by Dr. Timothy Mottet
Our students have never shied away from activism or issues, but activism looks and feels different at CSU Pueblo. When I interviewed for the Presidency in early 2017, members of our community mentioned to me that activism is not something CSU Pueblo does; activism is what this campus is.
A large percentage of our students are from Pueblo; it’s their home. They have a deep concern about what’s going on in their communities, and our students’ activism is often linked to issues that concern all of Pueblo. For example, a number of our students have been actively engaged for many years in outreach surrounding the history of Christopher Columbus and how this history is represented and reflected in southern Colorado.
When there is student activism on the campus, whether marches, rallies, or protests, this activism is generally supported by faculty, staff, and university leaders who partner with the students to elevate the concerns. It’s not our role to tell students what to believe but to support them in gaining a deeper understanding of the issues that concern them and in using their voices effectively around those issues. In 2018, campus leadership facilitated a number of discussions, both on the campus and in the community, around the national status of DACA and how the university could better serve our DACA students and their family members. Our DACA students and their parents (and, in some situations, grandparents and other family members) shared their own personal immigration stories with us. It was through this inclusive model of activism that we all understood DACA better, and these issues became very personal to our campus community.
On May 25, 2020, our students – like much of the country – watched a Minneapolis police officer kill George Floyd on national television. Some of our students organized peaceful protests in downtown Pueblo, on the Riverwalk, during the middle of the pandemic. My team partnered with those students, and as a campus, we shared a public statement that validated their concerns and re-articulated our unwavering position as an institution of higher education: Hate and violence will never be welcomed or tolerated at CSU Pueblo.
More than 50 percent of our students, and 35 percent of our employees, are from under-represented groups. In a statement to our campus community, I made it clear to our students that we are public servants, and, “we take the responsibility entrusted in us seriously, and as a campus community, we condemn the hate and violence that continues to be perpetuated against people of color and at the hands of violent individuals, groups, and organizations… Racial disparity in this country is real, which means that we must call injustices out when we see them, and that we must always advocate for one another.”
Our students find their voices while at CSU Pueblo and then use them to affect positive change. Some, like alumna and former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, have even taken their voices to the national stage. We see that same drive and insight in today’s students and recent graduates. Derrick Williams, a student today at Harvard Medical School who graduated summa cum laude from CSU Pueblo in 2019, articulated his own personal approach to activism in an essay titled, “The Freedom Tree,” which appeared in the July 2020 edition of STATE Magazine, the premier publication of the Colorado State University System.
In his essay, Derrick writes about growing up in a mixed-race family in northwestern Montana.
“My brother and I were the only Black students in our schools while growing up in northwestern Montana, and I had to learn to navigate a daily onslaught of racial slurs, physical retaliation, and microaggressions from my community. The many recent examples of violence committed on Black bodies have reopened my own wounds and serve as reminders for all of us about injustices Black communities have faced since the time our ancestors were dragged here in chains.
CSU Pueblo is part of a wider university System proclaiming opportunities for all. Yet these claims must not be shallow or disingenuous and must be followed by action. The university and System must recognize and state the damage of institutionalized, systemic racism in all facets of our society, including education; the results are found in an embarrassingly long list of lynched Black people.”
Derrick’s activism is just one example of our CSU Pueblo students refusing to shy away from activism – but who still embrace it in ways that are unique to Pueblo and to our students. Through his words, Derrick is holding us responsible for the change that needs to occur.
Like CSU Pueblo, activism is not just what I do as President of this institution, it is who I am.
Dr. Timothy Mottet is president of Colorado State University Pueblo, a regional, comprehensive, federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution serving approximately 4,000 students in Southern Colorado. His research examines the intersections of communication, personality, and cognition and their application to instructional, organization, and interpersonal contexts.