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Black students in Grinnell call for action against racist harassment

Black students at Grinnell College want better support after surge in racist harassment.

The Black Student Union (BSU) at Grinnell College is calling on campus and community officials to create a safer environment for Black students and faculty.

The call comes after a surge of racial harassment in the community. More than a dozen cars and some campus signs were vandalized with racial language and slurs earlier this month.

But, BSU co-spokesperson, Loyal Terry, said students of color have long felt fear in the rural area in eastern Iowa. Terry said the blatant racism has deteriorated his mental health, making it hard to focus on school. He said he fears for his and other students’ safety.

“You feel this almost pain in your chest and in your stomach every time it gets dark enough,” he said.

A car has "Racism 2024" written on its rear window.
Loyal Terry
Students' cars across campus were vandalized with racist language. Many of them included racial slurs.

The vandalism, on top of verbal assault, has led to an atmosphere toxic for students of color, Terry said. Many students were unable to focus on their midterm examinations, which coincided with some of the targeted attacks.

Terry and BSU vice spokesperson Evelynn Coffie agreed that Black students should have been given time off to address their trauma. This has led to BSU members raising mutual aid funds to help Black students find the necessary resources to feel safe.

“We haven’t met our goal,” Coffie said. “But, once we do…we can support ourselves as Black students and not rely on anybody else. Because we've had to do that so much in the past. There's always been limitations there.”

The funds will be used to provide food, transportation and general welfare support for Black students suffering from trauma associated with the campus’ recent racist incidents.

Campus administration has respondedto student concerns with promises to implement more security measures and accountability measures.

College president Anne Harris said the school has installed more light fixtures and is planning on putting security cameras around campus for the first time. She said the college is also expanding its Neighborhood Watch to include a safe ride program that Black students can utilize.

Black students make up around 6 percent of the student population, according to Harris.

"Stop saying that this isn't Grinnell. This is Grinnell, until they show us it's not."
Loyal Terry, BSU co-spokesperson

Harris said the administration is also looking to outside partnerships with the city. She released ajoint statement with Grinnell Mayor Dan Agnew on Oct. 16, encouraging residents to take accountability and report racist behaviors.

“We want to do bystander intervention training. We want to get to the root causes for the behaviors so that we can intervene in them and stop those entirely,” Harris said.

Still, Terry said this response has come too late for students. He said students should not have to wait for physical threats to their safety to be cared for and they should not be expected to work so hard to get the college’s attention.

The BSU has put together its own demands for how to address Black student and staff safety, including an investment in Black counselors and required recovery days.

“We need Black, like full time social workers on campus that can speak to the trauma that we're experiencing,” Terry said. “We need to feel empowered.”

Harris said the administration is working with BSU to implement its ideas. She said they will collaborate to create a more concrete long-term plan that will invest in Black-centered spaces.

The BSU is also asking for accountability from the wider Grinnell community. For too long the lives of those who spout hate speech have been prioritized over Black lives, Terry said.

“Stop saying that this isn't Grinnell. This is Grinnell, until they show us it's not,” he said.

Coffie said she just wants the small town’s Black community to feel welcome. But, she said a lot of work has to be done to accomplish that.

“We are Black human beings. That's who we're always going to be. People should just treat us as such and respect us as such and not as anything else,” she said.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.