After mobilizing to protest racial issues on campus in 2015, students have combined their efforts to work alongside the university to improve diversity and inclusion on campus.

Student leaders of the University of Wisconsin Blackout Movement share their personal experiences with diversity at UW and discuss their plans and hopes to change campus diversity in 2016.

Kenneth Cole: Creating new perspectives

Living in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, Kenneth Cole never thought about the cultural norms he practiced or even the language he used in his everyday life — until he attended UW.

A senior and primary organizer of the Blackout Movement at UW, Cole’s transition from a diverse city of 3.8 million people to UW’s approximately 43,000 students — of which only 2 percent are black — was an eye opening experience.

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In Madison Cole said he learned there is an ideology that if a person speaks in slang or if a person behaves in a certain way, it is a sign they are from a certain socioeconomic status and are inferior.

It can be an isolating experience, Cole said.

Kenneth Cole, Blackout Movement leader.

But Cole doesn’t place the burden of creating a more integrated and inviting campus on majority students from less diverse backgrounds, or on the shoulders of minorities who might be from more diverse backgrounds. Cole believes in educating and teaching students to become more culturally competent.

“Everyone comes from where they come from, so I would advocate for an openness and an understanding on both parts, [for minority and majority students] to try to learn and think and do new perspectives,” Cole said.

This year, Cole said the Blackout Movement received confirmation from the UW administration that they are planning to hold discussions about race to educate students so they can become more “culturally competent.”

But while Cole is excited for these conversations, he said there is still work to be done. To increase recruitment and retention rates of students of color, Cole said it is important UW hire more faculty of color and more mental health staff who understand students of color issues.

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“A lot of the mental health offices on this campus aren’t directed toward students of color when students of color need those the most because of how they feel when they come to campus,” Cole said.

If more faculty are capable of understanding students of color issues, they could help improve their emotional and psychological states and increase retention rates for students of color, Cole said.

Tyriek Mack: Uniting to face fear

Several years ago, Sophomore Tyriek Mack had never heard of UW. Originally from Washington D.C., Mack received a POSSE program scholarship to attend UW.

Tyriek Mack, Blackout Movement member, All Minds Matter cofounder.

Though Washington D.C. is a diverse place to live, Mack said a fear of minorities still exists. But this fear was not as prevalent as it is at UW.

During Mack’s freshman year, he frequently worried about how people might judge him. Sometimes people would cross to the other side of the street when he was walking on the the sidewalk, and when he went to the dining hall he would be afraid to order fried chicken because of the stereotype surrounding the types of food black people eat.

Because of these experiences, Mack said it has affected the way he builds relationships with people on campus. Though he said he retains a respectful attitude toward the people he interacts with, it is hard to take what a person may say at face value because the way someone acts may not be parallel to how they truly feel, he said.

Despite the difficulties he faced, Mack said it has helped him develop his character and learn to love himself for who he is as a person.

Mack said if students want to make UW more inclusive, they have to realize how the words people use can be harmful to minorities. He said students must stop being afraid of standing up for their minority counterparts when they hear others using hurtful words.

It all starts with fear, he said. People have to be able to sacrifice the fear they feel toward minorities and overcome the fear of admitting they may have been racist in the past.

“If you are not racist and you once were racist and you were afraid to say that you could have been racist in the past, then nine times out of 10 you still are racist,” Mack said. “If you aren’t able to except the realities, then how do we move forward?”

There may be a “color line” that distinguishes people from one another, but in the end everyone faces the same problems, like student debt, Mack said.

UW needs to make a better effort to become more accessible to students from economically-challenged backgrounds, especially if they want to remove institutional barriers Mack said.

“For our campus to move forward we have to figure out a way to unite together,” he said. “We have a lot of problems that all of us face.”

Ella Sklaw: Fighting hate with love

Ella Sklaw went to high school on Wall Street. Growing up in Brooklyn, she was constantly surrounded by a diverse group of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different countries.

A sophomore at UW, Sklaw said coming from a diverse background has enabled her to join and become good friends with members of the Blackout Movement and All Minds Matter.

Blackout Movement member and All Minds Matter member Ella Sklaw.
Marissa Haegele/The Badger Herald

But Sklaw said just because someone like herself has been exposed to diversity, does not mean they may not be prejudiced. To understand the diverse society of today’s world, she said it is important to know what it actually means to interact with other groups of people.

This level of interaction and understanding toward other groups of people like students of color, Sklaw said, is an “icebreaker” UW should take on. She said UW should make more of an effort to increase cultural competency on campus.

One of the ways Sklaw said UW should do this is by teaching the value and importance of love for other people.

“We are fighting against hate interpersonally, and we are fighting hate personally, and this school doesn’t do what it should do to fight the hate that lives and breathes on this campus,” she said.

In addition, Sklaw said if the university wants to encourage a more diverse group of students to attend UW, they need to make UW more accessible — both financially and academically.

Many students are often discouraged from attending UW because of how expensive it is. If the university wants to recruit more diverse groups of students then that means they need to recruit more students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Sklaw said.

UW needs to do more than just uphold an image, Sklaw said. It needs to shift its efforts toward increasing diversity to make education more accessible.

“We don’t want this place to feel like yet another place where you feel privileged to get an education — education is a right,” she said.

Ian Oyler: Working together to understand each other

Unlike several of his other fellow Blackout Movement members, Ian Oyler did not come from a large city, but a small town in Wisconsin of about 10,000 people.

Growing up, the only diversity Oyler knew was the small Native American population that lived in his hometown, and the variety of army and air force families that lived at a base nearby.

Black out movement member and All Minds Matter cofounder.
Anne Blackbourn/The Badger Herald

In Tomah, Wisconsin, Oyler said he lived in a “bubble” of predominately white families, and it was not until he lived with Mack his freshman year in the dorms that he said became more aware of the types of issues minority people are affected by.

After an act of racism occurred on their dorm floor, Oyler and Mack co-founded All Minds Matter, a space that invites all students to talk about issues of diversity and inclusion on campus.

“It’s important to emphasize that diversity helps other students as well because it allows them to learn and connect about other groups of people,” he said.

To make UW more inclusive, Oyler said UW should have more inclusion trainings, and go beyond the ethnic study requirement.

UW needs to listen to students on campus, Oyler said. Students know more about issues of diversity and inclusion because they are the ones that are frequently affected by them, he said.