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Why I'm Staying at Mizzou

Despite the racial unrest at the University of Missouri, I stay because I have a right to a quality education and because at some point, we have to make a stand.

Members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement speak to the crowd of students on the campus of University of Missouri—Columbia on November 9, 2015, in Columbia, Missouri. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Last week, student protests at the University of Missouri led to the university's president and chancellor stepping down. The events had been coming for a long time, but anger over the university's inadequate treatment of its black student body finally reached the tipping point when a graduate student's hunger strike was joined by a solidarity strike by black members of the university's football team.


At first, I was hesitant to write about these events. I thought, It's not my voice that needs to be heard. This space should be given to our youth—they carry us now. Let them speak. But the truth is, I was afraid to speak for fear of the backlash others have been suffering. One of the professors who has been a beacon of hope, whose courses reflect racial, cultural, and gender diversity, who has mentored several black students and who was one of the first members of the faculty to publicly state her support of the university's black students, has received hate email as result of her stance. Another one has been called names. You only have to spend a few minutes on social media to witness the ugly reaction to the peaceful protests of black students against a university that demonstrates in its policies, programs, curriculum, recruitment, and retention that black lives don't matter.

I stay because of the investment I have made in myself. I stay because I have a right to a higher education. I stay because I have a stake in the outcome.

I am afraid to speak for fear that I will hurt the feelings of those outside the black community who have been kind, people who have been actively engaged in creating a more just university and civic environment, those who participate in marches and protests to demonstrate their solidarity, and who have formed study groups to learn more about how they can bring about change. I don't want them to think their efforts are not appreciated. I am glad for them, but I am not satisfied. I will not be satisfied until everyone is awake. I am reminded here of the song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, "Wake up Everybody":


Wake up everybody, no more sleepin' in bed
No more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be so, there is so much hatred, war, an' poverty
Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say
Cause they're the ones who's coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach 'em the very best you can.

And I am afraid to speak for fear of being called an angry black woman who is uppity and rude. My voice has been silenced so often, for so long, no one has to silence me anymore because I silence myself. But then I realized, I have a stake in the outcome of this movement too and I have a responsibility to speak out.

I moved to Columbia, Missouri, in August 2012 to attend the doctoral program in English Literature—Creative Writing at the University of Missouri. Even though friends warned me that Columbia was more like the South than the Midwest, I still came because when I first visited the small town I saw an eclectic community with a strong presence of local artists. Living in New York City had become too hard and too expensive.

The people I met here on that first visit were friendly and engaging. I remember an animated conversation with a local artist about book-making, something that I love. The cost of living—rent, food, even my medical prescriptions are less expensive here than in New York. There are very practical reasons for coming here, and for staying. But I was caught off guard by the level of alienation and marginalization I would soon experience as a student. Often, it wasn't anything overt. It was more like benign neglect, an invisible wall—worse than the glass ceiling I witnessed during my 32 years at the Postal Service, 20 of them in supervisory and midlevel positions.


So, when I look into the eyes of black youth on this campus, I see myself. I see my disappointment in a university I thought would value me. When I look into their eyes, I hear them asking: Why are our lives not valued? How long must we be in this fight? When I look into their eyes, I see their determination and because of that I am made stronger and more resolute. When I look into their eyes, I feel gratitude and joy for their perseverance and intelligence. I know change is possible. I know that change must happen.

When did this movement start? Was the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, the tipping point? Was it the dramatic moment that changed everything? His murder certainly wasn't the first violation against black life in Missouri, or in the United States. Rather, it was the latest in an epidemic of violence against black people, from George Meadows in 1889 to Laura Nelson in 1911, to Emmett Till in 1955, to Medgar Evers in 1963, to Amadou Diallo in 1999, to Sean Bell in 2006, to Trayvon Martin in 2012, to Tamir Rice in 2014, and countless others. But since Brown's killing, there has been a surge of social activism all over the United States, especially among black youth. One of the most galvanizing of these is #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter movement created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. I have read online that there have been hundreds and hundreds, even over a thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrations worldwide since its inception.


