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Western Oregon University to fund center for students of color

A proposed layout of the Freedom Center, a space for students of color at WOU.
Ruben Ramirez
A proposed layout of the Freedom Center, a space for students of color at WOU.

Students of color at Western Oregon University will soon have a space on campus to call their own.

About $400,000 in funding from the federal CARES Act and anticipated endowment earnings will go toward the “Freedom Center” — a planned space at the Monmouth-based university focused on supporting Black, Indigenous and other students of color — as well as toward creation of a diversity and inclusion office at the school.

Those two ideas were chosen by WOU’s DEI Task Force, a group established by university president Rex Fuller to review budget proposals related to diversity and equity initiatives.

“I’m pleased that the committee did its work and was able to identify ways in which we could make significant steps forward,” Fuller said at a board meeting Wednesday. “These two initiatives I think will help accelerate our work around diversity, inclusion and access.”

Western’s vice president of finance and administration, Ana Karaman, said that the one-time funds from the CARES Act and endowment earnings would start the initiatives, but the university expects to build funding for them into its budget moving forward.

Students of color make up about one-third of Western’s enrollment.

Before that task force was formed, students had been working for months on a proposal about the Freedom Center.

“WOU is currently one of the only public universities to not have a designated space for students of color,” Western’s student government, the Associated Students of WOU, stated in its written report for the Wednesday meeting.

With the board vote, WOU joins the state’s larger public universities — Portland State and Oregon State universities and University of Oregon — in designing spaces or services specifically to support students of color.

The Freedom Center will be supervised by a board made up of students of color, a faculty and a staff member, as well as a community member, to help in its planning, which will begin July 1.

WOU student Makana Waikiki is one of the co-chairs of the Freedom Center Board. She said the board will be hiring an architect to look over a few spaces on campus to decide where the center should reside.

Waikiki’s position on the board, as well as the other student board positions, will be paid, which she said is an important part of what the center wants to do.

“There are so many spaces for students on campus who are white to get jobs and be involved in leadership,” Waikiki said. She said it is important for her to be able to provide opportunities for students of color who feel less apt to be involved in other spaces on campus.

Waikiki said the board will focus on identifying a center space and working on the budget in the upcoming school year.

“It’s fantastic to see how we can make a difference when we come together and create a voice. The Freedom Center is a project created by BIPOC students for BIPOC students,” Arlette Tapia, the Freedom Center Board’s other co-chair, told OPB. “It is fundamental that BIPOC students are prioritized in this space and that they feel safe sharing their identities.”

WOU is aiming to become a “Hispanic Serving Institution,” an institution with more than 25% full-time students who identify as Hispanic or Latino. As of last November, Hispanic or Latino students made up 19.6% of the total student population at WOU.

“I don’t think you can call yourself a Hispanic Serving Institution without that center, or more support,” the WOU student government Senate president at the time, Liz Marquez, said back in April, when the Freedom Center was beginning to be widely discussed by students and presented to the Board of Trustees.

As envisioned, the center will provide space for multicultural clubs to meet and for students to study. Waikiki said supporters hope that the center will eventually have its own director and staff who can help students of color access various resources and counseling.

“We believe that this place will aid BIPOC students in their pursuit of higher education achievement by allowing them to take advantage of the Freedom Center’s resources,” Tapia said. “In addition, students would have access to space where they could express their concerns and arrange activities related to key issues affecting the BIPOC community. We want the Freedom Center to be a place where people feel at ease and welcome.”

Tapia said many students of color have transferred or left WOU in recent years “because they felt they didn’t belong or didn’t have the tools they needed to succeed,” but she said she believes the Freedom Center will help encourage BIPOC students to stay.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell