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UIS Students And Springfield Community Members Pushing For Anti-Racism Dialogue, Training

Daisy Contreras
NPR Illinois
University of Illinois at Springfield students are pushing for more dialogue around racism on and off campus.

University of Illinois at Springfield students are pushing for more dialogue around racism on and off campus.

This is after photos of two UIS employees dressed up in Halloween costumes depicting a U.S. border patrol agent arresting a man wearing a sombrero were shared on Facebook.

Some argue the issue of racism is deeply rooted in the Springfield community.

In a rally on the university campus about three-dozen students came together last Thursday.

Christian Meza, a student leader said he wasn’t shocked after seeing the photos. But he said, he was disappointed. “I’m not going to stand here today and demand for both individuals to be fired, but I do want an apology for wearing those costumes,” he said.

Meza said ignorance can't be fought with hatred and suggests more education around racism and bias. 

Springfield community members are also calling for more training. Sister Marcelline Koch, the justice promoter for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, has done work on racism locally with the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network, as well as nationally. She agrees that training is one way to start a dialogue — although it is not always easy to get everyone on the table.

“When people start talking about race and they find it difficult to do — especially for white folks, I think sometimes there is a guilty feeling, they start feeling defensive, they feel blamed — or there is a perception that they’re blamed, I don’t think that we necessarily are,” she said.

Sister Marcelline said UIS could use the incident as a teachable moment to not only change the university but help change Springfield — the setting of the 1908 race riots that led to the formation of the NAACP. 

“Institutions of higher learning can have great influence in helping a community to grow and to become the best that they can be,” she said. “They don’t have to do it alone, but they can certainly have an influence.”

In response to the UIS employees’ Facebook photos, a community fundraiser to cover a one-day anti-racism training in December has raised more than half of the $4,000 needed. Started by Elizabeth Scrafford, a member of the Springfield Immigrant Advocay Network, the effort has also attracted donations from City Council members. The Sierra Club and Black Lives Matter will host the event with trainers from Crossroads, a group that offers anti-racism training.

"This conversation came out of that [UIS incident], but recognizing that this is a lot bigger than one or two Halloween costumes -- this is a community-wide problem," Scrafford said.

Veronica Espina, who also works with the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network and the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism, said people of color and immigrants in town have been working on racism and immigration issues for many years — with some success and some set-backs. Most recently in 2017, when a Welcoming City resolution did not garner enough support at City Council.

“The Welcoming City resolution was a message of goodwill, friendship, to our immigrants that reside in the city— to say you’re welcome here, and it is almost like a Golden Rule message,” she said.

Espina said a negative, misconstrued narrative about immigrants and immigration led council members to table the resolution.  “And [the resolution] is not legally binding, we’re not requesting sanctuary or economic resources, we wanted to send that message.” 

Espina said training could help change perceptions and help get community support if the resolution is considered again. And — training could also help prevent incidents like the one that brought UIS students out to protest.

Back at UIS, students questioned Chancellor Susan Koch at a forum last week if the employees from the Facebook photos would be held accountable for their actions.

University officials said labor laws do not allow them to discuss specific employee issues, but Koch said she’s confident the matter is being addressed.

“I understand the hurt that this incident has caused, and I’m very disappointed that these two employees didn’t think more carefully about their choices,” she said.  “Because they do work here and we all represent the university.” 

The chancellor and others at the forum said more training would be provided for faculty and staff.

“I really hope that we can make it a moment where we can really contribute to resolving and addressing issues of racism in the community of Springfield,” Koch said.

Students also said they expect to see changes in school policy to thwart racist acts or comments from happening again.

Aislinn Diaz, another student leader, said she’s still grappling with her feelings and thoughts.

“Ultimately I just felt fear at the end because I have always felt so safe on this campus and I have always felt so accepted and this was the first time I didn’t— I felt like I don’t know who the faculty and staff are anymore, and I don’t know if I can really trust everybody like I’ve been constantly told since I got here.”

But Diaz said she sees the university’s willingness to engage with students as a positive sign that they’re moving in the right direction.

Daisy reported on statehouse issues for our Illinois Issues project. She's a Public Affairs Reporting program graduate from the University of Illinois Springfield. She also graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and has an associates degrees from Truman College. Daisy is from Chicago where she attended Lane Tech High School.
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