This term, I was interested in learning about what types of inequities SOU students face. In addition, I wanted a more in-depth understanding of what supports are available for students. I had Zoom meetings with three campus leaders: Aubrey Owens, Marvin Woodard Jr., and Alex Sylvester.
Aubrey Owens, the Disability Resource Center (DRC) Coordinator at SOU, described her responsibility as Coordinator as “Making sure that SOU is at the very least compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that we’re ensuring equal access to education for all learners at SOU.”
Owens explained that the ethos of the DRC is that complying with ADA is “the floor, not the ceiling.” Owens explained how DRC approaches their work beyond ADA compliance. “Our approach with students and faculty is, how can we make sure that this student has access, but above and beyond that, for any future student, is there a universal design component that we can put into place here, where we don’t have to retroactively put an accommodation in place.”
Marvin Woodard Jr. is the Equity Coordinator for Racial Justice within the Social Justice and Equity Center (SJEC), Administrator for SOU’s Diversity Scholarships, and Advisor to SOU’s multicultural coalition groups. Woodard’s work directly supports BIPOC students on campus. “I help to bridge the gap for students in connecting with the campus and the community. For our students on campus, I provide a space and a place where they can connect with other students who may share history or have a background, a cultural identity that is shared. It gives them a place to come and find people who look like them that might have had similar experiences on campus,” Woodard said.
Alex Sylvester is the Assistant Director for Equity and Access at the SJEC. “My assistant director role, on paper, is to supervise the coordinators in the SJEC. But I really view my role as taking on a lot of the more administrative tasks and protecting the time and space of my coordinators. I also view my job as hoping to be someone who is helping create new traditions that students are really excited about.”
The SJEC, located upstairs in the Stevenson Union, was reorganized from individual resource centers in September of 2019. “There was an opportunity to really make it a one stop shop by putting certain folks together, being very intentional for intersectional programming and intersectional support for our students and staff and community members,” Woodard explained.
Sylvester expressed excitement for the future of the SJEC. “I’m really excited about the huge potential to move forward and create change on campus by doing advocacy for individual students. Institutional advocacy, education, and a lot of community building, those are the things that will be coming from our space,” Sylvester said. “I’m really hopeful that the way we’re conceptualizing the work makes a space that supports a cohort of queer and trans* people of color activists who can, in many ways, lead the work that comes from the SJEC.”
For Owens, her work at the DRC is intersected with gender and sexuality liberation, which has always been a motivator for her work in disability rights. “I’m an intersectional feminist. The intersectionality of the experience of disability and the experience of being a woman and being a trans* or queer individual. Individuals who are experiencing a transition of some kind, or on medication, or have a confirmation surgery, that’s where disability resources, even for a temporary disability, can support those individuals,” said Owens.
Woodard also views his work as being intersected with gender and sexuality liberation. “As I’m out in the world, hosting trainings and conversations, I’m making sure that there’s always that component of ‘let’s talk about gender and sex.’ The continuum is real, and I want people to know that even though we’re talking about BIPOC, this is considered part of that BIPOC conversation. No more than you can look at me and say ‘oh he’s just a man,’ no, I am not just a man, when you look at me you see Black,” Woodard explained.
The intersection of race and women was also recognized by Woodard. “When we talk about the murders of Black and Brown people in 2020, we talk about George Floyd. George Floyd was a turning point, there’s no doubt about it. He was a mark. But we’re not talking about Breonna Taylor. As I look at that I recognize, and fully have to recognize, that there are many women who have been shot, harassed, stalked, murdered. We recognize that many women have, but especially women of color. As we’re talking about George Floyd and we’re talking about what happened, why isn’t there the same outrage for Breonna Taylor, she was in her house when it happened.”
Specifically, the intersections of race and gender places women of color who carry other identities in the most oppressive place. Woodard described how to combat this oppression. “There has to be concerted efforts to make sure that when there’s opportunities to combat those types of inequities that we’re not just combatting it with words, and we’re not just sitting back and shaking our finger at people, but that we’re actually combatting it with a change of policies, with a change of laws, there has to be some type of real hard consequences for it.”
