SIU Black Alumni Group Plans Town Hall Meeting to Address Concerns

May 31, 2016

Kevin Winstead holds two degrees from Southern Illinois University - and takes pride in being a Saluki. But he says the school has work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusivity on campus.

"The issue in Carbondale is an onion, and it's been brewing for a while."

Winstead says African American students and alumni can tell similar stories - stories of issues and problems in their community needing to meet a higher threshold before something is done, of the need for more African American faculty, staff, and administrators.

The Black Alumni Group has drafted a list of issues it wants the University to address - including reviewing the mission of SIU's Center for Inclusive Excellence, recruitment of African American faculty and staff, and a confrontation of what the group calls "coded language" - something Winstead says can be found not just at the university, but in online message boards and comment sections about SIU.

"It's this narrative that, particularly urban, black students from Chicago are somehow a threat and an endangerment to the system and business of Carbondale."

He says the May second protests this spring may have been eye-opening for some, but Winstead doesn't think it should come as a big surprise to everyone.

"I'm not frustrated because people are unaware, I'm frustrated because people remain silent. And the silence is a status quo for Carbondale."

He says that status quo leads to one of the themes from demonstrations earlier this spring - students say they feel 'accepted, but not welcome.'

"'Accepted, but not welcome' means that you gladly will take our money, but unless it's under crisis, will not respond to our issues, our quality of life, our mental health."

And while Winstead says dialogue on racial issues can help, he points out there must be action to affect change to go along with it. He says SIU has reason to be proud of its history, but also needs to acknowledge all aspects of it.

"The university accepted African-American students at a time when very few others were. A lot of those African American students have always been imports from other places, other geographical places. There's not much directly in common between a Chicago and a Carbondale - a St. Louis and a Carbondale - and that's always been true. At the same time, Carbondale has always flirted with that Mason-Dixon Line, and that has its own history."
 

Winstead says Interim SIUC Chancellor Brad Colwell is working in the right direction, but as of yet it's not enough. He says it's what Colwell decides now that will make or break the future.

"It's not what he decides, but the process that he uses to make his decisions that will determine the trust factor African Americans will have with the university."

That process, Winstead and the Black Alumni Group say, must include representation on search committees and in decision making - a seat at the table, not just advice after the fact.

"We're trying to help break the tendency for the university to kill things in the committee, kill things with dialogue - right, dialogue with no action."
 

Winstead points to the budget crisis as one layer of the onion that, when peeled back, shows another. He says too many times positions are cut or left open that could help recruit and retain African American students and faculty.

"It's the endless circle; you won't hire the person who did the work to bring in black graduate students, then say 'We have a crisis because we don't have students.'"

The Black Alumni Group's leadership wants to meet with students, potential students, their families, and alumni at its Town Hall Meeting in Chicago. Winstead says he has spoken with some potential students and families already, and at times feels conflicted when they ask about news articles they've read.

"If I say too much of what the truth has been historically, it runs them away. Yet, at the same time, SIU is my alma mater and I love it. I want students to go to Carbondale, it was a great experience for me."

University administrators announced a plan earlier this year to address diversity, and improve the campus climate. Leaders say they are the first steps in a larger process of changing.
 

Winstead says the BAG has published their issues list to their website - www.siucbag.com - and hope to use it as a tool for change.

"Whenever we get our responses from the Chancellor and President to our document specifically, we will post them on there as well, and start a public conversation on what we can do to better the university together."