Sometimes, ideas just don’t go as planned. And when those ideas center on sensitive subjects like discrimination and diversity, the effects can be magnified.
Back in November 2017, a slew of controversial posters reading, “It’s OK to be White” appeared on the campuses of Concordia, MSUM and several other universities nationwide. In response, they were taken down for not meeting university poster policies. A few weeks later, MSUM student leaders convened to decide what should be done about the incident.
“We first found out about the ‘It’s OK to be White’ posters just after Thanksgiving,” Stephen Larson, the campus organizing intern for Students United, said. “The Office of Diversity and Inclusion held kind of a round table discussion/open forum for students which had representatives from the Student Senate and me there representing Students United. And that’s where we came up with the plan for the campaign.”
The campaign was a series of posters designed to look like the original “It’s OK to be White” posters. However, instead of white, the posters included a variety of different minority group names, such as Asian, Native and trans.
Originally, the posters were printed and posted by MSUM’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, but they were taken down shortly afterwards for not meeting Public Safety’s poster policy.
In an official email to the student body, Chief Diversity Officer Donna Brown wrote, “You should know that MSUM has policies covering the distribution of information on campus including bulletin boards. The policies are content neutral, meaning the rules apply equally across all political and social spectrums.”
To solve this, Students United decided to sponsor the campaign and again printed and hung up the posters.
“Students United, the association representing students on all Minnesota State campuses, sought to send a positive message and offer public support to students from diverse backgrounds,” Brown wrote.
For a while, that’s what happened. Then the criticisms started coming in.
“(Students who emailed) were not OK with the response posters being put up around campus,” Larson said. “The common complaint was that by saying ‘It’s OK to be these certain things,’ we were actually closing our campus off and saying, ‘If you’re not one of these, that’s not OK.’ Which was about as far from our goal as you could possibly get.”
Brown, Students United members and Executive Director for Communications and Marketing David Wahlberg met to plan a reply to the students.
“We came up with a response to send individually to each student who emailed us basically describing the background behind it and why we chose to do (the campaign),” Larson said.
They also debated specific requests to put up new posters with a wider variety of phrases, including “It’s OK to be Christian.”
“We did have one person ask that we put up an ‘It’s OK to be Christian’ poster because they feel that Christians are a minority group on campus,” Larson said. “We did discuss that as an option, but we decided not to, because while they may be a minority group on campus, we chose the groups we did because they have been traditionally discriminated against.”
While there was vocal criticism of the campaign, Larson said Students United still considered the campaign a success.
“Even though we’re getting complaints about it, we’re sparking a dialogue, which is good,” Larson said. “It’s an important dialogue to have, and I know we’ll be talking about it long after I’m gone, long after my committee’s moved on.”
He also expressed gratitude that Student Senate had supported the campaign and the responses to it.
“Kaleen Krueger has been involved every step of the way. She was actually one of the first people to let me know we were getting complaints about it,” Larson said. “It was nice to know that if I had needed help, she was behind me and I had the whole Student Senate behind me also.”
Student Senate also released a statement at the start of the new semester about the “It’s OK to be” posters and the Student Senate #MSUM4All campaign from last year.
“As many of you may remember, we had some issues with proper and appropriate signing policies here on campus last semester,” Krueger stated. “This includes the “It’s ok to be white” (sic) posters and the vandalism of a number of posters that celebrate diversity, including Student Senate’s own #MSUM4All campaign posters that were created last year.”
Student Senate has since printed more of the #MSUM4All posters, but almost all of the Students United posters have been taken down since the start of spring semester.
“I would like to see them kept up as long as they can because the longer they’re up, I feel the longer we’ll have the dialogue,” Larson said. “But obviously, it’s not fully up to me. It’s partly up to the university to decide when they’re no longer timely and relevant.”