Conference Highlights Student, Faculty, and Alumni Leadership on Equity Action

Jesse Lowe, Scarlet Staff

Friday, Nov. 4, Clark University held its first-ever Equity in Action conference in Tilton Hall with the theme “advancing anti-racism plans of action on campus.” Clark faculty, administrators, staff, alumni, and current students gathered to share food and attend a series of workshops and presentations that lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. According to the initiative’s Instagram page, the goal of Equity in Action is to “provide faculty, staff, and students with insights, tools, and strategies to function as shift-agents, contributing to an increasingly just Clark.”

Throughout the day, Clark community members filtered in and out of the University Center. The conference had the air of a reunion: between events and during lunch, attendees made new connections and caught up with old allies. The topics discussed in the presentations spilled over into the hallways as brainstorming and idea-sharing continued. The conference boasted over 40 presenters, many of them working in groups.

The EIA Organizing Committee is chaired by Hayley Haywood and Laurie Ross. It includes faculty members Margo Foreman, Cherilyn Bonin, Nancy Budwig, Maria Elisa Gallant, Raphael Rogers and students Kiara Ramirez ‘23, Raisa Bonifaz ‘24, Mia Davis ‘24, and Amira Aderibigbe ‘24. They met to organize the conference over the course of nine months.


A New Chapter in the Story of Activism at Clark

Speakers made repeated references to the recent Clark graduate workers’ strike and the BSU’s 2020 demands and protests. They also shared personal memories and community stories that went back further to the Midnight Madness protest of 2015, to the 1969 BSU demands, and to the first Black student to ever attend Clark in 1912. By sharing these stories, the presenters connected this conference to the long history of activism at Clark.

The EIA conference was sponsored by the Academic Innovation Fund and officially promoted by Clark University. It shares structural and ideological similarities with Rise for Racial Justice (RFRJ), a student-led conference which was held at Clark three times in the last two years (Feb. 2022, May 2021, and Feb. 2021) with support from the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies (CGRAS).

Mia Davis (‘24), who was a student organizer for the EIA conference and who worked on RFRJ in the past, said that EIA had a more narrow focus and more faculty input than RFRJ. “Rise For Racial Justice is more educational and people are learning things,” she added. “I think it would be cool if in the next [RFRJ], we focused on a similar thing of getting people to come up with more actionable things.”

The key concepts that appeared over and over throughout the day were antiracism, diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. Some presenters also discussed anti-oppression, and whether that was the same thing or not. Speakers quoted Richard Wright and James Baldwin, while the EIA Instagram featured books and statements by Janet Mock, Adrienne Maree Brown, Brittney Cooper, Carolina de Robertis, and Audre Lorde. The EIA logo itself pictures a sunflower with a Black power fist at its center, growing out of concrete, invoking Tupac Shakur’s rose that grew from concrete. A rich tradition of activist theory and organizing history reinforced the conference.


Keynote Speakers

The day began with an address by Clark alum Angelo Guisado (‘08), who is now an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. He proposed concrete changes to Clark like including undergraduate equity and inclusion representatives in board meetings and the establishment of a student ombudsperson position. Like some other universities have already done, Clark could establish scholarships for the descendants of enslaved people, for Native Americans, and for undocumented students.

He was followed by José Rosario, a 4th year doctoral student in Clark’s psychology department. Rosario described the ways that his parents, who immigrated from Puerto Rico, inspired him to become an activist by suing his school district to get him access to a wheelchair in school. After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, he was moved to start studying cultural trauma and healing. He runs a nonprofit called the Phoenix Empowered, which amplifies identity-focused stories about mental health.

The final keynote speaker was Peyton Wu, director of Clark’s Office for Identity, Student Engagement, and Access. Their address focused on the importance of voice, and how the teachers in their predominantly white school trained them to silence themselves. “I learned how to assimilate myself, how to make myself invisible,” they recalled. “Voice is about community. When we use our voices, we uplift each other and uplift the whole community… Sharing your story is, within itself, an act of resistance.”


Faculty Voices

Many of the workshops involved faculty of various positionalities educating each other on antiracist pedagogy. Two very specific sessions advised attendees on how to supervise staff of color and on how white advisers can be more racially competent.

In a session about department diversity committees, Kerri Stearns of the Psychology department reflected on her own personal growth to encourage others to do the same. She described how the Psychology Department Committee on Anti-Oppression (PAO) used the 2019 Clark Climate Survey to identify areas for growth, and then brought in speakers and held reading groups to develop antiracist practices as individuals. She praised Clark for offering a Diversity and Inclusion Certification Program to staff.


Alumni Voices

Raphael Rogers, EIA organizer and faculty in Clark’s education department, facilitated an alumni panel. The speakers recalled microaggressions that their peers at Clark committed against them and against the Main South community. They discussed the complex relationship that Clark has with its neighborhood, which it often uses as a laboratory and a training ground for teachers who then leave Worcester after only a short time.

Caleb Sandoz Ecarnacion-Rivera (‘17 and ‘18) urged institutions and advocates to accept that change will not happen overnight. “People try skipping steps, but when you run before you can crawl, it’s not sustainable,” he warned. “Without a culture change, policy change isn’t sustainable.”

Kefiana Wairimu wa Kabati, Clark alum and staff member within CGRAS, shared concrete steps that she wants to see at Clark, saying, “We need to normalize town halls as a space where students can vocalize demands and follow up on demands. We need to create toolkits so it’s easier to pass the baton, so that each generation isn’t starting from scratch.”

“You’re not supposed to be comfortable for four years,” Jean Gao (‘12 and ‘13) advised current students. “You choose where you spend your time and energy. You choose to put it into joy and growth and the right amount of discomfort to create growth.”


Student Voices

Students presented on the potential for antiracist action related to study abroad programs, international student experiences, affinity spaces, and mutual aid at Clark. Students in the audience also had many questions and ideas to share. They talked about Clark’s use of diversity for marketing purposes, the difficulty of bridging the gap between talk and action, and the responsibility that white students have to do antiracist work.


Hopes for the future

When asked about the future of EIA, Davis said, “The plan is that this will continue every year because there are so many things Clark can work on. This is only the beginning. This is only a taste of where this conference can go, and the topics that people could bring.”

Davis emphasized the importance of hope, saying, “As a student I feel really hopeful because administrators were present today and got to  listen to the things that alumni and current students had to say… I hope that more people feel hopeful about where things can go at Clark. I know some of the alumni talked about how things haven’t really changed. The same issues that we’re talking about, they talked about. Things are taking a long time, but they still happen, and there’s hope that because of today, things could change more rapidly.”

Margo Foreman, vice president and chief officer of diversity and inclusion at Clark, delivered the closing remarks of the day. She asked the audience what it takes to transform, and they volunteered the ideas of humility, learning, unlearning, willingness to put effort in, courage, and time. “Transformation is truly multiple steps,” Foreman said. “I think about it as changing the DNA of something. To do that you have to infect it. You can kick a system all day, and your leg will fall off. You have to get inside of a system to infect it.”

Stay tuned for news on future Equity in Action conferences. They may infect Clark with hope and transformation.


Correction: The Nov. 13 version of this article spelled Amira Adribigbe’s name incorrectly. It also omitted Hayley Haywood, Laurie Ross, and Margo Foreman as members of the EIA committee. We apologize for these errors and for contributing to the erasure of the labor of women of color.