Students Stand for Black Lives: The Cry for Change on Campus 

Author: Emma Ferdinandi, Leah Capuano, Alex Dosch

Students Stand for Black Lives: The Cry for Change on Campus 

A Movement Begins

 

For months, Notre Dame’s campus sat quiet, emptied of students since the pandemic broke out in March. But in mid-June, the spirit of activism — which had been brewing nationwide since the death of George Floyd — finally spilled over the campus gates. Notre Dame’s football team assembled a rally for racial justice celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of American slavery. 

At the helm of the rally was football team captain Daelin Hayes, whose 2019 season-ending injury sparked him to become a volunteer and activist for racial justice in the South Bend community. Sporting a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, Hayes delivered an impassioned speech to the crowd. The time had come, he said, for an end to complacency and ignorance in the Notre Dame community.

Many people think “either you’re racist or you’re not, either you hate Black people or you don’t. That’s not true. It’s much more complicated than that,” Hayes said. “There is a large amount of people, and I would argue a majority of our campus — faculty, students included — that are just not educated. They don’t know what they don’t know.”

The football team’s rally brought this summer’s racial reckoning to Notre Dame’s campus. Since then, the Notre Dame community has continued to push for reform and conversation. Student protest, social media activism and campus discourse have pushed racial justice to the fore.

Many Notre Dame students and faculty, Hayes said at the Juneteenth rally, don’t understand the struggles the school’s Black students face.

“The fear that our parents feel when they send us out in the world and don’t know if we’re going to come back the same way they left us. To be murdered in broad daylight,” Hayes said. “These are the realities that our players, our students face — far beyond when we take off a gold helmet, far beyond when we take off a Notre Dame monogram — we’re still a Black man, a Black woman.”

A lot of the conversation has taken place online, as members of the Notre Dame community took to social media, sharing their thoughts on the national dialogue surrounding Black Lives Matter — and its relevance to Notre Dame.

“On social media there has been a lot of BLM stuff going around,” sophomore Jamie Youn said.

Official university social media accounts joined in as well. The Notre Dame football Instagram shared a post supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, with the words “STAND TOGETHER.”

Sophomore Benji Malloy said that he noticed how Notre Dame was portraying themselves “as an ally to the Black community on social media.”

But over the summer, unofficial student testimonies also began flooding social media, as anonymous Black students recounted incidents of racism they’d experienced on campus. These posts, though anonymous and unverified, painted a different picture of Notre Dame — one marked less by unity than by pain and frustration.

The Instagram account @Black.at.ND, which posts these anonymous accounts, says it publishes stories from Black Notre Dame alumni, students and employees. 

Testimonies were also found on a petition started this summer by four Black alumni. Chioma Amuzie, a 2019 graduate and one author of the petition, wanted university administration to take more action in ending racism. The petition challenges the university to take concrete action to support Black students and racial dialogue on campus.

“Notre Dame likes to stand on some type of moral high ground without paying attention to the demands of others,” Amuzie said. 

The petition, which now has over 11,000 signatures, demanded the institution of mandatory coursework on Black history and anti-racism, the creation of an accountability board which would maintain an inclusive campus environment and cultural competency training and policies within the Notre Dame Police Department. 

The growing conversation about Black Lives Matter led Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. to address the matter in several emails to the Notre Dame community.

On June 24, he addressed the problem of racism in society and on campus, saying that, “for many, the pain associated with injustices in the broader society has been made more acute by racist or discriminatory experiences on our campus.”

He responded to the many voices demanding change. “In the coming weeks,” he said, “we will give these requests serious consideration as we discern a course of action.” 

The administration’s response has addressed the issue from many different angles, including publicizing the training policies of the Notre Dame Police Department, forming a Trustee Task Force and creating a new on-campus Diversity Center. 

Although the university has expressed support for reform, the actualization of this intent is complex and slow-going.

 

The Strike for Black Lives

Students’ experiences on Aug. 31 differed dramatically. For some, it was just another day of classes, schoolwork and hanging out with friends. Others heard cries for Black Lives Matter from their classmates throughout the day. Some went to each class for only two minutes, leaving after sharing a message of social and racial justice. 

This was the Strike for Black Lives, which was catalyzed by both national events and incidents of racism at the university.

“Racism doesn’t end the moment you walk into Notre Dame,” said senior Annie Morejón, an organizer for the Strike for Black Lives. “It's important to recognize that this is not something that's new for Black students.” 

