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April 05, 2016

Campaign aims to raise awareness about racism

people and George Eastman statue wearing t-shirts

For Rochester students like Justin Delinois ’19 the sentiments captured in a University-wide effort to combat racism on campus are more than just four words that fit on a T-shirt.

The campaign, guided by the message We’re Better Than That, was launched this spring as part of Rochester’s larger initiative to address issues of race and diversity at the University.

While the message fits on a T-shirt (and, yes, there are T-shirts), the campaign is more than just a fashion statement, says Delinois, a Rochester native who is studying political science and Latin American studies and who serves as secretary for the Spanish and Latino Students’ Association.

“It’s learning how to combat racism and change a culture, by starting conversations among people who are uneducated on the issues,” he says. “Then, we start teaching how to become a more inclusive person and, ultimately, an encompassing campus.”

Members of the University community highlighted the campaign and its larger message on Monday, March 21, with events to mark the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racism. Across the River Campus and at the Eastman School of Music, hundreds of students, staff, faculty, and officials wore gray T-shirts with the antiracism message.

The mission statement at the campaign’s website (Rochester.edu/better-than-that) reads: “Racism and hate speech have no place at the University of Rochester. We aspire to be a community whose members are equally valued and respected.”

Richard Feldman, dean of the College and a cochair of the President’s Commission on Race and Diversity, has been a strong supporter of the effort. “The slogan We’re Better Than That is simply the first step in an educational campaign aimed at eradicating bigotry here. It’s wrong, and we all should work to eliminate it.”

The catalyst for the campaign came last November 20, when about 150 students and supporters marched peacefully across campus to protest racism at the University and to present President and CEO Joel Seligman with a list of demands to improve the racial climate.

Seligman responded three days later by announcing “a series of specific steps to address the right of all in our community to be part of a community that is safe and supportive.” One of those was a presidentially appointed Commission on Race and Diversity, a University-wide that has been meeting this spring to assess issues of race and diversity. Since getting under way this winter, the group has held several town hall sessions, conducted research, and issued a preliminary report to Seligman. The group has been posting its work on its website at Rochester.edu/president/commission-on-race-and-diversity.

Another initiative was the creation of a working group to raise awareness about and to combat racism, headed by Beth Olivares, dean for diversity initiatives, and Norman Burnett, assistant dean and director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs. The group meets weekly and is composed of deans, department heads, staff, and students.

The group organized a student video contest, asking for three- to five-minute videos that illustrate why racism won’t be tolerated on campus.

After much brainstorming, We’re Better Than That was chosen as the slogan in February. Committee members liked its subtle message and likened it to Nike’s popular Just Do It campaign, created in 1988, and the Obama administration’s 2014 It’s On Us initiative to educate college students and members of campus communities on preventing sexual assault.

“Sexual assault isn’t mentioned in It’s On Us,” Delinois says, “but everyone knows that’s what it means.”

Meredith Crenca ’19 says the University’s slogan “effectively emphasizes our community’s desire to fight the racism that exists on campus.”

“It acknowledges that racism does exist, but we can overcome it by becoming more willing to talk about race,” the public health and Spanish double major from Rockville, Maryland, says. “It means we are better than racism, discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudice.”

Burnett says the committee will both develop and recommend a series of programs, resources, and activities designed to combat racism and hate speech at the University.

Burnett says some of the initiatives may include

  • educational programming focused on issues of racism during orientation and other major events
  • an interactive website with a range of tools and resources designed to combat racism
  • common readings and discussions on race, bias and discrimination
  • curricular immersion
  • student, staff, and faculty diversity training with an emphasis on improving race relations
  • encourage reporting of bias-related incidents via the revamped reporting system.

Crenca believes Rochester’s campaign is a first step in creating a stronger, more accepting campus community. That includes creating an atmosphere where there’s no tolerance for racism, whether it appears on anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak or elsewhere.

“We need to acknowledge the protests and Yik Yak posts and respond to them by promoting zero tolerance for racism at UR,” she says.

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