Students seek answers during #AskRhonda

Students gather in the quad to discuss the history of resources created by student organizing as part of the “Ask Rhonda: Accountability Series” hosted by the Student Organizers at Occidental group at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, April 13, 2018. Georgia Arnold/The Occidental

In response to the recent calls for Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Rhonda Brown’s resignation, an unaffiliated group of students organized a week-long campaign to highlight traditionally marginalized students’ voices. The campaign, titled Ask Rhonda: Accountability Series, tabled on the academic quad April 9–13 during lunch hours and culminated in a discussion event April 13 at 4 p.m., where students came together to discuss common concerns. Brown said that she was not invited to the event. The event’s purpose, according to its Facebook page, was to record and share the ways in which students feel they have been let down by the offices at Occidental College.

Each day highlighted a different community of traditionally marginalized individuals and attempted to include voices from each category. Identities include students of color (including international students), disabled students (including students with mental health concerns), low-income students, first-generation students and LGBTQIA+ students. According to the campaign’s Facebook page, the groups were not exclusive and were based on personal identity.

Each day, from noon–1:30 p.m., student leaders sat on a bench on the quad, identified by a handmade colorful poster publicizing the event. Fliers posted around areas on campus also publicized the event. The campaign’s Instagram account published photos taken throughout the week with the hashtag #Ask Rhonda.

Brown said she saw most of the Instagram posts and commented that many of them contained inaccuracies. One Instagram post questioned why the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) was undergoing a name change. According to Brown, the ICC’s name will not be changed. She said that she welcomes a dialogue about student concerns on campus.

“If there are issues out there about what I’ve done or how I do things, then I think students can certainly email me or make an appointment, and I am certainly happy to have a conversation about it,” Brown said.

Carol Beckett (sophomore) was featured in an Instagram post April 9, in which she asked Rhonda Brown what the ICC was. Beckett said that she hopes to learn more information about different spaces on campus and that the campaign allowed the opportunity for both education and reflection.

“I didn’t realize the ICC was supposed to have such a presence on campus,” Beckett said. “So that’s why I wanted to get involved.”

Beckett said after taking part in the campaign she was more aware of the number of issues between the administration and student body, specifically noting the lack of support systems for both people of color (POC) and queer POC.

According to Ricardo Parada (senior), he participated in the event because he felt that the campaign promoted dialogue and institutional memory.

“It is crucial that younger students know what resources used to be present on campus previously,” Parada said via email.

Ilya Hora (first year) said she was approached on the quad to take a photo for the campaign to be featured on Instagram. She agreed to do so but said she felt used by the circumstances. Hora said she did not know the name of the person who took her picture at the time of the event.

“I found out, after they did it, that they did it because I was a person of color,” Hora said. “They didn’t tell me it until after so personally I felt that I was profiled.”

According to Hora, she did not know much about the reasons behind the campaign but was interested in learning more in order to potentially get involved again in the future. Hora said she did not choose the question she was publicized with and was told to look angry in the photo.

“They were just kind of forcing me to be an angry person of color,” Hora said.

Hora later asked for the post she was featured in to be taken down, and her post was removed from Instagram April 16. The Occidental reached out to Anna Palmer (junior), who was involved in the planning of the campaign, for comment but did not receive a response.

August Barringer (junior) said she worked with Brown in the past when she served as the Queer Student Alliance (QSA) president. 

“I thought the CDO would be a great person who would love to help out, but I’ve had many non-good experiences with her,” Barringer said.

Halla Keir (junior) and Ricardo Parada (senior) gather with fellow students in the quad to discuss the history of resources created by student organizing as part of the “Ask Rhonda: Accountability Series” hosted by the Student Organizers at Occidental group at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, April 13, 2018. Georgia Arnold/The Occidental

Barringer said she was motivated by these experiences to participate in the Ask Rhonda campaign. According to Barringer, while QSA has hosted events in the past, it is not an active group on campus. Barringer said events and spaces for queer students on-campus are hosted by Queer and Trans People Of Color (QTPOC), TRANScendence and the Oxy AAgenda, and not promoted by the CDO. She said she hopes the campaign brings more awareness and accountability to Brown’s actions, and that both Brown and administration are motivated by the student activism.

“Rhonda now doesn’t speak to me and doesn’t make eye contact with me,” Barringer said. “That job is too important for it to be someone who is not doing a good job.”

Parada said that after taking part in the campaign, he became increasingly aware that everyone on campus is affected by the CDO’s decisions. Parada advocated for a more inclusive model to be adopted by the decision-making structure of the community in order to serve students who are not comfortable in the current climate.

“No matter who you are on campus, you are affected by the decisions made by the CDO,” Parada said via email.

Miki Konishi (senior), who also participated in the event, said he felt invested in the campaign due to his participation in the 2015 Arthur G. Coons (AGC) Occupation. Konishi said that the campaign made him realize how unclear the dialogue between Brown, administration and students is.

“I don’t think it’s from the student perspective, I think from our side we’re pretty clear about what we want to know,” Konishi said. “But I feel like a lot of these questions aren’t being answered.”

At the culminating event April 13, a group of around 20 students and faculty members began with a discussion on the quad. The group was then led through break-out groups to discuss specific topics, including cultural graduation, housing, the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI), Rhonda Brown and the ICC, academics and disability services. The breakout groups had student leaders who informed participants with a brief background related to each topic before providing a space for dialogue, concerns and stories to be shared. After the break-out groups, participants reconvened to discuss their experiences. The event lasted from 4–5:30 pm.

Pablo Saleta (junior) said the conversations were ones in which he commonly participates. Saleta took issue with the diversity of participants, disappointed that the group was predominately made up of women of color.

“All of these women of color do all the work on this campus,” Saleta said.

According to Konishi, he hopes more students get engaged with the issues being raised in the future.

“Diversity should be something that we’re all invested in,” Konishi said. “I hope that it does expand and more people become involved with this and with asking critical questions of this institution.”

Update: This article was updated April 18 to correct a factual inaccuracy in Barringer’s original quote on QSA.