A group of Niagara University students recently presented the administration a list of demands aimed at creating a more inclusive environment.
“Racism is deeply ingrained in a lot of institutions all around the world, and NU is no different from that,” said Matt McKenzie, 21, treasurer of the Black Student Union, news editor for the Niagara Wire newspaper, and one of the leaders of the student movement.
The students met with the university’s president, Father James Maher, as well as Provost Dr. Timothy Ireland and the student government. The effort was inspired by students’ experiences with racism on the campus of the private, Catholic university, whose student body is 66% white.
“The first time it happened to me was before school even started,” said McKenzie, who is an upcoming senior. “I was working in the International Exchange office, and one of the students called me a monkey.”
McKenzie said that his experience isn’t uncommon among students of color.
“It's not the same thing you see in the brochures,” McKenzie said of the environment on the campus. “It's what we experience day in and day out. If you're a black student on campus, you have a story of someone calling you the N-word, or feeling alone, or like campus isn't for you.”
Nefantee Mayers, 18, an upcoming sophomore who also helped organize the student campaign, said she was studying in the library recently when nearby students wrapped their clothes around their heads to mock her headwrap.
“That feeling of being on display or not fitting in was clear and evident the moment I feel like I stepped on campus,” Mayers said.
Alana Leveritt, 21, said she has felt out of place at Niagara since the start.
“I just feel like I'm not in the right place,” Leveritt said. “I mean, like freshman year, my first class, I was like, ‘I'm the only one that’s classroom.’ It just feels kind of like I'm on the outside of a community when I should be in the community.”
Michael Durfee — a white professor and director of the Africana/Black studies minor — said racism has been a constant issue on Niagara’s campus since he started working there over eight years ago.
“Non-white students are in my office telling me horror stories about something that happened at Metz [dining hall], or something that happened in the dorms, or something that happened at some party, or things that were said in a class that weren't corrected by an instructor,” Durfee said. “It's been consistent since I started.”
A similar student campaign launched in 2015 led to restoration of the Black Student Union and establishment of the Afrikanas/Black studies program.
Now, students are saying the fight for racial equality on — and around — Niagara’s campus is far from over.
The new list of demands includes things such as creating a student union, providing a mentorship program for first-generation and low-income students, and especially getting more involved in the downtown Niagara Falls community.
“NU takes a lot from, from the community,” McKenzie said. “So we want to see you give back and work to improve the area in a way of working with the people that call Niagara Falls home and a lot of those people are low income minority people.”
The students have started an Instagram page called “the.real.nu,” where students of color can anonymously share their stories of racism and discrimination.
Prior to the students’ meetings with administrators, Maher, the university's president, announced the establishment of an “Identifying and Dismantling Racial Injustice Task Force,” in response to the recent national protests over police brutality.
“I have called for the immediate formulation of a task force to identify and create objectives and outcomes for systemic change for our community,” Maher wrote in a June 7 email to students, before he was presented with the list of demands.
Rolanda Ward, co-chair of the task force, said Niagara has a responsibility to improve on racial justice.
“Even if we have one voice saying that they don't feel welcome, that's something that we have to work on. That's something we have to address,” said Ward, who directs the school’s Ross Bente Lee Ostepenko Center for Race, Equality and Mission.
“Our conversations about equity and inclusion have to be conversations about how we identify systems practices, policies that keep people out, or that keep people down,” Ward said. “Niagara University is a place where we need to do that kind of self-examination.”
The task force must create and present a plan to the president by July 22. One change that is already in the works is an adaption of the curriculum.
“There's been a shift in what we define as cultural diversity and it is actually going to be a social justice course that is grounded in identities, marginalization and oppression, and anti-racism,” Ward said.
While the students say that is a good start, they’re worried that these reforms won’t stick.
“We’re happy about Niagara making the statements and pledging to do things, but we're really hoping for solid deadlines for when changes are going to happen,” McKenzie said. “Are these real practical things or are they paying lip service to the time[s]?”
The Niagara students said their demands pre-date events such as the police killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“This isn’t just happening because of what's going on the world. This is happening because we need it to happen,” Mayers said.
Other area colleges and universities are also grappling with reckonings on racism.
Black professors at both Buffalo State and the University at Buffalo have joined the SUNY Black Faculty and Staff Collective in calling for greater support for Black lives across the state university system.