After a tumultuous 18 months of combatting racism on both her campus and the community that surrounds it, Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn is doing all she can to ensure that her students feel safe no matter where they are in Turlock – and the effort began sooner than many may think.
Cries of racism most recently began in Turlock in October 2016 – just three months after Junn took office – when Stanislaus State student Nathan Damigo began to propagate white-supremacist messages via posters on campus. From there, Damigo went on to help organize dangerous rallies in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and Berkeley, which had ties to white supremacy.
More posters have since popped up around campus in recent months, as well as alt-right stickers around town, and students are looking to Junn to solve the problem, staging protests, making office visits and imploring campus administration to make Stanislaus State a safe place.
While some protests, like one staged during Junn’s Fall Convocation, have been disruptive for the President, she applauds students who have “found their voice.” While she can’t meet all of their demands – like expelling Damigo – she can work to make the campus a more welcoming, inclusive place that rejects any notion of racism, she said.
The ongoing effort to celebrate Stanislaus State’s diverse population of students, faculty, staff and administration began the day she first stepped foot into her office, and her previous experience prepared her for the melting pot of a campus.
“One of the things that was important to me right away was to make sure that students have access to support, no matter their background or ethnicity. I started with a basic, fundamental structure for trying to infuse and integrate inclusivity before any of this stuff ever happened,” Junn said.
Junn’s philosophy of helping non-traditional and minority students succeed was a mainstay when she worked at San Jose State, where she established both the African American and Hispanic student task forces to better serve and increase graduation rates among students of color.
At Stanislaus State, Junn has established the Diversity Center, a space dedicated to unity, diversity, peace, multiculturalism and inclusion, and installed a Peace Pole, which symbolizes the university’s commitment to diversity.
She also created the school’s first President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, which is developing a three- to five-year plan that aims to develop activities, education, communication, feedback and ongoing involvement with the campus, all promoting issues of diversity to foster a safe campus climate.
The PCDI will also give out $50,000 per year in grants to fund research and other diversity initiatives.
“We’re constantly going to improve,” Junn said. “It’s not just a bunch of nice words and a plan on a website somewhere, but we’re going to live it.”
As part of her outreach efforts with Stanislaus State students, Junn found many students coming to her requesting that the university do more to display its diversity outwardly, she said.
“When I meet with other student groups, they’ve said that they feel this is a beautiful campus, physically, but if other groups that are maybe hate groups come to campus they don’t feel like there’s anything on campus that celebrates our diversity,” Junn said. “Other campuses have paintings of different people in history, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez and we don’t have those kinds of iconic representations of different groups.”
To fix that problem, a campus-wide competition was held in search of a slogan that represented the school’s commitment to inclusivity, and the art department is working to create works that can be displayed around campus.
“We stand together for unity & inclusion” was selected as the winning slogan (with the “stan” in stand in bold, of course) and will be placed on banners, along with student quotes stating what unity and inclusion means to them. The banners will be placed around campus and, soon, around the city.
A partnership promoting inclusivity between Stanislaus State and the City of Turlock was recently reborn, as Junn has discovered the inclusivity of a campus can only reflect that of the city around it.
“The great news is no matter who the mayor is, having a strong partnership with the town is so critical because the students and our employees live right here. So, we need to work hand in hand with the city,” Junn said. “I was happy to hear the partnership had started even before I arrived.”
Turlock first held a Leadership Summit on Inclusivity in 2016, and after the City Council passed an anti-hate resolution in September, Mayor Gary Soiseth used his own stipend to bring the event back when residents requested more action in response to the stickers found around town.
At the second Leadership Summit on Inclusivity, held in February, City, university, faith-based and school district leaders all came together to discuss what further action Turlock can take to help make its citizens feel welcome. One idea that came as a part of the summit was a mayoral diversity and inclusion task force, which will meet regularly to discuss funding and execution of different activities and events which promote diversity.
The second, much to Junn’s delight, was the City’s interest in expanding Stanislaus State’s banner campaign into the city, in areas like shopping centers, so that the message of inclusivity is seen by all.
“We’re building a partnership not just on the campus but in the city and that’s pretty rare,” Junn said.
Through all of the social turmoil that has taken place in Turlock since she arrived, which has also included the fears of DREAMers on Stanislaus State’s campus being deported, much good has come from the protests and uncertainty, she said.
“I don’t want to dampen that enthusiasm, but I want students to understand that we will work together, as we are, on the same page as far as trying to create an environment of support and inclusion,” Junn said. “We have a dual mission to really have social justice and support for everybody.”
While the banners aren’t up yet, they will be soon, Junn said, and she hopes they portray a message for anyone wishing to tape a white supremacist poster on a light pole or slap an alt-right sticker onto a stop sign.
“It shows the city is not going to support anything that is a hate-driven, exclusionary kind of belief system,” Junn said. “I want students to feel safe here…hate groups can come on campus, but we can have visual markers saying we don’t support your anti-inclusionary beliefs.”