More than forty students were involved in organizing the strike. The group collaborated over a GroupMe chat and planned the strike in less than one week.

The initial challenge for organizers was choosing the right form of advocacy. Just as they began planning, the two week campus-wide shutdown went into effect, raising questions of how to gain visibility. 

Junior Duncan Donahue, another organizer, said that conducting a strike through Zoom worked well in the context of a pandemic. 

“Everyone had a way to participate, regardless of their health concerns,” he said.

The “Overall Guide to the Student Strike for Black Lives” said that students should exit class after sharing the demands of the strike. They were then supposed to use the time that would have been spent in class to educate themselves about systemic racism.

Organizers recognized that not everyone could skip class, so they created images that promoted the strike’s message, which students could use as Zoom avatars instead of using their video.

The strike made four demands: the recognition of “institutional, cultural and interpersonal racism that continues to operate within the Notre Dame community;” the defunding of the Notre Dame Police Department; the discontinuation of investments in private prisons through faculty retirement plans; and the university’s support of national movements for racial justice.

Students raised awareness for the strike by contacting Black student organizations on campus, posting on social media platforms and messaging group chats. 

Organizer Killeen McCans, a senior at Notre Dame, said that it wasn’t hard to garner support once they got on social media, as they followed popular accounts, such as the Black Student Association and Notre Dame Socially Responsible Investing. 

Days before the strike, Provost Marie Lynn Miranda sent an email to every Notre Dame faculty member informing them of the strike and its four demands.

Donahue said that this email was important for spreading awareness of the demands, especially the one that demanded that Notre Dame cease their investments in private prisons.

“Every single faculty member has received an email informing them that their retirement is invested in private prisons,” Donahue said. He said that this awareness is important to making the campaign a continuous effort. 

Donahue, however, felt that the true purpose of the email was to let faculty know that the university could take disciplinary action against protestors if they did more than just leave class.

When asked for a comment on the strike, University Spokesman Dennis Brown simply stated, “students have every right to protest.”

 

Practice What We Preach

According to the images spread by the strike, “95% of ND faculty and staff invest in private prisons and ICE detention centers” through their 403b retirement fund. 

“Let’s change that,” the text in the image said. 

Private prisons are managed by a third party rather than the state government and are run like any other private business. 

“It’s like running a hotel,” Morejón said, explaining that they essentially profit off the people who stay there.

The subject of private prisons is controversial, even among Notre Dame faculty and administrators. The university’s social justice department, the Center for Social Concerns, contends on its website, “publicly traded private prisons perpetuate mass incarceration, which is rooted in racism and disproportionately affects people of color.”

McCans, an organizer of the strike, also said that private prisons make a profit on incarcerated people. 

“In the United States, those people are disproportionately Black, indigenous and people of color,” she said.

Yet many professors and students weren’t aware that their retirement fund invested in private prisons.

“I know a lot of my professors who specifically teach classes around racial justice had no idea that their retirement [fund] was invested in private prisons,” said Donahue, a peace studies supplementary major. 

Paul McGinn, chair of the benefits subcommittee on the Faculty Senate, spoke with Scholastic about these investments. He said many people, faculty members included, don’t know much about their investments.

“Most people either don’t know anything about investing, don't want to know anything about investing or are afraid of all this kind of stuff,” he said.

As a tax-exempt organization, Notre Dame relies on 403b retirement funds. Faculty and staff invest 5% of their salary and Notre Dame matches that amount by 10%. That money, which belongs entirely to the employee, is then invested through a variety of options. 

Most faculty choose investment options which they don’t actively manage.

These portfolios “take care of everything for you. It's on autopilot, you never worry about it at all,” McGinn said.

In such funds, however, it can be difficult to know exactly where money is going, which helps explain why faculty members are unaware that their money is invested in private prisons. 

The only option faculty have to guarantee socially responsible investing is a brokerage window, “which most people probably don't want to do,” McGinn said.

Brokerage windows are self-directed and allow the participant to choose exactly which funds they are investing in.

“It involves several steps, and your money can't be deposited in there automatically,” said McGinn. 

Katie Bugyis, an assistant professor in the Program of Liberal Studies, opted for the brokerage window when she learned that the funds in her retirement plan invested in things she objected to, “like the military industrial complex, fossil fuels, the prison system and other things.”

