An emergency town hall was held Monday night at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Hosted by the university’s Black Student Union, the meeting was called in response to the recent release of racially-insensitive photos, one of which showed a student wearing blackface at a fraternity party.
Students who spoke at the town hall not only expressed anger at the fraternity’s actions, but also with the university itself.
The auditorium at the Cal Poly engineering building was filled to the brim with students, with many spilling out through doorways. Those who couldn't see sat on the ground and couches outside watching a livestream on their phones and sharing headphones.
“Allies, your presence here and your voices here are appreciated. But we will be centering the students of color.”
Leilani Hemmings ran the town hall. She began with a statement from the Black Student Union.
"On behalf of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Student Union we are appalled by and adamantly condemn the actions of Lambda Chi Alpha. We have been disturbed. But not surprised by the lack of critical thinking by Lambda Chi Alpha."
It was a lengthy statement read to a quiet room. And the crux of it was this:
"This incident at Lambda Chi Alpha brotherhood event perpetuated the long-standing question of what work is doing to support the admission and even more importantly the retention of marginalized students. Given the meager one percent of the San Luis Obispo population black students make up and the continual loss of black faculty and staff, this event involving not only black face but quote unquote 'gangster dress' is detrimental to current and prospective Cal Poly students."
One by one the students began to tell their stories about being black or of color at Cal Poly.
"You know it’s kind of hard. When all of your life you’ve been told your skin’s ugly. You look dirty. The more you think about it." *Pause* "It doesn’t make me feel like this campus wants people like me here or that I’m appreciated."
That was Erika Green, an aeroscience engineering first year. Other students shared emotional stories, from sad to angry.
“The fact that we are here talking about this really bothers me. From the get you should have known that this is wrong. And all of my brothers and sisters here I hate they are putting all their energy into this. We’re trying to get an education. I have a quiz tomorrow. I’m trying to *expletive* graduate and I’m here. This is ridiculous.”
Many students like that one didn’t give their name on purpose. They wanted to remain anonymous. Student Patricia Sanchez told me later I could use her name.
“I am part of a Greek organization and I am ashamed to say that right now. Because even though my Greek organization is a cultural one. This is for all of us to learn. It's appalling to know our president released a statement that wasn't *expletive* and put it under the rug.”
The statement to which Sanchez is referring was released Monday by Cal Poly President, Jeffrey Armstrong. It said that he stands with students who have been hurt or offended. But students said over and over that similar incidents keep happening. Like last year when a fraternity took a photo of them dressed up as other ethnicities.
"Alpha Gamma Rho did it last year and they are still on campus.”
“If you are truly committed to diversity and action you have to do something about it. Either the admit does it or the IFC where they pass a zero tolerance policy for parties that engage in racist actions.”
Even though most speakers were people of color, Patricia Sanchez had this to say everyone in the packed room:
“To all the white people here: if you are just hear to listen in an and take up space. Shame on you. To the white people who care: stand behind us and don’t be cowards anymore.”
The fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha was placed on interim suspension Monday while the university investigates the matter. According to the university, this suspends university recognition and requires a fraternity chapter to cease all functions, events and activities.
Cal Poly officials say they will conduct their investigation in a timely manner. But no word on how long that will be.
Tyler Pratt, KCBX