Sylvester views her work as decolonization. “The cultural idea of manhood and womanhood is a result of the colonization of the United States. Gender and sexuality liberation is actually not how I think about the work that I do anymore. I think about it as the work of decolonization and racial justice because it all comes from this colonization moment.”
Sylvester described some of the ways that decolonization is done. “By doing advocacy, programming, and community building in regard to gender in particular that creates an expansive, constellational opportunity for the ways that people can identify. Some of that looks like offering people options that they’ve never had before. That looks like really direct service work,” Sylvester said.
Owens told me about the ways she has witnessed students face inequities or inequalities. “I think it happens, and it’s very innocent, it’s accidental exclusion or ignorance. A lot of folks just don’t realize that they’re being exclusive and not inclusive.” Owens described that there have been times when faculty do not understand why students need accommodations, or times when faculty does not understand the technology required for accommodations.
Although these misunderstandings may be accidental, Owens expressed why it is harmful and how the DRC works with students and faculty. “It effectively disenfranchises that student from having the access they need compared to all other students learning at the same time (…) A lot of the work is communicating and making sure the student feels empowered to report, removing the power dynamic between students and professors so we can step in as a solution focused party,” Owens said.
Woodard also described the ways he has seen SOU students face inequities. He recalled being at SOU when the Queer Resource Center was founded. “I was there when the queer resource center was first founded. It was driven by students because they recognized the inequity of not having a space, a person, a program, an opportunity to connect and collect with each other,” Woodard said.
Inequities can also show up in the classroom, which Woodard explained. “That’s a tough piece because bias is real, we all have them, but when they show up in a classroom, it’s through language, not wanting to recognize my pronouns or my name, or being tokenized,” he explained.
Sylvester also described the ways students experience inequities in the classroom, and how she is able to support students facing these inequities. “Sometimes people experience inequity in the classroom from a professor and then they approach me as a confidential advocate. There can be two ways that things can go. I can either just hear them and reflect to them that what happened was wrong and awful and then resource them. Or I can, if they would like, help them engage in a process with the university. I’ve done some of both.”
Although all three campus leaders have witnessed these inequities, Woodard and Sylvester expressed optimism for the ways SOU handles issues of bias, discrimination, and inequity. “Over the last 20 years I’ve watched our campus really strive to push through those pieces and really unpack them in a way that is really genuine. Not just doing it at the surface so we can check the box, but genuine in that we need to serve our students where they’re at, how they need to be served in order for them to be successful. Which means we have to remove some of these biases. We’re still dealing with that,” Woodard said.
SOU has Affirmative Action Policies, which includes a Discriminatory Harassment policy. This policy specifies that all SOU students and faculty have “the right to pursue educational, recreational, social, cultural, residential, employment, and professional activities in an atmosphere where the rights, dignity, and worth of every individual are respected.” These rights are granted to all SOU students faculty regardless of “an individual’s race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital status, veteran status, gender, or sexual orientation.”
Through SOU’s Sexual Misconduct and Equal Opportunity Form students and faculty are able to report instances that they violate any of SOU’s Affirmative Action Policies. Filing an SOUCares report is another way report concerns. There are two sexual assault survivors groups on campus, information about those can be found here.
Follow SJEC teams on Instagram: @mrcsou, @gsjsou and Facebook: MRC at SOU, SOU Gender and Sexuality Justice. Visit the DRC website here. The SJEC has an event on June 6, where students can gather at and hike Ben Johnson Mountain. RSVP for that event here. Gender and Sexuality Justice student workers have started a Discord server that students can join here.
Once campus returns to in-person in the fall, Woodard encourages all students to stop by the SJEC. “We engage in the inclusive ‘we,’ not the exclusive ‘we.’ With the racial justice team, as it was with the multicultural resource center, we’re there for every single student who wants to come in and sit down and have a conversation,” he said.
Sylvester and Woodard are both confidential advocates. “People can utilize me as a confidential advocate, when you talk to me it doesn’t have to go anywhere,” said Sylvester.
The staff at the DRC are mandatory reporters, but Owens clarified that the DRC is a safe space on campus. “Have an inquiry appointment, we can either help direct you to other support services on campus, or have an informational appointment where the student can understand what’s available to them.” To arrange accommodations through the DRC or to schedule a learning strategy appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.