By Jonathan Meilaender
George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests that rocked America have left their mark even upon Saint Vincent. On June 3, SVC President Fr. Paul Taylor addressed the campus community in an email statement.
“Saint Vincent College condemns all forms of racism, bigotry, hatred, discrimination and violence, which are sins against God and against humanity. There is no place in our world for any of these,” Taylor wrote.
He pledged to work with “students, faculty, administrators, alumni, local community and especially the student leaders of our Uniting All People club” to create an ongoing conversation dedicated to a deeper “bond of peace” at Saint Vincent. To that end, the college offered a “Let’s Talk and Listen” forum via Zoom on June 9th, offering reflections from student leaders and discussion for students and faculty.
The email message came after several community members, including students Tyrique Anderson and Keila Lobos, had asked Fr. Paul to make a statement. Anderson and Lobos are members of the Uniting All People Club. We interviewed Anderson along with the club’s president, Kyle Watson, and vice-president, Kim Horn, to learn more about the club’s mission, the background to Fr. Paul’s statement, and its plans to encourage a more united Saint Vincent.
Jonathan Meilaender: When was the UAP club started?
Kyle Watson and Kim Horn: In Fall 2018, we changed the name from Visionaries of H.O.P.E. (Helping One People Evolve) to Uniting All People (U.A.P.).
JM: What is the defining purpose of the club? What sorts of activities have you engaged in to further that?
KW and KH: Our constitution states that our purpose is to expose our campus to different cultures using a variety of different outlets and to enhance a new diversity initiative on campus and throughout our community.
Activities that we have conducted include: “Let’s Talk About It,” where we gather to discuss a specific topic; Soul Food Dinner and Flag Day dinner, where we give students the opportunity to try dishes from different cultures in exchange for a meal swipe; and MLK Week--we work closely with the SVC Office of Multicultural Student Life to plan daily MLK themed events to be held in the Carey center and a dinner at the end of the week, at which we the members are a few of the speakers.
We show movies with cultural significance such as The Hate You Give and Selma.
[And we] work with the Cafeteria to incorporate different cultures’ dishes into the meal rotation, for example, plantains.
JM: Today, one of the biggest fault lines in America is not ethnic but political. Does that divide complicate UAP's mission? Do you need to speak differently to right and left-leaning students to encourage them to look beyond their ideological differences and discuss issues like policing and racism in a constructive way?
KW and KH: We don’t discuss politics because we’re so education focused. We try to give information in a way that does not favor either political view. The goal is to share information and find a common ground for discussion.
JM: How did you feel about Fr. Paul's statement?
KW and KH: We support Fr. Paul's statement. The message sets a good example for our community to follow and supports any unsure members in this stressful situation that we do indeed have a home at Saint Vincent.
Tyrique Anderson: Fr. Paul's statement is a great show of what Saint Vincent stands for. SVC has many students of color that contribute to the campus community as a whole, and making this statement is revolutionary. It means a lot to hear and see this statement from a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). . . It is a great show of solidarity, but also the supplies a biblical viewpoint.
JM: What does Saint Vincent need to work on to promote harmony and unity among different groups?
KW and KH: The school should work on diversifying faculty/staff members as well as student leaders and work study positions, so there will be people who have lived through experiences and may have a closer connection to the minority students on campus. There is also a lack of intermingling between racial groups. We view this as not something the school can “fix”, but more of a personal choice of the students. We as a club are working to encourage mingling with our various events to promote understanding between these groups.
TA: One thing I think that Saint Vincent can do is work better at inclusion. As I reflect over my three years of classes at SVC, I can think of less than 5 instances where I learned about a contribution made by a person who look like me. This is saddening because I know blacks and people of color have made numerous contributions to all disciplines.
JM: Do you think SVC has a problem with diversity or even racism? Is this a case of, "SVC has a problem that we can fix," or more, "We're doing OK, but we can always do more to promote understanding"? For reference, my understanding is that SVC today has a student body that's about 12% black, which is four times the proportion in Westmoreland County. I can't find recent figures, but SVC seems to be substantially more multicultural than Seton Hill.
KW and KH: We see Saint Vincent has made an effort to diversify our campus as we are more diverse than Seton Hill and Westmoreland County. However, we see this is an issue that still needs to be addressed. 12% of the student population is still too low to call ourselves diverse. Given the high number of locals in the student population and the low percent of persons of color (POC) in the local population, we recognize this is a slight challenge for the school. We believe Saint Vincent can overcome this obstacle by recruiting more from schools with qualified POC.
TA: As SVC, we are doing OK. But we need to do more! Racism and diversity is definitely a thing SVC struggles with. As we are one big community, we should always promote understanding. We also need call out the issues we see within our own college.
JM: How do you think SVC's Benedictine heritage connects to your mission? Is it relevant to our national situation?
There are three Benedictine values that connect to our mission:
Hospitality—we want every person to feel welcome at SVC. We try to respond to different individuals' perspectives and needs to feel comfortable.
Community—we see this in our mission as we work to be a whole community despite differences. This requires work from each individual to understand and respect each other.
Humility—We view this as a part of our mission to expand our individual views to accept other perspectives and experiences besides our own. This requires an open-mindedness associated with Benedictine humility.
JM: Do you have any extra thoughts? Personal experiences, what drove you to help lead/work with this club, what you hope to see in the future, your thoughts on George Floyd and the protests--whatever you like.
Kim Horn: I’m driven to work with this club because I can see the difference we make. They aren’t always dramatic changes, but the small ones added up. I love seeing people exchange experiences and how they have grown from them.
TA: On Floyd’s murder: At this point, people are bringing up Floyd's past and crimes he allegedly been a part of. However, he was not being arrested for any of these crimes in the past. He was arrested for a suspected fake $20 bill. How does this bill equal a knee on your neck? It does not! In these situations, especially those involving black men and women- people try to dehumanize the person. They try to ask: what did they do to deserve this? This is the wrong thing to question. There is nothing that justifies a knee on someone's neck. Humanity is not without fault and you can dehumanize just about everyone. What if we choose to look at Floyd and other's humanity? Talk about the fear and sadness he must had felt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. What about that Floyd used to carry a pool into the projects every Sunday, to baptize people?
On the riots/protests: Protests are a beautiful way to exercise one's freedom of speech. The point of protest and riots are to make people angry enough that something changes. We would not be where we are without protest and even riots. The protest and riots of the Civil Rights Movement made people recognize that racism and segregation were huge issues.
Personally, I do not condone violence and think that it should be the last move. However, I do not believe in the notion that nonviolence is always the way; imagine if we took this approach in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WW1, WW2, etc. In relating this to today, rioting and looting can be disturbing to watch. To see businesses burn can be hurtful and sometimes frustrating. Though I do not like riots, I understand why they are happening. Maybe we all should take a stance of understanding. If you disagree with riots or even protest- and it upsets you, it should not be louder than the injustices facing Black Lives and people of color in America. Someone rioting and looting should not make more upset and vocal, than the loss of life and injustice facing people of color.