As conversations between the Students of Color Coalition, Black Student Union and administration continue, alumni are beginning to pay attention to the recent push for improvement and accountability around issues of race on campus.
Milly Tamarez, class of 2011, and Aileen Mokuria, class of 2013, have been organizing to demonstrate alumni support for reforms to address racism and unequal representation on campus. They wrote a letter summarizing the recent events on campus for alumni, a list of their own demands for the university – some of which overlap with the demands of the on-campus student movement – and an online petition for other alumni to sign in support as well as share their stories of racism and misrepresentation on campus.
“We want some concrete things that are going to make lasting change,” Tamarez said. “We want better for the future than what we had.”
The alumni demands include mandatory racial sensitivity training and Ethnic Studies taught by professors of color, similar to the student movement. But both alumni say their professional experience has allowed them to prioritize their demands differently. Tamarez, who works in diversity in the world of writing and comedy, and Mokuria, who works in the field of social-emotional learning, said an on campus advocate for students of color is one of the most pressing changes needed. There’s a need for reporting systems for students who are impacted by racist acts and disciplinary action for students who are implicated in racist acts, the alumni said. They emphasized the importance of creating an office of diversity and inclusion that will support students of color, especially when racist actions occur on campus.
“Think of the two movements like parallel streets. We were in full support of each other and wanted [the SOCC and BSU] to organize based on what they felt was most appropriate and we organized alumni,” Mokuria said. “The demands in the letter were based on the current students’ demands. We just clarified language, added deadlines, and focused on long-lasting systemic change based on our professional experience, [diversity, equity and inclusion] work, research, and lived experience.”
The petition has garnered over 150 signatures from alumni so far. In addition to sharing the petition via social media, they also shared the letter with the Sohokai alumni board, which shared it through their email. Tamarez and Mokuria plan to submit their demands along with the signatures to administration before the end of the year.
Tamarez and Mokuria say they were inspired to create the letter and demands by the current student movement, which reminded them of their own experiences with racism on campus.
Both alumni said racial slurs were used frequently by other students during their time at Soka, and students of color didn’t feel supported on campus.
“Milly and I shared stories of sadness and disappointment that nearly 10 years later, students were experiencing the same racial bias trauma we had experienced too,” Mokuria said.
Both alumni say they see more diversity on campus than when they attended the university, but that increased diversity has not translated to inclusion, representation or equity.
“I was pleased to see that Soka had expanded their student population to include more diversity, something that was not the case when I was there,” Mokuria said, “but it was clear Soka was ill prepared to make them feel welcomed—much like my experience.”
Tamarez emphasizes how far back racist incidents go on campus, referencing an article published in the May 2007 edition of The Pearl. The article describes an incident of non-black students wearing blackface at a pep rally event.
“These issues don’t happen in a vacuum and they’ve been happening for a long time,” Tamarez said. After all, she said, Tamarez was involved in a student push for African Studies during her time at Soka, which didn’t ultimately lead to curricular change. She said the students’ work didn’t feel valued by faculty and administration, similar to the current sentiments on campus.
The response from the greater alumni network has been mixed, Tamarez said. Mokuria added that those who have said nothing are also of concern to her. “Being silent is also being a part of the problem,” Mokuria said, adding that only 13 people from her class have signed the petition.
While there are messages of support and what Tamarez considers a good number of signatures, there have been a number of negative responses as well.
One anonymous response to the alumni petition Tamarez shared with The Pearl expressed that the student movement on campus is uncalled for, an example of students ignoring their “privilege.”
“As an alumnus, I must say I’m disappointed,” the anonymous statement reads. “You guys get free tuition, food, laundry, printing, laptop, study abroad, etc. just for going to SUA; trust me, it ain’t like that elsewhere, ‘cause that’s privilege right there. Instead of thanking the people who work at Soka for giving you an amazing education, you now ‘demand’ more stuff and expect immediate results. How many of you have contributed to the school in any shape or form? … So let me say this again, you are privileged, you just choose not to see it so you can have a reason to be angry. It is a disgrace to see my beloved alma mater turning out like this.”
Tamarez argued back against this alumnus’s statements. “It’s not free. I’ve been paying for it my whole life,” Tamarez said of her education. “I’m $40,000 in debt from Soka.”
While Mokuria graduated debt-free, and she is grateful for that, she argues that’s beside the point. Regardless of how much money Soka gave her, she said, “that doesn’t mean you should ignore discrimination.”
“It is and was incredibly sad and disgusting to have to explain why protecting diversity through improved systems and accountability is important,” Mokuria said.
Tamarez said much of the criticism comes from those who feel defensive of the university and its reputation. “What does it mean to actually love an institution? To me it’s wanting it to be the best. To others, it means never criticizing it.”
“Critique is not disunity,” she added.