By Alana Penny
Last May, following the murders of Breonna Taylor Ahmaud Arbery and Gorge Floyd, the SUNY Plattsburgh Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion held a solidarity night where they shared with community members their commitment to supporting Black students, faculty and staff and to holding community members accountable and engaging in conversations that educate and empower. Be About It Act Now, a virtual affinity space for students, faculty, staff and alumni, was created to fuel these anti-racist conversations.
The affinity space is separated into three groups: Black bodies, non-Black people of color and people of whiteness.
“To be able to have intentional conversations, it’s important to have these respective spaces so that folks don’t perpetuate or continue to do behaviors that could harm, traumatize or put marginalized groups in danger,” Jenny Vernet, staff assistant and program coordinator, said.
There have been four affinity space meetings so far. The most recent one took place last Wednesday with the intention of providing a space for participants to process the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in the back, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Vernet says the Black bodies space has allowed her to open about her experiences and hear from others who have similar ones, making her feel more connected to the community.
“This space has been incredibly affirming and incredibly supportive,” Vernet said. “Especially being a dark-skinned Black woman, there is so much messaging I myself have received from peers, adults, teachers, even my parents and family members. Some messages were positive but a lot of messages were negative, and that has shaped and things continues to shape how I perceive myself and people that look like me.”
Michelle Bonati, assistant professor of education and co-facilitator for the people of whiteness affinity group, said during their discussions they aim to create a space where they challenge ideas, not people.
“I want to encourage people to participate and if you feel like, ‘Oh I don’t know enough about this topic,’ we encourage you to join anyhow and start learning,” Bonati said. “It’s really there to provide this space for faculty, staff, students and alumni to challenge white supremacy and to be able to have conversations about race, which are very difficult things for people to do.”
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plans to continue providing these affinity spaces throughout the semester. They hope to hold them once a month.
“First and foremost our responsibility is to make sure that our students feel and are protected, feel safe, feel you belong,” Vernet said. “ “Being able to see this space being that support for students has been so wonderful.”