Bugyis said that switching to a brokerage window was not an intuitive process, and that she “even had to employ the services of a financial planner.”

“No one at the university helped us figure out how to do that,” she said. 

Creating a socially responsible investment option that is more accessible than the brokerage window is the goal of Notre Dame SRI.

McGinn said that such an option would be heavily used. “If we make it easy, it will be used by people because when they're looking, they'll say, ‘oh, socially responsible,’ and they'll check that box.”

The process of creating this option is slow-going, McGinn said. “The 403b investment committee kind of operates in the dark for us.”

In the meantime, McGinn and his colleagues are considering putting together a how-to guide for faculty, “so that people would feel more comfortable jumping through the brokerage window.”

But the guide is just a temporary solution. 

For now, McGinn’s advice to students is to get a financial education along with their studies. “The more you can educate yourself about this stuff, the better,” he said. 

For McCans, the issue is greater than financial literacy; she said it contradicts the university’s mission that faculty are, by default, investing in prisons. 

“It’s in the private prisons’ interest to incarcerate people, and that is not in line with Notre Dame’s proclaimed beliefs about human dignity and preferential options for the poor and vulnerable.”

 

Creating Change on Campus: Assessing the Role of NDPD

The second demand made in the strike was to defund the Notre Dame Police Department, which would entail “re-allocating resources to alternative methods of promoting campus safety and inclusive community.” 

The push to defund police departments has grown as a result of multiple instances of racially-charged police brutality.

Donahue believes that NDPD has too prominent a role on campus. There are better ways to promote campus safety and security,” he said.

Police “disproportionately make certain members of our community feel — and I would say rightfully so — targeted,” he said. 

The way in which different groups of people view the police is central to the reasoning behind the demand. 

McCans recalled an instance when she had to call the police to get inside a locked building. 

“As a white student, it was like, ‘well, this is annoying, but like, I'll wait for the police.’ But that is a completely different experience for a Black student who comes from a community that regularly experiences police brutality, or a Black student who regularly fears being profiled by police officers.”

Chief of the Notre Dame Police Department Keri Kei Shibata said that many of the police reforms that were called for both nationally and on campus were already implemented in their department.

The Equity in Policing report, announced in a Sept. 16 email from Shibata, ensured that the Notre Dame community knew about these policies.

“I'm proud of the fact that we had already trained all our officers in fair and impartial policing and helped bring that to this area — to the South Bend police, Mishawaka police, St. Joseph county and state police as well,” she said.

Fair and Impartial Policing trains officers and supervisors to look for implicit bias in the actions of themselves and others.

For McCans, however, the issue of policing on campus is more than a matter of training. 

“I don’t think a ‘Fair and Impartial Policing’ training is bad, but I don’t think it’s enough to combat the violent and racist history of policing in our nation, and that really is the heart of the issue we’re confronting, even if it’s at the campus level,” she said.

Other policies detailed in the report were added or adapted in light of the events and requests of this summer. 

NDPD now collects demographic information on any type of encounter, while before such information would only be recorded in higher level incidents. The data is then examined for any concerning patterns. 

The suspicious appearance policy was also implemented this summer.

“If someone is calling in and they have a bias, whether they're aware of it or not, that bias can get passed on to us, because we're responding to whatever their concern was,” Shibata said. 

The job of NDPD, then, is to vet the call by asking questions to determine what the caller means by “suspicious.” 

“Is it just that they look out of place? Or is there something about their behavior that is causing this person to call?” Shibata explained. 

The new policy, according to the report, “does not allow dispatchers to send officers to a call if the call is based solely on suspicions about a person's appearance.”

While Shibata has had many conversations with students, she said that “there hasn't been a lot of focus on defunding Notre Dame police department.”

Instead, Shibata is focused on improving the NDPD’s relationship with the campus community. Moving forward, she said, one of the biggest steps towards ending racial injustice is through those relationships.

Michael Hebbeler, the Director of Discernment and Advocacy Education in the Center for Social Concerns, teaches his students that building relationships is fundamental for building power in movements for social change.

Building relationships makes people part of a community, which makes them “more likely to find ways to get involved and stay involved,” he said.

Recently, Shibata has been meeting with people who want to hold a demonstration or protest. 

“We try to understand what they’re planning to do and how we can support them in exercising their free speech,” she said.

“It's so important for people to connect on a real human level and hear each other's experience, hear each other's feelings and believe them. And then taking a look at ourselves, and what are the things that I do that might be impacting another person?” she said.