The rallies and marches on the University of Missouri campus have been persistent since the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement following Brown's death. From the beginning we have drawn attention to the problems here on campus: racial slurs, vandalism to the Black Culture Center building, and the need for diversity training. Meetings have been held with administrators about improving the climate on campus, but nothing essentially has changed—no significant programs have been put into place.

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As our appeals for a more inclusive university and for cultural diversity training were stymied, our voices have grown louder and more insistent. From my perspective, recent events led by Concerned Student 1950 grew out of this frustration. The name of the group symbolizes how long black students on the University of Missouri's campus have dealt with systemic discrimination. It would be impossible for me to draw a roster of names, and I do not want to because that makes these brave students a lightning rod for the backlash. I am a Concerned Black Student even if I am not an official member of Concerned Student 1950. They are my family, and I stand in solidarity with them and all black youth who are saying enough is enough. They are continuing a tradition of activism that has long been a part of the black experience in the United States.


Over the weekend, I saw the documentary film, Freedom Summer, by Stanley Nelson at Ragtag Cinema. Flyers promoting the free event issued by the Black Studies Department stated that viewing the film and participating in the discussion afterwards could help us contextualize the events on the University of Missouri's campus. The film is about the summer of 1964 when 700 student volunteers, under the direction of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), worked to register African American voters in Mississippi. Two things stood out for me after watching the film: the power of black youth leadership, and the participation of white youth in direct action in tune with this black leadership. Watching the film was both inspiring and dispiriting when you consider that we are still dealing with systemic inequities more than 50 years later.

The University of Missouri is just one manifestation of those institutional dysfunctions that can be seen at universities across the country. Since the events at the University of Missouri, racial-discrimination protests have erupted at hundreds of universities. Kenneth Bryant, a doctoral student in the political science department and president of the Graduate Student Association (GSA), said it best in a recent Facebook post:

The disparity of administrators, faculty, and students of color at Mizzou is systemic. The absence of adequate training for administrators, faculty, and students on key concepts, particularly privileges and implicit biases is systemic. A discipline-specific curriculum that fails to acknowledge these privileges and biases is systemic. An institutional policy that encourages someone to report, to the authorities, speech they don't like is systemic. And friends, these systemic matters are those matters we ought to be principally pushing ourselves to reform.


There are efforts among faculty committees to develop a diversity curriculum, and yesterday the Black Studies Department hosting an event: "Teach-In: Why Black Lives Matter: Race, (In)Justice, and Struggle in the 21st Century." As stated on the flyer promoting the event: We have a lot of work to do. The sentiment makes me go back to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes:

The world won't get no better if we just let it be
The world won't get no better we gotta change it yeah, just you and me.

Those who say in defense of disparity and discrimination, "If you don't like it leave," confound me. They say this, as if there is any place in this world where racism and xenophobia doesn't exist. They say this, as if black people did not play a significant part in building these United States from the beginning, through our physical labor and our intellect. Even my 32-year-old daughter asks me: Why do I stay in such a hostile place? I tell her I have a right to a quality education. I remind her of the overt and the covert murder of black men and women and children all over the United States. I tell her there is no safe place. At some point we have to make a stand.

I'm grateful that I have found a circle of like-minded people who are interested in justice and inclusion. But I will not sugar-coat the current situation. The neglect, the erasure, the invisibility, the withholding of validation—intellectual, emotional and spiritual—is real, and it is starving all of us.

Why do I stay? I stay because of the investment I have made in myself. I stay because I have a right to a higher education. I stay because I have a stake in the outcome. I am proud of Mizzou's black students and their allies (and there are many); I am proud of the members of the local community who have taken responsibility for creating a more just Missouri—who meet and study on their own, who fill City Hall chambers to change the laws and policies that govern us, who in places of worship pray for an end to injustice, and I am grateful for those who nurture our youth and buffer them as much as they can against harm. I am one of them. That is why I stay.

Even in the midst of racial hatred and intolerance, I still believe in our future. I still believe that we can eradicate injustice, brutality, and oppression. I believe that we can, individually and collectively, realize our best humanity.

Monica Hand is a poet and a graduate student at the University of Missouri. Follow her on Twitter.