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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

Message, Size of Campus Group Working to Improve Cultural Competence Expanding

Jeff Gilmore
City of Springfield

One of the organizers of a silent protest during homecoming festivities at Missouri State University says he’s pleased with local efforts to expand the dialogue on race, but that there’s still a ways to go.

Jakal Burrell-El is a member of Blackout, the group which staged a silent protest in October, a few weeks after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Burrell-El says the protest wasn’t just in response to Brown’s death, but an attempt to express how minorities are treated on campus. Now, the group hopes to work with the university to establish change.

“So we can move forward getting a more diverse campus and not, not just diverse but a campus that’s culturally competent. There are some things that are just not understood between cultures, but we want to help bridge that gap as best as we can,” Burrell-El said.

The protest, which was reportedly met with some negativity, sparked a “Speak-Up” event two weeks later, where students voiced concerns over cultural challenges on campus.

Burrell-El says there’s been no formal discussion amongst group members or demonstrations planned since the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown. Personally, Burrell-El says he’s disappointed in the outcome, adding that a trial appeared warranted given all the conflicting information on both sides.   

Blackout, as the group is currently known, has more than doubled in members to roughly 75 since the original protest in October. About 60 percent are African American students, according to Burrell-El. He says the hope is to transition the group into a student coalition that focuses on various social issues.

“Whether it be in the African American community, the Latin community, the LGBT community. So right now we’re trying to form a coalition that can kind of work towards these things.”

Burrell-El suggests cultural competency classes amongst student leaders, and more events on the topic that are facilitated by student organizations.

“We really encourage that student involvement because they know better what they would like to hear and what they would like to see,” said Pratt.

Francine Pratt is the executive director of MSU’s Multicultural Resource Center. Since August, the center has been conducting various sessions about the climate of equity on campus. She encourages groups like Blackout that are wanting to spark change to outline their plans, and then use a “smart goal-type technique” to ensure the idea is sustainable, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely.

“And to put a rough cost with it so they can give that to us by February so that we can look at it for budget considerations for the next year. Because that’s what’s key in making sure that we can secure funding, whether it’s on campus or externally, to help some of the initiatives that they would like to see and have.”

Pratt says international students and students of color make up about 2,000 of the school’s enrollment, which is more than 22,300.

For some African American students like Burrell-El, those figures make for a hard adjustment; so much so that at times he’s felt he didn’t belong here. A native of St. Louis, Burrell-El says he attended a high school where more than 98 percent of his peers were black. Burrell-El notes that he’s become well versed in black history, an interest his mother helped instill in him as a child. It’s that type of awareness he’s now hoping to instill in others.

“Right now we’re just looking for something that can be sustaining for the future. Not only for this group of Missouri State students, but the next group, so that we can come here for homecoming five years from now and the environment and mood is totally different,” said Burrell-El.

Both Burrell-El and Pratt say they look forward to the release sometime next year of a climate survey administered by Missouri State, which aims to gauge diversity and inclusion efforts both on campus and in the community.

For Pratt, the data may provide actionable steps and initiatives where the school is not strong or not perceived to be strong.

“Because even though we may think we’re doing something well, if the students and the community and the faculty and staff don’t think that then there’s opportunities for improvement,” she says.

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