But organizers of the protest believe these steps toward transparency and communication won’t be enough. As long as the NDPD plays such large role on campus, the protesters said, the challenges will remain.

“Police should be in a very, very limited and specific role. And right now that's not what they're doing,” said McCans. 

 

Moving Towards Racial Equality

Even though the protesters have not yet won any of their concrete demands, the movement has caught the eye of many community members. According to Morejón, the “Guide to the Student Strike for Black Lives” has gained more than 1,000 views since the protest.

Professors’ responses to the strike varied. Some supported the strike by recording lectures, canceling classes or holding discussions about racial injustice. 

“Providing time in class for a discussion felt like a way that I could help in some small way,” said Bugyis.“I just wanted to know how best to support students, and also how to encourage students that have questions about Black Lives Matter to be able to raise those questions in a safe space and get answers about them.”

Other professors were critical of the choice to disrupt class. 

Professor Hebbeler noted that while this strike was effective in raising awareness, it may have caused unintentional fallout as well. 

“If it would be strategic to build a relationship with a professor, to build power to work on this issue together, but I'm skipping out of her or his class, does that affect a relationship?” Hebbeler said.

McCans said that some professors argued that there was nothing to gain by missing valuable course material. 

“As a student, I love my classes,” she responded. “Being able to take a day where I don’t attend them is a personal sacrifice. And I think, especially in a Catholic school, that should be something that’s understood: that you can sacrifice something out of love for the people in your community.”

The goal of the strike went beyond awareness and discussion, however, by pressuring the university to take action.

Since the events of this summer, university officials have been discussing changes that will be made to class curricula and university services in response to the ongoing support for BLM.

In an email sent to the Notre Dame community on Aug. 24, Jenkins outlined the formation of a Trustee Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, whose purpose is to examine the current campus climate and consult the Black community in order to make recommendations to the administration about possible courses of action.

Rev. Robert Dowd, C.S.C. was selected as a member of the Task Force, along with eight other university trustees. He believes that this group is important for Notre Dame “to be true to its Catholic mission” and to make it “a place where everybody who is part of the community feels like they belong.”

According to Dowd, the group has only met once since its formation. When asked if he could speak to any concrete actions the Task Force is planning to take, Dowd said that they were not yet at that stage.

“We haven't done enough listening yet to know what kind of recommendations that we would make,” he said.

The university is also in the initial stages of developing a new diversity center, which will combine the services provided by the Multicultural Student Programs and Services, the Gender Relations Center and the Office of Student Enrichment into an integrated organization. 

The Diversity Center is ultimately the vision of Vice President of Student Affairs, Erin Hoffman Harding, and the Associate Vice President for Student Development, Brian Coughlin.

The Center will facilitate communication between university officials, faculty and students. Located in LaFortune Student Center, it will provide a safe space for members of the Notre Dame community to collaborate and discuss.

Arnel Bulauro, the director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, hopes that “through these interactions, new and creative ideas of future collaboration could take place.”

Bulauro said that he views this as an “opportunity for student clubs and university offices, to say ‘how do we do a better job of reaching out and getting a diverse group of people in the room, so that these kinds of interactions can continue?’”

An established resource, the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, takes an educational approach to improving race relations at Notre Dame. 

In the past, the Klau Center has implemented several initiatives designed “to elicit partnership and understanding across intellectual boundaries.” These initiatives include lectures, seminars, grants, research projects and more.

With the growth of BLM this summer, the Klau Center has become even more focused on topics surrounding racial justice and civil rights.

Dory Mitros Durham, associate director of the Klau Center, said that they have developed several new initiatives for this semester which aim to engage students who are new to activism.

“The role for us here, institutionally, is to give people the basis to engage in that conversation, to give them the foundation that they need for advocacy work as they move forward,” she said.

One of these initiatives is a weekly virtual lecture series from experts on systemic racism called “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary.” There are currently over 1,500 students, faculty and alumni registered for the course.

The “With Voices True” initiative allows Notre Dame community members to share stories on race and racial identity. These accounts are stored as audio recordings in the University Archives. 

Durham explained that this project is meant to preserve stories for years to come. 

“Years from now, somebody else can look [at the archives] and say, ‘boy, twenty years ago, the experience of our community members on race showed this trajectory. And now, twenty years later, we’re in a different place.’”

