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Dylyn Turner-Keener, Ashlee Davis and Jessica Hairston create a plan for Black wellness at Mills

When President Dylyn Turner-Keener and Vice-President Ashlee Davis ran for their positions in the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC), they wanted to represent Black students on campus and have the power to amplify their voices in a way that would create change. Through conversations with fellow student Jessica Hairston, a sophomore at Mills, the three students concluded that their interests aligned with creating resources, accountability systems and classroom protocols for the wellness of Black students at Mills.

The Black Wellness Proposal began when Turner-Keener, Davis and Hairston shared with each other their own experiences of being Black while attending Mills. From their experience, they identified possible solutions to gaps in general equities for Black students.

“And then from there, we kind of just brainstormed specific areas that we wanted to touch on,” Turner-Keener said. “We talked about academic support, name and define what racial trauma is, getting accommodations in place based off of racial trauma impacts, what those accommodations look like, and then creating more accepting class spaces for all identities, not just race-related, but also sexuality as well as gender orientation.”

The students created a draft of protocols for professors to use as a guideline to foster a safe environment for Black students within classrooms. They also included an accountability system where professors would be provided with resources to help analyze their own personal racial biases. These steps would work towards the goal of the Black Wellness Proposal establishing policies that would fill the gaps in academic support for Black students at Mills. 

The proposal took over a month to make, with Turner-Keener, Davis and Hairston spending the first two weeks outlining the structure, protocols, resources and accountability systems and the next two weeks compiling research to back up their statements about how racial trauma impacts Black students. While balancing their academics, they dedicated 8-15 hours a week to creating the proposal, finalizing their ideas and responding to adjustments proposed by senior administrators.

The Black Wellness Proposal was first sent to President Elizabeth Hillman, Dean of Students Dr. Chicora Martin, former Provost Dr. Maggie Hunter and Vice President of Human Resources Kamala Green during the beginning of fall 2020. Initially, the students were applauded for their efforts and informed that the proposal would be shared with Mills departments. By midfall, the students received a response saying that senior administrators would draft an official response with an update.

Right before winter break of that year, the students received a response to the proposal asking them to provide more background information on racial trauma.

“The response was mainly just ‘Oh, we’ve never heard of this. We’ve never seen racial informed trauma. Can you guys give us some more background and some more detail?’ And then it was, ‘Oh, I think we need to make it for everybody. It needs to be universal, and everybody should be benefiting from this,'” Davis said.

It was important to the group that the Black Wellness Proposal highlights the experiences of Black students and provides needed support. Through several additional meetings with senior administrators, the students continued to advocate for the proposal to maintain its focus. In this process, the Black Wellness proposal received endorsements from around 80 members of the Mills community, including students, staff, faculty and alumnae.

In terms of implementing the proposal, the students have received updates mainly from Student Access & Support Services (SASS) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in how they are incorporating the guidelines into their practices. Turner-Keener has been contacted by other department heads who’ve said they agree with the proposal and asked how to implement the practices, but all three students have felt overwhelmed with the amount of work they’ve had to take on. They feel that they have done the work of creating a blueprint for incorporating practices for Black Wellness at Mills and would like to see more initiative in establishing policies. 

“Creating equity is also about intention,” Hairston said. “… I think as far as the conversation about visibility goes … it’s the school having the courage to just make a statement, like if it’s on syllabuses, or it’s wherever however they do it, like, we want Black students to feel like they have essentially a right to ask for support, however it looks, about racial boundaries … or how racial trauma is happening for them.”

Davis recalls a moment in her sociology class in Spring 2020, around the time of the murder of Breonna Taylor. 

“[My professor] just recognized Breonna Taylor’s name within the classroom, I had classmates start bawling and I was like, ‘Oh, nobody must have been talking about this all day. Like we haven’t had a conversation about any of this the whole day and then we get to like a seven o’clock/eight o’clock class and y’all in tears’,” she said. “This is the conversation that we’re all having because Mills always wants to push down people’s throats that we’re just so social justice focused and talking about the lives that were lost due to police brutality is a part of social justice. And I kind of just assumed that everybody was talking about it. So when we got to that point, it was just, it was mind-blowing.”

Mills College is based in East Oakland, a region with a long history of activism. For Turner-Keener, Davis and Hairston, it’s important that the college makes efforts to live up to that history; that was a part of what motivated them to create the Black Wellness Proposal. They felt they needed to take initiative to create a plan that would offer real support and further Mills’ commitment to Black students. 

“I think everybody has a way of being in a bubble when it comes to Mills. And Mills is within Oakland, like that just needs to get in everybody’s mindset, we’re within Oakland, and Oakland is comprised of African American, mostly minorities, and mostly by BIPOC. And with that, there are certain things that we just expect to be happening within this campus, and it’s not,” Davis said.

The Black Wellness Proposal was widely spread by Turner-Keener, Davis and Hairston through emailing departments and faculty. There were times where the students had to correct the credits when the project was being shared among the Mills community, as they were not being recognized for their efforts as individuals but instead grouped together with the Black Students’ Collective (BSC) and other Black-centered organizations. The students want to combat the history of tokenization of students of color at Mills when using photos of students for admissions and marketing purposes and taking credit for the social justice work led by them.

Turner-Keener, Davis and Hairston hope for increased engagement with the proposal where they can hear from professors and learn what will be implemented in their classrooms.

“I personally would like if you are actually with it, to be honest about what you can and can’t do. And with that, draft that outline of what you can implement. And again, what you’re willing to do, what you’re wanting to work on because at this point, hearing, ‘Yes, we support’ but then no follow-through or action is wasting not just my time, but also other departments who have now invested their time and energy as well as resources into supporting and making sure and trying to ensure that this proposal gets enacted,” Turner-Keener said.

The students have been working with CAPS to make a statement for professors to include in their syllabi expressing their advocacy for Black students, their commitment to fostering a culturally accepting space, acknowledging microaggressions, and their willingness to be lenient with excused assignments and absences. They’ve also established a policy to support students through a “Letter of Consideration” around racial trauma from CAPS and SASS that would acknowledge how a student is being impacted and help them be excused in certain situations. This semester, the college has granted its first student a letter of consideration for racial trauma.

“I want to know that there’s something in stone that will be here, no matter what professor you have, what the climate of the world is, what [the] president of the school is, because that’s important,” Hairston said.