and cultural awareness are unacceptably low at the UW, too low to trust those in power to create meaningful change alone.
“You don’t have to start at ground zero,” said Palca Shibale, an undergraduate studying molecular biology, to the faculty in attendance. “There are demands, there are proposals. Administration just has to act. As black students, we have to protest and rally just to make that happen.”
In addition to the change petition, several letters and proposals have been drafted by many of those at the meeting, including members of the department of global health’s diversity committee. University faculty passed a senate resolution adopting a Black Lives Matter statement in January, but Shibale and King both said little has been done to act on it.
One letter, written by faculty of African descent in the School of Public Health, outlines demands including restricting use of weapons by campus police, creating a community review board for policing, and committing resources to hiring diverse faculty in the department and the university at large.
Rachel Chapman, a professor of anthropology and chair of the faculty senate’s council on multicultural affairs, was among the authors of the letter. The council she chairs initially submitted the senate’s Black Lives Matter resolution, but so little was done that she helped author the letter outlining further demands.
“Many people are hurt, but if the university continues the same song of ‘we don’t have the resources, the money,’ we will not move forward,” said Ahoua Kone, another faculty author of the letter. “We will end up here again.”
When Taranath asked faculty and administrators in the room to speak, students said faculty fear retribution and job loss if they speak up.
Judy Wasserheit, chair of the department of global health, did not speak until the final 10 minutes of the meeting. Shibale, Kone, and King claimed she was dismissive to the needs of people of color during the meeting.
According to Girma’s email to Ismael, on which Wasserheit and other faculty were copied, when he approached Wasserheit to discuss his encounter with UWPD, she dismissed him and told him to respect her authority. An interaction between the two was captured by one of Girma’s students on video and distributed to the department via YouTube.
Wasserheit did not deny her comment during the meeting, when it was labeled as respectability politics by an audience member. Instead, when Wasserheit spoke, she said no one should fear retaliation for talking about inequity in the department, and she is ready to tackle the issues raised in the meeting.
“You have contributed to the racial aggression in this department,” Shibale said. “You are directly implicated. Amman is gone, and you are still here. You should not be involved in these decisions. De-center yourself as an implicated faculty. Listen, learn, and own up to your role.”
The meeting ended with tentative plans to allow global health faculty to convene and address some of the demands presented in the numerous letters, and to hold another public meeting later in April.
“People of color do not have time to wait,” Shibale said. “This is life and death. Oppression is easy, equity is expensive.”
All mentioned documents are available publicly:
- Student Demands & Racial Equity Committees
- African Descent Faculty Letter to President Cauce
- DGH Diversity Committee Letter
- Faculty Senate BLM resolution
- UW Institutionalized Racism Letter
Reach News Editor Mohammed Kloub at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @LessIsMoh