The Times-Delphic published this feature article in their November 20, 2019 print edition. You can find the #PaintitBlack documentary on my website here.
On Nov. 16, 2018, the Drake community gathered on painted street to cover student organizations’ squares with black paint, symbolizing Drake University’s solidarity with students of color on campus.
It took ten days long days of meeting and persuading and organizing in the midst of a crisis to pull the whole thing together. Dozens of people were involved. But the initial push for painting painted street came from three students who became the face of the #paintitblack project: Morgan Coleman, Courtney Guein and Tim Gant.
Now, one year later, these student activists reflect on the birth of a movement, changes on Drake’s campus since then and what campus climate looks like now for students of color.
“It was kind of a free for all,” Guein said.
“We were there the night that we were given the news of the notes, way way way in the beginning, and I think that right there we all made a decision that we weren’t gonna wait for the university to do anything about it,” Gant said.
“I think the first meeting that we had I literally saw Courtney [Guein] across the room talking to one of the professors, and I was like, ‘They’re cooking something up.’” Coleman said. “So, I walked over and I’m just like, ‘whatever you’re doing, I’m in.’ I think that’s how things got started.”
“I’m still shocked,” Guein said. “Honestly, you know on Snapchat they have the memories, and just looking at it is like, ‘Wow, we really did that.’”
Coleman, Gant and Guein used their platform to draw student, administration and faculty attention to what they saw as systemic problems in Drake University’s culture.
“I think that a lot of what we were doing, too, wasn’t just about the notes that were left underneath people’s doors, it was also a lot about how professors treat students, how fraternity and sorority life treats students of color,” Gant said. “A lot of people are really oblivious to the fact that there are actually groups of people on our campus that felt like they weren’t welcomed here before the note was left.”
Starting a conversation about campus culture when it comes to students of color was only the first step.
Enacting real change within faculty, administration and curriculum was the next. Chief among these changes were hiring more people of color, admitting and retaining more students of color and creating an inclusive environment for black people and black culture. These are not small undertakings, but Drake University has made a real effort according to these students.
“After [last November] it seems like the campus was more progressive toward hiring people of color,” Coleman said. “There’s still talks of having, what, African diaspora, just so—our culture isn’t a choice, but just so we can have it as a major or a minor.”
According to Coleman, this year’s incoming class has the highest number of students of color of any one class. Furthermore, all incoming students this year had to go through online Equity and Inclusion tutorials and a #paintitblack First Year Seminar was offered for the first time. Students of color have also started a Drake NAACP chapter to further these goals.
But are these enough to affect real change on Drake campus’ climate?
“[Admitting students of color] continually is progressing, but if you don’t—the numbers really mean nothing if the campus climate is the same,” Coleman said.
Guein added, “I understand that there are efforts to make us feel welcome, but in your efforts you need to do that research.”
Some of the administration’s initiatives this year have been more successful than others.
“I know there’s the diversity, equity and inclusion website that they have that’s documenting a timeline of conscious actions that they’re making towards inclusion here on campus,” Coleman said.
“See, I don’t even know about that,” Guein interjected. “Why doesn’t everyone know about that?”
“That’s part of the problem is, how are you positioning these things? And how are you giving these things a platform?” Coleman said. “I’m working right now with the #paintitblack FYS to create more awareness about those specific things.”
One issue still circulating campus is teachers’ use of the n-word in class. Some students of color and allies are calling for a complete ban on saying the word in class. The university has not done so, which, in Coleman’s opinion, is a mistake.
“Using that word in class when you are not a black person, period, is a systematically violent act,” Coleman said. “You are making that type of environment [the classroom] unsafe for that black student who is sitting in your class.”
In Coleman, Gant and Guein’s opinion, there is still more work to be done. Coleman and Gant were in their first semester here at Drake when they helped start #paintitblack; now, they want to get younger students involved again.
“I remember two of my friends who were seniors at the time [last November] were like, ‘It’s your turn. Imma pass this torch off to you now.’” Coleman said. “It’s this constant passing of the torch so this doesn’t die with us.”
“I think that it’s always the young kids that have to keep trying and keep pushing this thing, cause they’re gonna be here forever,” Gant said.
And it’s not just students of color who should be involved, in their opinion.
“Students of color are not solely responsible for making change on this campus,” Coleman said. “I’m not saying that white people need to step up and speak for us, cause there’s a difference.”
“Speak with us, not for us,” Guein added.
“[White students’] voice should be the microphone because you are amplifying what we have to say and our points of views,” Coleman said.
Overall, Gant had one message for everyone on campus for the anniversary of painting painted street black, echoing what many student activists, Coleman and Guein included, said last November as it was happening.
“Don’t forget why we did that,” Gant said. “We weren’t just trying to go out and go paint the street just to be fake woke or fake impactful. We really wanted people to know how we felt and get people to band together and say that we weren’t gonna accept it anymore. You just have to have that same attitude when you’re trying to carry this thing on a year out. You just kind of got to keep looking forward and keep looking ahead.”