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Students urge Pitt to get real, remove diversity campaign - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Students urge Pitt to get real, remove diversity campaign

By Dale Shoemaker and Abbey Reighard / The Pitt News Staff

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After 794 students signed a petition on Change.org, Residence Life removed a set of posters for a diversity campaign on Dec. 12 that it hung in the lobby of Tower B.

The diversity campaign, which included large posters featuring students’ photos and quotes dispelling stereotypes they felt they faced, was started in November by Steve Anderson, co-director of residence life and Sarah Anzjon, Tower B resident director. In early December, the campaign drew criticism from several students who started a petition that prompted for its subsequent removal after meetings with Residence Life staff.

The petition began less than a week after Linsey Eldridge and another student, Bemma Pieterson saw the posters.

On Dec. 3, when Eldridge and Pieterson walked by the diversity campaign posters for the first time, they saw 45 white faces looking back at them.  

“Only three were students of color,” Eldridge said.

The posters included 48 students’ pictures and messages students wrote addressing stereotypes. Eldridge said the posters included phrases like “I am left-handed, but I am not dumb,” and “I am a white girl, but I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes.”

According to Eldridge, the posters “trivialized racial stereotypes.”

“Ultimately, we felt the wall did not reflect diversity, nor did it combat the truly harmful and oppressive stereotypes that students of color, queer students, etc., face on a daily basis on this campus,” she said.

One of Eldridge’s friends, Brandon Small, a junior majoring in microbiology and fiction writing, learned of the posters and emailed Sarah Anzjon, on Friday, Dec. 5. In his email, he asked Anzjon questions about the project and expressed his concerns regarding its lack of diversity.

After receiving no response, Pieterson then emailed Anzjon on Saturday, Dec. 6. In her email, she said she expressed her concerns and offered Anzjon assistance in future diversity projects. Eldridge then followed up with another email to Anzjon on Sunday, Dec. 7.

On Monday, Dec. 8, India Hunter, a junior majoring in exercise science, also emailed Anzjon, after Anzjon failed to respond to the previous three emails.

On Dec. 9, before Anzjon responded to the students’ emails, the four students decided to take action. They created a petition on Change.org outlining their concerns about the diversity campaign, asking that the Residence Life staff remove the posters. According to Eldridge’s email records, Anzjon replied to her and the other four students on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at 9:54pm.

In the seven hours from the petition’s creation to Anzjon’s response, the petition gained 200 signatures, Eldridge said.

“The petition demands the wall be removed and replaced with a project that exemplifies diversity and combats truly harmful stereotypes,” Small said.

The petition noted the recent police-related deaths of members of the black community in Ferguson Mo. and New York City.

“With black men being killed by police daily because of racial stereotypes, this project could have been an opportunity to truly combat…oppressive and systemic stereotypes, but instead, this project trivialized racial oppression and blatantly excluded students of color from the conversation,” the petition said.

In all, Eldridge, Pieterson and the two other students attempted to contact Anzjon four times to discuss the diversity campaign and voice their concerns before they created the petition. Anzjon confirmed that the four students emailed her on those dates.  

When Anzjon responded to the students’ emails, she asked to meet with them. They all agreed.

On Wednesday, Dec. 10, Eldridge, Pietersen, and Small met with Steve Anderson and co Director of Student Life Kenyon Bonner. Anzjon was not able to attend the meeting. Anderson and Bonner were receptive to their concerns, Eldridge said, but “ultimately decided we had to meet with Sarah for her side of the story.”

On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 11, all four students met with Anzjon and Anderson. The students showed the Residence Life staff the petition and the 700 signatures it had received by that time.

“[We told them] we found it very insulting to show trivial problems such as stereotypes around pumpkin spice lattes and to not even try to show diversity,” Eldridge said. “We wanted to know what the idea was for the project and how for the six weeks it was up, no one felt something was wrong with it.”

Eldridge said that she and the other students told Anzjon that some students took the project as a joke. They continued to press the need to take it down immediately, she said.

In an email on Dec. 12, Anderson said he and the Residence Life staff started the diversity campaign to help students.

“The campaign was intended to help students challenge their biases, better understand the impact of their words on others and raise awareness about differences and similarities in our experiences,” Anderson said.

According to him, the posters were meant to be a “forum” where students could “speak candidly about stereotypes and instances in which inappropriate offensive comments occur.”  

“The display Board campaign sponsored by the students of Tower B has sparked important conversations about significant issues that affect our community,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he received “valuable feedback” from the students during the meetings. He said the students listed ways the residence life staff could make campaigns more inclusive, effective and representative of the Pitt community. The meeting ended with an agreement between the students and the Residence Life staff.

“We continued to press the need to take down the campaign immediately and begin a project to replace it for next semester,” Eldridge said. “We ended the meeting agreeing to allow [Anderson and Anzjon] twenty-four hours to discuss and get back to us with a decision.”

The next morning, on Dec. 12, Anderson called Eldridge to confirm that the posters were being taken down. Shortly after, an update to the petition’s page on Change.org was made that read “Victory!”

Brett Stras, an undeclared sophomore, was one of the 794 students who signed the petition. He said the campaign was a poor attempt to educate Pitt’s campus about diversity and ignored the “systematic discrimination people of color experience.”

Stras criticized the campaign for omitting facts about the disparities in prison population demographics, access to education and access to the job market.

“The intention of the campaign was probably to help debunk stereotypes and spread understanding through the voices of the students themselves,” Stras, who is white, said. “But despite the creativity of the action, I think it failed to take into the amount of privilege that a predominately white campus has.”

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Students urge Pitt to get real, remove diversity campaign