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Kicking the door in

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The Students of Color Empowerment Group wants to start a conversation about culture, media and the representation of students of color on campus.

Coming together out of a shared vision, the Students of Color Empowerment Group is looking to have its voices heard.

Caleb Hensin
President Freddie Taylor (in pink shirt) addresses club members at a recent meeting with advisor Davida Sharpe-Haygood.

Created by student Freddie Taylor and faculty member Davida Sharpe-Haygood, the purpose of the Students of Color Empowerment is to bring together marginalized groups of students as a multipurpose support and activist group. “Empowerment + Unity + Resilience = Be a part of the movement forward,” is its mission statement.

“We want to create an environment where students can feel better about each other and get their buckets filled. All of these students are moving on to the next phase in their life, so we want to be there to help bridge, help push and help support them get in to the next phase,” said Sharpe-Haygood.

Taylor, who is aiming for a career in early childhood education, said he had been interested in starting a club like this for some time, but it was Sharpe-Haygood who really gave him the push he needed to go through with his idea.

“She was the one who really decided we should have a club, and I basically got my cues from her. This is something I’ve wanted to do, but the support from faculty is always something that’s hard to get. I didn’t know who the adviser would be, and my teacher was willing to help with that,” he said.

Taylor said he felt was a lack of presence from non-international students of color at Pierce led to him to starting the group.

“There’s a huge disparity here, between students of color, international students and white students,” he said. “I had one class at the Puyallup campus, and I went the entire day without seeing another person of color. You want to feel comfortable where you’re at. I didn’t see someone else like me until five o’clock that day. Just imagine you see someone else across the campus and you jog up to him and hug him, because you felt like you were alone, all day long.”

Taylor cited poor retention rates for students at Pierce, due to what he considers a lack of communication and education regarding such things as financial support. “We can’t keep students of color on campus, because they can’t pass school or can’t afford to and there’s no way of looking it up and getting better funding because no one tells them who they can go talk to.”

Caleb Hensin
President Freddie Taylor (in pink shirt) and advisor Davida Sharpe-Haygood listen to fellow member Malkom Clark (center with hat) speak.

In 2017, Pierce received recognition for increasing graduation rates and won the Achieving the Dream’s Leah Meyer Austin Award, the second-highest honor that an American community college can receive. Despite this, Taylor believes the school could still be doing more, a sentiment that was echoed by other members of the group.

“Optics are everything, and right now it seems like they [Pierce administration] gears everything towards international students. I’m not saying it’s true, but it is an appearance. If people aren’t feeling like they’re welcomed and supported, they’re not going to want to be here and they’re not going to want to stay and they’re not going to put in the effort.”

Stefan Kendrick, a student of color and fellow member of the group, is looking forward to a career in environmental engineering. He said he see few other students of color among his classmates.

“Right now, focusing mostly on higher physics and math, I’ve talked to the two to three other colored classmates in my class and noticed that the higher you get (in sciences and math), the more it starts to thin out, color-wise.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something I want to encourage more. I want to get more blacks into STEM fields especially and show them it’s not that hard.”

“Being black and smart is not ‘normal,’ ” said Malcolm Clark, a group member in  regards to the effects that black culture — and culture in a broad sense — has on young students of color.  “Sometimes, when you’re a kid, you even get bullied for that.”

Because of this, Clark believes that many young people of color are discouraged from entering medical or scientific fields, and said there is a need for role models for young people of color.

“How many black teachers do you remember having?” he said. Most of the group said they could count them out on a single hand.

When asked about the difference between the Students of Color Empowerment Group and other organizations on Pierce’s Steilacoom campus such as the Black Student Union and Multicultural Leadership Institute, Taylor said the approaches are different.

“We are different groups with different goals,” he said, about how he wants the Students of Color Empowerment Group to provide an environment where its members truly do feel empowered. “Their approach is more subtle than ours. I don’t aim to be subtle. I want to kick the door in. You know, change doesn’t happen when people are comfortable.”

The group is working on gaining membership and broadening its discussions. A recent group event of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” used funding allocated to all clubs by the school. Tickets were first handed out to the group’s members and then opened up to any Pierce student.

“The hope of the group is that students of color will find the movie empowering and white students will be able to see a different view of black culture than is usually displayed in media,” Taylor said.

Sharpe-Haygood said the movie is a powerful image of people of color being displayed as royalty in a modern setting “in the here and now” and the heroes of the film are specifically fighting for the good of their kingdom — their community — rather than just for themselves.

“I think it will help people feel like they really can do anything and be anything,” she said.

Taylor said, about the movie, “I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.”

 

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