Student starts hunger strike to bring attention to bias concerns at Texas Wesleyan
Students of color at Texas Wesleyan University are taking action, including one on a hunger strike, to spotlight what they describe as “a hostile student experience” created by bias and prejudice on campus.
The Black Student Association released a list of demands this week to the administration. The demands include the implementation of bias, prejudice and microaggression workshops for students, as well as a plan that includes minority representation in the social science curriculum. The demands also ask for steps and a timeline toward creating ethnic studies classes.
Queen Elizondo, president of the Black Student Association and a senior sociology major, began her hunger strike on March 7. Students of color have to package their feelings to make others feel more comfortable, she said. The needs of students of color remain unheard.
“I want people to know that it took this physical representation of me being on a hunger strike for people to start to understand what students go through every day,” she said. “The physical pain that I might feel through a hunger strike is the equivalent to the emotional and mental turmoil that students are taking on in these hostile classroom situations. So this is nothing new.”
A roundtable meeting has been scheduled at noon March 11 between student leaders and campus administrators to discuss the demands and anonymous student testimonials gathered by the Black Student Association.
“As long as there’s a process and there are people holding administrators accountable, I think I’ll be OK with it,” said Nuriyah Hall, a biochemistry sophomore and vice-president of the Black Student Association. “But just not doing anything, ignoring these issues — that says a lot. I can’t stand for that.”
Among the collected testimonies, students shared experiences of being passed over for opportunities and dealing with professors making comments about their racial background.
“Once, in a class discussing the importance of diversity on college campuses, I voiced my concerns on how women students of color aren’t always heard or included in conversations and about what it was like to be the only woman of color in a sea of white men. My professor said “jokingly”, “well why didn’t you go to an HBCU?” and moved on with the conversation without acknowledging the problems with his question or the concerns that I raised,” said Micheline Karenga, a political science freshman.
In a statement from Texas Wesleyan University’s office of marketing and communication to the Fort Worth Report, the university said it was aware of Elizondo’s strike and the list of demands.
“While we may disagree with this student’s approach, as the health and safety of our students is part of our fundamental mission, we are always ready to talk with our students about their concerns and we are continuing to work with this student to address the issues raised,” the statement read.
The university said the seminar class first-year students take includes a diversity training session. The statement also cites efforts by the school’s General Education Curriculum Revisioning Committee to recently identify ways to increase multi-cultural competence and democratic citizenship in the classroom.
“If our efforts ever fall short in any of these areas in the eyes of anyone in our community, we are committed to listening, learning and growing from their shared experiences and feedback,” the statement reads.
Glenn Lewis, chairman of the Texas Wesleyan Board of Trustees and former NAACP lawyer, found out about the students’ demands on March 9 and hopes to meet with the students.
An alumnus of the university, Lewis said the student minority population has grown tremendously since his time as a student but he doesn’t recall any instances of discrimination when he attended classes there.
“I would never discourage students from expressing themselves in their concerns in any way they see fit,” the chairman said. “But the first thing I need to do before responding to anything is to gather facts. And that is the purpose of my desire to meet with them and hear from them.”
According to 2021 university data, nearly 60% of the student body is considered a student of color, with 29% of the population being Hispanic or Latino, and 21% Black. First-generation students make up 42% of the population.
Despite having a minority-majority student population, the faculty and staff at the university are predominantly white.
“It feels very much like it’s a predominantly white institution because of how it’s operated,” Elizondo said.
Texas Wesleyan University said its student affairs department started meeting with students in December 2021 to increase the scope of diversity and inclusion on campus.
“These students have a vision for change, and the Student Affairs team is working with them to articulate that vision to different departments across campus,” according to the statement.
In 2017, the university created its Diversity and Inclusion Council and recently hired an assistant director of student diversity and inclusion programs. Texas Wesleyan University also hosted two conversation panels about racism and enacting change in the community.
But for students like Hall and Elizondo, it’s not enough. Some instances of microaggressions and biased comments have been reported to the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Council but nothing came of it, Elizondo said.
“We’re always reactive,” she said, referring to the council where she sits as a student representative. “There wasn’t a lot of forward-thinking to get ahead of the situations as to how we can eliminate (instances of bias) rather than continuously react to them.”
Elizondo will continue her hunger strike until her terms are sufficiently met, she said. The sociology senior will pause her strike during spring break but will resume after students return to campus if the demands are not met after Friday’s meeting, she said.
The Black Student Association also plans to organize demonstrations the week after spring break if the university does not lay out actionable steps at the March 11 meeting.
“I had someone tell me, ‘You’re just hurting yourself, and the school doesn’t care.’ But that’s kind of the point. In the face of immediate student danger, there’s still a lack of action, there’s still a lack of response. They would really rather let me die than quickly find a solution or even plan on a solution,” Elizondo said.
The student body and several staff members have been supportive, members of the Black Student Association said. However, some negative individual comments were submitted to the association about “doing this for attention.”
“Put yourself in our shoes just for a day. And if you choose to want to walk in our shoes for the rest of your life, would you choose that? Or would you choose your current lifestyle?” Hall said. “I think everyone deserves a quality education. And that comes with feeling comfortable in the school setting.”
Charlie Simmons, a master’s business student, said that although the cause is good, the approach the students are taking is not the best. More planning should have gone into it to get the entire student body aware and make a lasting impression, he said.
“Maybe if they had publicized it more and made it known, it would have been more effective. But really, the only people that know about it are the people out there,” Simmons said. “I think this is a good practice for a bigger event.”
Gloria Mendoza graduated from Texas Wesleyan University a decade ago and is now an immigration justice organizer with United Fort Worth. She can relate to the experiences Elizondo and other students have shared because she went through the same thing.
“What struck me automatically was how much things have not changed, and that was a long time ago,” Mendoza said. “I wish I’d had (the knowledge and bravery) back then to know that it wasn’t me, that it was actually the institution.”
Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, community organizer at United Fort Worth and a Texas Wesleyan University alumnus, sits on the university’s diversity and inclusion council. He thinks the university has made no intentional changes to meet students’ needs since he attended.
“This is a continuous failure to actually address systemic issues that students of color, immigrant students, international students, first-generation students, and queer students experience at Texas Wesleyan University,” he said.
Student leaders hope their roundtable meeting will be the first step in addressing these issues with administrators and yield a timeline of actionable steps.
“We’re not expecting immediate action but, we do want a plan in place. And we want our students to know about (the plan) because the majority of the students here are people of color,” Hall said.