UW student Deshawn McKinney at a public roundtable on Ferguson, UW Madison December 17, 2014, by Bryce Richter.
Ajanae Dawkins says she is nervous to return to school this fall after a year abroad. A senior studying communication arts and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dawkins watched online as reports of racially charged incidents emerged from her campus last spring.
In March 2016, a student pushed and spat on three students of color in the hallway of their dormitory. That same month a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a noose with a racial slur appeared on a campus bathroom wall. The following month, police entered a classroom to arrest a black student accused of spray-painting anti-racism messages on campus buildings, in a heavy-handed move that later prompted an apology by the university administration.
Students at UW-Madison—where African Americans make up less that 3 percent of the undergraduate student body—created the Twitter handle #TheRealUW to share their experiences with bias on campus. Dawkins and her fellow scholars in the First Wave Learning Community have found another way to push back.
First Wave is the nation’s only university-sponsored hip-hop and urban arts scholarship program. The program, which accepts between fourteen and sixteen students each fall, offers four-year full tuition scholarships to poets, writers, dancers, and rappers from across the country. Program participants are expected to produce and showcase their art throughout the school year and are granted access to a wide range of resources to help them do so.
First Wave scholars have taken part in several nationwide poetry slams, including Brave New Voices. In 2014, four female First Wave scholars performed a piece on race and gender at the slam’s opening ceremony. Every summer, a handful of scholars perform for the incoming freshmen at UW-Madison.
“First Wave is lit,” Dawkins laughs. “It provides the platform for us to have these conversations about race, sexism, and all of these different things. I feel very supported in my ability to talk about these topics in my art.”
Most First Wave scholars are active in student organizations and external social movements. For many, the recent racist incidents on campus came as no surprise. Deshawn McKinney, a senior First Wave scholar studying creative writing, puts it this way:
“I am always skeptical when people color situations like these as ‘spikes’ [in racial bias]. I don’t really believe there was a spike—rather, just more attention brought to it by students of color.”
Miona Short, a senior First Wave scholar studying astrophysics and Spanish, agrees.
“Anyone who is paying attention should know that racism, both blatant and subtle, is a significant part of UW culture. Incidents of racism can also include the way students of color are marginalized in classrooms by instructors or by other students.”
The frustrations felt by students at UW-Madison are shared by university students across the country. Last November, student protesters at the University of Missouri orchestrated mass demonstrations to protest rising racial tensions, which culminated in the resignation of the university’s president. Student groups at dozens of U.S. universities have compiled a list of demands, aimed at ending “systemic and structural racism on campus.”
This student activism comes in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked a nationwide discussion on race relations in the United States. The movement is a response to what its website calls “the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
This is something First Wave scholars know all too well. Short says of her mental state following the racist incidents on campus:
“I spent most weeks thinking about dropping out. It was very clear that I did not belong here. I cried so much [that] semester. But I kept telling myself that most hells are only temporary.”
Several First Wave scholars say other students have made them feel unwelcome at UW-Madison, sometimes by suggesting they were admitted to the university solely because of their race, not their academic achievements.
“A lot of people, for whatever reason, think First Wavers don’t do well in school, which is absolutely not true,” says Dawkins.
Willie Ney, executive director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives and one of the creators of First Wave, says the program, which is supported through a combination of state funds and private donations, recruits some of the brightest students from all over the country by offering a unique urban arts scholarship.
Initially, when the program was launched in 2007, the university made funding for the scholarships contingent on the academic success of the first group of students. Says Ney, “There was a lot of pressure on those first two or three cohorts [of students], because they had to prove that they were scholars first.”
Ney credits Darrell Bazzell, UW-Madison’s former vice chancellor of finance and administration, for helping get First Wave off the ground. When Ney approached Bazzell with the idea for an urban arts scholarship in 2004, he responded by packing his office with teachers and poets to help turn the concept into reality.
Ney cites Bazzell’s stewardship as one reason other universities have not replicated First Wave.
“You have to have a visionary at the top, top level like we had,” Ney says. “Universities are so hierarchical. People at the top just don’t often have that connectivity to urban arts and hip-hop culture . . . . There’s always a lot of challenges, but the model works.”
This summer, Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other top UW-Madison administrators began cultural competency training in response to students’ demand for greater racial sensitivity. But scholars in the First Wave Learning Community have other suggestions on how to improve the current climate.
McKinney, a recent recipient of the prestigious Truman scholarship, argues that many of the university’s racial issues can be addressed by investing in more a diverse staff, proper resourcing of underserved communities, and the development of a shared governance model between students and administration. “A better system of evaluation also needs to be implemented,” he adds, one which allows more people to “chime in and really shape how we move forward.”
Several students want the university to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against hate speech on campus. “I think having a zero-tolerance policy would make a world of difference,” says Dawkins. “Right now, I don’t think anyone is afraid to do anything.”
But many UW-Madison administrators balk at speech codes and other restrictions on students’ First Amendment rights.
“If we kicked out every person for microaggressions, we wouldn’t have students, we wouldn’t have faculty and we definitely wouldn’t have staff,” says Joshua Moon Johnson, special assistant to the dean of student life and new director of the Multicultural Student Center. “Legally, there’s no way we can impose a zero-tolerance policy. That’s just impossible.”
First Wave students are using art to foster a dialogue on discrimination, marginalization, and white supremacy. Dawkins says,
“[Art] can be cathartic for people, both for the creators and those consuming the art. It can give people a voice or a way to understand things in a way they couldn’t before.”
Dawkins’s poetry often deals with being black in American society. One poem, “On Classrooms Haunted By Ghosts,” was prompted by an encounter she had with another student in a history class on reproduction and contraception in America. The professor was discussing how slaves would chew on cotton root as a form of birth control when a white student raised her hand and asked why, if they were concerned for the safety of their children, slaves didn’t simply abstain from sex? Dawkins channeled her response and feeling of alienation into poetry:
“I’m sitting in this class with my black body full of holes. An empty womb. I’m in this class and my body is so much history: the woman from the field, in the hut, so much the man, too, and I’m damn near crying at this point wondering, what do we got to abstain from?”
McKinney says the recent racial incidents on campus reaffirm his work as an artist and as an activist. Art is different from language because it changes the way people communicate, he says. “That’s why it brings a different kind of power and understanding to the conversation.”
Haloren Mellendorf was an editorial intern at The Progressive and is a student at UW-Madison.