Wednesday’s town hall meeting, led by University of Wyoming President Ed Seidel, was about pulling back the veil and acknowledging the existence of racism and bigotry at the University. After two and half hours, Seidel appeared surprised that over 150 participants remained with the session as he pledged commitment to transformative and sustainable change.
The panel — a week following the Feb. 15 racist Zoom attack — included Dr. Frederick Douglass Dixon, director of the UW Black Studies Center; Dr. Jacquelyn Bridgeman, director of the School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice; and Timberly Vogel, director of Campus Community Engagement.
Dixon is said to have approached Seidel following the incident, suggesting there be a conversation about the event and tangible solutions to ensure lasting change on campus.
“I readily agreed,” Seidel said. He added he is committed to expanding the conversation beyond the campus and into the surrounding community of Laramie.
Opening statements by the panelists called on Seidel and other administrative authorities to recognize and acknowledge racism exists at the university.
“It is mandatory to talk about the systemic issues that face the University of Wyoming, particularly when it comes to race,” Dixon said.
Bridgeman added to this.
“We don’t seem to accept there are racism problems on our campus and in our community,” she said. “Until we can affirmatively commit to making (campus) a safe and welcoming place for all people, we aren’t having the right conversation yet.”
Bridgeman added the Zoom incident highlighted the underlying and incorrect assumption that we are all sitting in the same equal place.
“That incident was directed to a particular [group] in our population,” she said.
She also mentioned if the university is serious about creating a safe environment for everyone, administrators and community members must engage in hard conversations.
Dixon agreed with Seidel in calling the evening’s meeting a “first step” — provided the conversation addressed the core issues of racism and fear.
One participant stated in a comment read by an off-screen moderator that she never felt safe on campus and after the events on Feb.15, felt even more uncomfortable.
A participant who chose to remain anonymous asked Seidel what actions would have been taken if evidence had supported UW student involvement. Seidel appeared unsure how to give a specific answer, stating he would have followed whatever procedures currently in place at the institution to handle the incident.
He also appeared unconfident as he scrambled to respond cohesively.
“Because of the seriousness of the problem ... there would surely be strong actions ... could be suspension if it was a student … there would be processes that I’m not very familiar with … since I’m new,” Seidel said. Seidel became president in July 2020.
He did assure the public that the university police and the UW Information Technology Center are working with the FBI to consider any evidence that could lead to identifying the perpetrator.
A woman named Tina expressed her dissatisfaction and frustration with his response stating he was unprepared for a well-anticipated question.
Another participant named Donald challenged Seidel:
“Are you willing to stand up to those who may oppose your changes that could help inclusivity and curtail racism?” He also mentioned how the previous president was voted out when she tried implementing change.
Seidel didn’t hesitate when he said he was committed to doing whatever was needed to move the university forward.
“My career has been around change in every place that I’ve worked,” Seidel said, “[and] this feels like a moment of change at the national level.”
Other questions concerning allyship and preventing what is known as “racial battle fatigue” arose. Commentators said they felt as though they were unsure of how to productively invoke change as allies.
In response, all three panelist urged individuals who think of themselves as allies to examine their motivations and expectations.
“To be a good ally, you must be reflective and aware of the space you take up and the ideas you embody and be open to criticism and not take it as an attack on your being,” Vogel said.
“Allyship status in your life will constantly evolve as you gain more experience and perspectives,” she said, adding the fear of backlash from family or friends is incomparable to the threat of legitimate racial violence.
Bridgeman continued this thought, saying a certain amount of introspection is required when interacting with communities of color. She said individuals need to ask themselves why they are uncomfortable or hesitant to reach out, because it should be as easy as reaching out to a friend.
“Some of being a good ally is internal work … it doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective,” she said.
Dixon also spoke on the topic of allyship and said when you become an ally you have to be prepared to be a part of something groundbreaking that doesn’t necessarily have you in a place of leadership.
“An allyship does not mean that you lead,” Dixon said. He provided the example of being in church, “It’s good that you’re in the church, but you don’t need to be in the first pew.
He also added that it can become problematic if a non-black individual governs and has authority over a Black Lives Matter committee.
In this example, it is can become easy for a white individual — even unintentionally — to perpetuate an exclusive system of power.
Seidel responded to the question and the panelists’ responses by stating he is committed to being an ally.
Vogel asked Seidel if the Board will participate in future conversations regarding systemic change on campus. On behalf of the Board, Seidel said, “I think the Board would be all in to join in conversations like these.”
It is unclear at this time whether any board members were presen,t either as participants or as observers.