Almost two months ago, Student Advocates for Institutional Change (SAIC) approached me for support on a storytelling campaign at the University of Denver (DU). SAIC, a student organization dedicated to greater inclusiveness efforts on campus, wanted to host an event that fostered progressive dialogue through the stories of students and faculty.

I was completely on board. I offered to create a promotional documentary for the event to highlight many of the unheard voices on campus. We were able to create the following video:

The response to the interviews was overwhelming, and the event SAIC hosted on campus in collaboration with Project Ava featured great dialogue (more here). Numerous DU Departments shared the video, the Undergraduate Student Government distributed it to all students, and I was particularly surprised by the relationship SAIC had developed with the Chancellor’s Office to bring the issues of racism, diversity, and inclusiveness to the forefront of campus. Years ago, when I was still a student at DU, none of this would have been possible.

Nonetheless, this process also reminded me of why these campus-wide efforts for inclusiveness had me torn when I was still a student. Yes, they are vital and I am certainly glad that DU is aware of the prejudice on its campus, but if it weren’t for the small pockets of support that I found, such as the Center for Multicultural Excellence, I would have left school. And this is just a small sample of why…

No matter how many support systems the University of Denver has created for students of marginalized identities, the school has still effectively done nothing to solve the biggest reason for why those support systems are needed in the first place: its ignorant student body.

I grew-up as a person of color in Colorado Springs, the whitest, most Evangelical-Christian town in Colorado. This is the place where Focus on the Family happily sues libraries for carrying Harry Potter, and yet, I have never been more disappointed in my peers than at the University of Denver. I distinctly remember one particular economics class during senior year. The professor was discussing state welfare.

A student interrupted and said, “I believe food stamps are just a way for lazy people to continue being lazy.

Another student agreed, “Yes. We’re doing no favor to certain people, like a lot of these black folks, if the government is supporting their current lifestyles.

Never mind that the professor was black. Never mind that food stamps and other welfare programs help millions of Americans struggle through economic hardships created by the natural implications of capitalism. Never mind that my parents lived on food stamps while my father earned his degree to support his family.

No, my peers were too privileged and ignorant to understand the racist undertones of their beliefs, and at this point, that’s not even what upsets me the most. I’m upset that the University uses “Inclusive Excellence” as a marketing ploy to attract underrepresented students while hiding the hardships of being a part of its student body. This is not an issue unique to DU, and in many ways, DU is ahead of most private universities by considering mandatory diversity classes for its students, but it doesn’t change today.

Today, stories from those underrepresented are vital to sparking progressive dialogue. The students I interviewed before were brave enough to speak up and share their voices in a sea of hostility. They wanted more of their stories to be shared, and I would like for everyone to learn more about them:

Brendan


Sierra


Amina


Matt


Tashan


Kyla


Ciera


Makia

Written by Joseph Zhang

Joseph is the co-founder and Board President of Project Ava. He believes a well-told story can foster understanding, promote awareness, and inspire people to action. He has a love for writing and film making, both of which has led him to various parts of the world in search of meaningful stories.

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