The organization of Black Alumni of Notre Dame has also been taking action to improve the experiences of the Black Notre Dame community. 

This summer, they organized several projects to support Black students, such as the Black Alumni Greenbook and the Frazier Thompson Scholarship. They have also begun pushing for the creation of an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Shelly Williams, the chairperson of the Black Alumni said that their role as alumni is to support Black students in the challenges that they will inevitably face at a predominantly white institution, which “are very unique to people of color.” 

“It's almost like it's your duty to reach back and make sure that those that come after you have the support that they need.”

 

So, Has the Administration’s Response Been Sufficient?

The question might have to go unanswered for now. 

The various responses to the strike are in their initial stages, and it seems too early to tell whether they will be effective measures in ending racism on campus. 

McCans said that she was happy to see some change but doesn’t think that the demands of the strike have fully been met.

Ultimately, however, she said that it is not her question to answer.

“I will be done when Black students say Notre Dame is a just and equitable place for them to study and to live as members of our community.”

 

SIDE BAR: MCI

What do an aspiring candy maker, a liberal arts education and a group of incarcerated men have in common? 

All are part of the Moreau College Initiative at Westville Correctional Facility, an all-male state prison in LaPorte County, Ind. Classes are taught by both Notre Dame and Holy Cross faculty, and accepted inmates can earn a Holy Cross College Associate of Arts degree and Bachelor of Arts degree. 

Dr. Alesha Seroczynski, director of college operations at Westville, said that the students are interested in a wide variety of professional occupations. 

One student “just lights up when we talk about candy, but he knows that he needs a solid well-rounded education so that he can run a good business,” she said.

The MCI believes such an education is found in the liberal arts. 

“It is training for life, it's training for civic engagement, it's training to be a better parent, to think critically and act responsibly and to go into any place of employment prepared to problem solve on your feet,” she said.

Education is one of the best ways to help ensure that men and women are successful after release, according to Seroczynski. “Just because you make some bad choices, that doesn't mean that society should write you off.”

“When you see what an excellent liberal arts education can do for a disenfranchised man or woman, as a professor, as a college educator, I don't know how you can't be just incredibly touched and moved and compelled to make this happen.”

But what exactly does education look like behind bars?

Steve Fallon, a professor at Notre Dame and founding member of MCI urges professors to teach at the same level of difficulty that they do at Notre Dame.

“We think of their education as equivalent to the education they would be getting were they on campus as Notre Dame students,” he said. 

Yet academic success in prison requires a “tremendous amount of discipline and commitment,” according to Serozynski, who said that inmates’ lives are highly regimented and that the dorms are a noisy work environment. 

“It can be very challenging for students who historically may have not done well in school or may not see themselves initially as students who have that academic identity.”

Mark Sanders, a professor in the English and Africana Studies departments, had to adjust his typical teaching approach because of practical concerns, such as limited internet access and restrictions on the materials he could bring into the prison.  

“In class, I had to draw by hand a map of Cuba,” he said, laughing. “My drawing is not very good, but they hung with it,” he recalled. Sanders taught African American Autobiographies at MCI in the fall of 2019.

Sanders said students were “aggressively curious in a way that I found really compelling.”

When comparing his classes at MCI to that on a typical campus, he said that at Westville, he was “more open to allowing the conversation to go further afield from the text,” because students were bringing in debates they were having in the dorms into class.

Many of the texts in Sanders’ class dealt with imagery of slavery and prison as a metaphor for racial oppression. He recalled how one student asked what everybody’s personal vision of freedom was. 

“All the students just laughed — they just cracked up — and they all said simultaneously, ‘To get out of here!’”

The reality MCI students must face is the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks and people of color in America.

“Indiana does over-incarcerate African Americans against the state population,” Seroczynski said. “About half of our students are Black.”

Sanders said his students “were very, very aware of the over representation of African Americans in our penal system,” and often discussed texts in relation to contemporary racial politics.

“Race relations can be tense,” Seroczynski noted, but they want to push their students out of their comfort zones. 

Conversations about race are generated by both faculty and students, she said. “It can be both liberating and disconcerting to learn, personally, that you were a product of systemic racism, or that your education was less than.”

Because of issues like race, Seroczynski said that no inmate takes their education lightly. “They just want to learn and do well,” she said.

“There's a whole lot of other stuff going on, but at the end of the day, they're college students.”

 

(Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics)