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An Alumni Petition Called for Racial Justice on Campus–But Did It Consult Current Students?

by Maya Martin

Agnes Scott College sustains itself on the support of alumni, who made up 79% of donors to the college in the fiscal year 2020, according to the 2019-2020 Agnes Scott Philanthropy Report. And Jayme Walton, class of ‘07, is one of those alumni. She writes the checks, attends the panels, monitors the Facebook groups, and keeps up with friends she made in college. “I very deeply try to live the college motto,” she says. It’s who she is. “Thinking deeply and living honorably. Those are important to me and I want to show that to this campus.”

But one day recently, she ran across a post in an Agnes Scott alumni Facebook group that made her rethink how she utilizes her influence as an alum to help the college grow. A group called “Black Scotties Matter” had posted a petition which encouraged alumni to withhold their financial support for the college until it met their demands for racial justice on campus. 

Those demands include ending the college’s contract with Aramark (a company that relies on prison labor to provide food items to Agnes Scott Dining Services), diversifying faculty, defunding public safety, improving the cultural literacy of the wellness and career centers, and providing a living wage to all staff. Jayme added her name to the growing list of what is now approximately 90 signatures.

In an email, Black Scotties Matter wrote that “as non-Black alums, we believe we are best positioned to utilize our position and resources to hold the school accountable to having a long overdue and needed conversation with the current campus community.” 

Lydia Knowles, class of 2022, is the president of Abolition at Agnes. Black Scotties Matter had been in touch with the organization to gather feedback on the petition and learn from the group’s abolitionist divest/invest framework. When asked what she thought of the organizers’ plan to withhold financial support until Agnes met their demands, she said “it puts a lot of pressure on the college to do what people want them to do. Withholding their financial support, since Agnes depends pretty heavily on financial support from alum, takes the ability to do certain things away from Agnes. That puts them in a bind so they have to shift their views and make these changes.”

The FAQ document for Black Scotties Matter provides wording for undersigned alumni to use when the college requests donations or volunteering help. 

For example, if an alum were responding to a fundraising request by text message, the FAQ recommends writing, “Thank you for your request. Until the college addresses anti-Blackness on campus, I’ve pledged to #HoldAgnesAccountable by withholding my support. I’d be willing to resume my support once Agnes Scott takes action on the 5 demands presented by the campaign to Hold Agnes Accountable.” 

As the fund chair for her class, Jayme felt that she was in a good position to shake things up. She contacted the alumni office to resign the position, and school admin asked if she would be interested in chatting with them about #HoldAgnesAccountable.

They knew about the petition, and they were open to having a conversation about it. 

“I felt like we were being spoken for and I didn’t really like that”: A Response from Black Students

Ryan Hayes-Owens(‘22), a current Black student majoring in sociology and anthropology, came across the post in a different Facebook group. The petition puzzled her, and when she consulted with other students in a class group chat, they were equally mystified. Who organized this? What were their goals? And why hadn’t they consulted the Black students they were hoping to support? “This seems inappropriate and not the way to advocate for Black and Brown bodies,” Ryan wrote in a comment. Her voice echoed the sentiments of other Black leaders on campus who noticed a disconnect between alumni and students. 

Ryan agreed with the goals of the petition, but worried that without collaboration with Black organizations on campus that could amplify the message, the movement would fizzle out quickly. 

In response to comments from Ryan and other Black students, the organizers wrote that although they had originally aimed the petition at an alumni audience, they were now in conversation with collaborators to gain input from current Black students. They added a disclaimer to the FAQ document that stated, “we, the alumni who organized this collective effort, do not identify as Black.” 

One of the collaborators that the creators of the petition reached out to was Abolition at Agnes. Lydia said that when she spoke with Black Scotties Matterover email, “they were very receptive of it. They were quick to correct these issues, which I really appreciated as someone working for Abolition at Agnes and as a Black student.” 

“I don’t know what to amplify”: The Larger Disconnect Between Students, Alumni, and Admin

Alumni are “a quirky bunch,” Jayme said. “A lot of the alumni as a collective get treated with kid gloves because some of the most active and generous alums need to be treated with kid gloves. Everything that they publish for all of us is to get us happy and excited where we want to donate money. We don’t necessarily get a picture of the things that are less happy and exciting.”

Jayme lives in the Decatur community with her wife and two sons, and she tries her best to engage with the Agnes Scott community wherever possible, but the pandemic has made connecting with students difficult. When she asked Black Scotties Matter if they could introduce her to a student, Jayme said they couldn’t find one for her before connecting her with The Profile

The students also express a willingness to have conversations with alumni. 

“More than half of the Black students that I know would love to say what they need or what they think,” Ryan said when asked how she would advise white alumni who wanted to help. “Agnes needs to be a safer and happier environment for everybody. Just ask. We’re open. Black students may even appreciate you asking instead of just assuming. We don’t need a savior. We need a team.”

“Looking Back. Advancing Forward.”: The JEDI plan

On the morning of January 11, Jayme sat down to meet with Dr. Robiaun Charles, Vice President for College Advancement, and Pam Cottrell, Director of The Fund for Agnes Scott, over Zoom. They spoke for an hour, and Dr. Charles let Jayme in on a plan the college was working on that would be announced that next Monday to advance Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion on campus.

Many of the sentences in the JEDI plan begin with the word “continue”: “continue efforts to diversity the faculty,” “continue to analyze employee pay equity for racial and gender parity.” 

The corresponding petition goals ask Agnes to “create a transparent policy using whistleblower and anti-retaliation protections and policy best practices to address concerns brought up by students, faculty, and staff when they experience racist harm on campus,” “end the current contract with Aramark.” 

When Dr. Charles mentioned JEDI’s plan to include wording about fair wages when they seek out contractors to perform work such as dining services, Jayme says she “pushed her to ask if then that is a criteria for choosing a vendor, and didn’t really get a clear picture of that.” 

Most of the conversation centered around encouraging the college to do a better job of communicating current work to students and alumni. 

When asked what Abolition at Agnes thought of the JEDI plan, Lydia said she had never heard of it. After reviewing its tenets, she said, “I do enjoy the fact that they are actually starting to think about what they can do to make campus safer. It’s a good start, but I do wish they could do more, especially since public safety is what we are pushing back on more, rather than just doing trainings. We want to see actual change in the way that Agnes keeps their students safe.”

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