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Springfield College’s history with race and where to go from here

By Cait Kemp

Springfield College has a complicated history with race, diversity and inclusion. The college’s first graduate to receive a diploma, William Beckett, was African American. In 1906, this was an accomplishment that many other Black citizens across the nation were unable to achieve due to the racism that plagued society.

When Black student activists at Springfield College demanded greater representation and tried to make the college more inclusive, however, their demands were ignored. So they staged protests on campus in 1969 and 1970, which landed students on probation for their peaceful actions against the racism present on the campus. These protests were significant in showing that what was happening on campus was not acceptable. Takeovers of the Administration Building and Massasoit Hall, a hunger strike, and a list of demands to the president proved that there were serious issues and they could not be ignored any longer.

As a result, 30 students were put on probation and seemingly no progress or change was made in response to the demands.

The events of 2020 eerily mirrored those protests. That year, the college again saw activism from students of color, with demands and protests that were eerily similar to those made nearly 50 years before.

Even after 50 years, many of the same problems persisted. Students were making some of the same demands. One notable change, however, was that current President Mary-Beth Cooper was much more responsive to the list of demands, declaring that the College would make changes in response.

However, it is hard not to wonder how 50 years could pass and almost the exact list of demands was being asked for once again. Improvements can be difficult to recognize.

Despite this lack of proof of any real change made on the campus, since the protests 50 years ago, the College is seeing efforts to improve, especially with the 2020 Black Lives Matter movements that were seen on campus.

Deja Ware, the College’s Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), graduated from Springfield in 2020 and has a unique perspective on the changes..

“This is a predominantly white institution, so naturally there is not a lot of diversity here on campus,” Ware said. “The narrative already around the institution was that a lot of students from my community being the Springfield community didn’t come to Springfield College because this was a school where predominantly white people went.”

Ware arrived at Springfield College as a student in the fall of 2015 and experienced the build of racial issues on campus, including that turning point of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement in her senior year.

Another turning point that she noticed was Calvin Hill’s arrival in 2015 as the vice president for inclusion and community engagement. His drive to improve the campus’ action to create a better space for all students was evident to Ware, and she noticed efforts being made early on in her college experience.

“That was kind of the introduction of seeing a pivotal moment for the institution to actively look at ways to incorporate diversity and inclusion throughout the student experience,” Ware said of Hill’s position.

As an alumna, Ware has the unique opportunity to understand the student life at Springfield and now has the role to make an impact on the things she recognizes need change.

In her position as the director of DEI, Ware is tasked with identifying the areas that need training and creating educational programs to help students and faculty develop the knowledge and skills needed to help facilitate a safe and welcoming environment for all. In the fall, Ware will lead a session with Resident Assistants, teaching them about DEI, including topics like language and microaggressions.

“We’re currently going through the strategic plan and where there are some institutions that look at DEI being its own separate thing, we look at DEI being a part of every single part of the plan,” Ware said. “Making sure that all practices, suggestions, programs– anything– are all rooted in making sure we’re being the most inclusive and diverse and equitable so that we can create a belonging that all students feel truly connected to.”

The student-run clubs on campus, including the Black Student Union (BSU) and Student Society for Bridging Diversity (SSBD), have a significant role in the work being done on a student level. Their goal is to not only offer a place for students to discuss common experiences, but to invite in a wide variety of people so that others can learn from each other and create a stronger bond within the community.

The action to create a diverse and inclusive community does not come from just one source. Together, the administration, faculty and students are responsible for the work that goes into making Springfield College a better place for all.

“Representation and support are really big things along with the efforts that are done internally,” Ware said. “Just making sure that as an institution systematically, we are making sure that any barriers that could potentially prevent more diverse student groups from attending our institution are being knocked down because systematic oppression and racism are real.”

Photo Courtesy Springfield College

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