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Coe College students protest for expanded diversity, equity, inclusion efforts

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Kate Payne / IPR
Coe College senior Harold Waleha helped organize a campus protest on Thursday, calling for expanded diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Hundreds of students marched and rallied at Coe College in Cedar Rapids Thursday to protest what they see as a lack of action on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Already the students are achieving change; the same day they chanted and marched their way across campus, the school’s president announced he would meet one of their demands: identifying a senior staffer to lead DEI initiatives.

Bitterly cold winds and the looming deadlines of end of semester projects and papers didn’t stop hundreds of Coe students, faculty and staff from gathering in front of the Stewart Memorial Library Thursday afternoon to raise their voices in protest.

“We criticize Coe and its leadership because we love Coe. We love this institution. We want it to be better,” philosophy professor Anthony Kelley said to a cheering crowd. “Think of today as the dawn of a new day. The beginning of a new chapter in our history, in which we commit to enriching our community by insisting that our voices are heard.”

Kate Payne / IPR
Coe students Leilani Rocha and Kennedy Frias were among hundreds of students who rallied and marched across the campus Thursday.

Carrying signs that read “minority voices matter” and “resistance is justified when equality is denied," members of the group said they envision a more inclusive Coe, where people of color don’t feel compelled to subsume themselves in the culture of the predominantly white institution.

“To fix structural issues we need structural reform. That is necessary. That is why we are here today. Our demands will result in accountability and representation. Again that is necessary and that is why we are here today,” said student and protest organizer Angel Ramirez.

The group was galvanized by the resignation of a Black trustee who served on the board for four decades and had criticized the school’s recent presidential search process as lacking diversity. Daryl Banks submitted his resignation to the Board of Trustees after voicing his disappointment in the process, which led to the selection of Coe business administration and economics professor David Hayes as the school’s next president.

Banks also said that after relaying his concerns, another trustee accused him of lying, which he said was an “assault on my character." A second trustee also resigned in solidarity.

Protestors voiced their support for Banks and called for broader reforms to the board, specifically to ensure it better reflects the demographics of the campus.

Kate Payne / IPR
The protestors were galvanized by the resignation of a trustee who had criticized the school's recent presidential search process as lacking diversity.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Kelley told the crowd. “We’re sick and tired of a Board of Trustees composed of mostly wealthy white men who do not reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of our broader campus community. We’re sick and tired of feeling unwelcome.”

Students also shared their personal struggles to build community on campus and to overcome feelings of isolation that drove some to consider dropping out entirely.

As a Latina first-generation college student from Chicago, Nallely Sanchez said she has broken “every single boundary and barrier in the books," including “racism in the classroom” at Coe.

“I was that statistic that did not want to come back my freshman year. That winter break, devastated that I did not want to come back to Coe College, the white predominant school in Iowa,” Sanchez said.

But with the help and mentorship of other people of color on campus, Sanchez stayed, going on to become a member of the Student Senate. But too often, she says, faculty and staff of color who take on mentorship roles for students aren’t compensated for that work, which she says is critical.

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Kate Payne / IPR
In addition to their concerns about the Board of Trustees, students of color also shared personal stories about struggling to build community and maintain their sense of self at the predominantly white school.

The protestors marched across the school’s campus to gather in front of the Clark Alumni House and McCabe Hall, which houses the president’s office. President Hayes came outside to listen to the protestors for a time. Earlier in the day he had issued a statement announcing his plans to appoint a staffer to lead DEI initiatives, and efforts to fundraise for the position.

“Our college values the voices of our community, and we support the right to peacefully urge more discussion and action about priority issues. Together, we share a love for Coe College and the goal of advancing DEI indicatives – a common ground in which we hear all viewpoints as we further develop and execute our DEI plans,” Hayes said in a written statement.

Student and protest organizer Harold Walehwa says the group’s work builds on efforts by Black students who protested for better treatment of people of color on the campus in the 1960s.

“Today we shall make history for also having our collective voices heard for a better Coe College,” Walehwa said. “We hope that the Board of Trustees can meet President Hayes and the rest of Coe in our dedication and commitment to meaningful diversity, equity and inclusivity work.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter