Johnson: Black House controversy illustrates importance of transparency

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Johnson: Black House controversy illustrates importance of transparency

Naomi Johnson, Columnist

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It was a convenient arrangement.

On Aug. 21, I received a detailed email notifying me of structural changes coming to the Black House. Campus Inclusion and Community, with administrative support, had decided to relocate the majority of its offices from Scott Hall to the Black House. The relocation of staff offices into the Black House meant that there would be reduced space for student organizations, including For Members Only, One Step Before and several other cultural and ethnic student groups on campus. What was striking about this email, however, was the lack of detail on how CIC made this decision.

The word that drew my interest was “intersectionality,” which the email listed this as one of the primary benefits of the move. What exactly did the administration mean by intersectionality among student groups? Did they understand the word in the same way that students do? Is there any research that proximity in office spaces promotes intersectionality, whatever that may mean? If there is no research, then are there examples at comparable universities where similar arrangements promoted these interactions?

Lacking answers to these questions, I became skeptical about the primary reasons for relocating and expanding offices into the Black House. The benefit for student organizations sounded like promotional rhetoric and nothing more. It sounded like black students’ needs were tangential to the convenience of consolidating student groups into a space that alumni and students have fought to preserve. It sounded like anyone with a vague agenda of “intersectionality” could revoke these spaces over the summer to promptly accommodate for the CIC’s expanding offices. It was all very, very convenient.

Unsurprisingly, there was significant opposition from students, alumni and other members of the Northwestern community, which prompted the University to postpone the proposed structural changes to the Black House. In a letter to the community, Patricia Telles-Irvin, the vice president of student affairs, announced she would appoint a Black House Facilities Review Committee and schedule several meetings throughout Fall Quarter to gather feedback about the African-American student experience. I hope these types of events events meant to gather input from the students whom these changes would affect the most become more common on campus. And I especially hope this sets a precedent that these types of dialogues start before administrators move forward with major structural changes to student spaces.

As a Korean American, I cannot speak for the African-American student experience. I do, however, know what it feels like to be rendered invisible in decisions that directly affect me. I have a great deal of faith in our leadership, both at CIC and at Northwestern in general, and I would like to believe that the collective voices from students, alumni and faculty will convince the administration to reconsider the proposed changes to the Black House.

The word “intersectionality” cannot signify anything meaningful unless there is greater transparency when the administration makes decisions about student organizations’ spaces. Of course, I am aware that administrators must work with logistical and budgeting constraints. But moving forward with structural changes in the Black House without consulting the students who use these spaces sends a message that budgeting is more important than the black student experience. It sends a message that the convenience of timing is more important than transparency and dialogue.

And these messages come at a much higher cost than the conveniences they afford.

Naomi Johnson is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at naomijohnson2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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