Meet Morgan Ottley as she unpacks the lessons and challenges of remotely completing her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh following 2020’s summer of racial reckoning and protests. Morgan discusses the emotional, often invisible labor left to students when universities fall short of solidarity and the future of racial justice and accountability on college campuses.
For more insights on the effects of the racial justice movement on higher ed from students, faculty, staff and administrations of Pittsburgh-area universities, check out the accompanying stories to this podcast by PublicSource higher education reporter Naomi Harris.
Jourdan: Hey, welcome back. It’s episode 10. I’m your host, Jourdan Hicks, community correspondent for PublicSource. And this week, like every other week, we have another interesting person who you could learn something from and you should spend some time with. This week, that person is Morgan Ottley, a very recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and the departing president of the Black Action Society.
Morgan: Personally, I dream of a Pitt where we don’t have to have 17 different Black organizations, not because that story doesn’t need to be told, but more so because that means Black students would have truly integrated. We wouldn’t have to feel as though we need to create our own spaces to feel comfortable and accepted and loved and supported in this predominantly white space.
Jourdan: Morgan is one of the sources featured in higher education reporter Naomi Harris’ project, asking and investigating what a difference a year has made after the fever pitch of calls for racial justice on campuses.
Naomi: College campuses are places for young people or students in general to learn, to collaborate, to talk openly and have discussions about themselves in the world around them. And it is also a place to talk about what we can change.
Jourdan: While Naomi’s project focuses on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats and realities of being a Black student in predominantly white institutions campus or PWI, on the audio side, I speak to Morgan about the emotional labor students of color are faced to pick up when university administrators aren’t sure how to deal with the instances of racial injustice that happen outside of campus that affect their students on campus. But before we jump into that, I want you to hear from Naomi on why she chose to investigate this story and to hear a little bit more about why she feels like the experiences of those on college campuses are significant and relevant to our shared Pittsburgh.
Naomi: I wanted to pursue this story in our series because I felt like there was a lot of promise, there was a lot of hope and frustration and anger and so many other emotions that Black people felt last summer. I really wanted to see how Black students in particular were navigating this year from the pandemic to dealing with the grief and the weight of seeing Black lives being slain. How our Black students are waking up every day, logging online, maybe putting on masks, going to class with that weight still on their shoulders. And how are some students, some Black students then turning around and demanding change? These are students who want more. And so I wanted to capture that in my series.
Jourdan: That was Naomi Harris talking about her series, which you should definitely check out on publicsource.org. One of the students who Naomi profiled in her piece is Morgan Ottley and for the rest of this episode, we’re going to hear from her.
Morgan: What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the response just stems from ignorance and a lot of the administration not knowing that this is how Black students were feeling.
Jourdan: When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, hundreds of university administrators across the country issued statements condemning racism. But for that whole week, the first week after he was killed, the University of Pittsburgh was silent and Black students noticed.
Morgan: What, like, what are you all doing? Like, you literally have 5% Black students and you’re not doing anything to even keep those Black students.
This is ridiculous.
Jourdan: Morgan is the president of Pitt’s’ Black Action Society, a group formed in 1968 to represent the interests of Black undergraduate students on campus.
Morgan: We as Black students are tired of yelling to a brick wall, which is the administration. We’re going to do something to demand that the Black student experience is changed. And this is primarily because upon the murder of George Floyd, our university said nothing.
Jourdan: Pitt’s administration did finally issue a response to George Floyd and the BLM protests on June 2, more than a week after his murder. In the meantime, Morgan and other Black students at Pitt got together to come up with a plan, a response to their university that they felt was too quiet for too long. The idea that they settled on was a list of demands that they delivered to the Pitt administration.
Morgan: One interesting thing that I think myself and a bunch of leaders always forget to mention is our Dean of Students. His name is Dr. Kenyon Bonner; he’s Black man. And so he actually was the person who prompted us to write the demand. So we kind of came to him and was like, all right, we have this idea. Like, we want to write a list of demands, like how the founders of BAS did in 1968 to create the organization. We were like, we want to do the same thing. We just don’t know how to go about doing it. And so he sat us down on Zoom, and it was like, all right, here’s what you need to do, draft an outline of all of the things that you want, come together. Y’all need to sit here and discuss this, and then we’ll have a follow-up meeting.
Morgan: We also informed the chancellor before we created the demands. He racked up a bunch of the Black student leaders or the presidents of all the Black organizations, and there’s about 17 of them and kind of sat down with us and we literally gnawed Pitt out and was like this is what our experiences are about, this is what our experience is like, this is why we hate it here. And then in that meeting, we were like, we’re going to write a list of demands. Just so you know, it’ll be on your desk very shortly. You have to respond. Fortunately, I’m not sure if Dean Bonner kind of told him before, but the chancellor was like, ‘All right, cool. I’m ready for it, let me know.’
Jourdan: Morgan and other Black student leaders at Pitt worked over the summer to draft the Black Senate demands. They came up with more than 20 — from increasing the population of Black students on campus to terminating the employment of racist and discriminatory police officers, to establishing three scholarships of $10,000 each for Black incoming first-year students in the memory of Antwon Rose II. Morgan and other students delivered the demands to Pitt’s chancellor on June 18.
Morgan: We were like, ‘Well, you have to react this way because if you don’t react this way, you’re going to look bad as an institution’ and then like you specifically are going to look bad, sir, as the chancellor, because it’s actually, given the time and what was going on then with all schools doing this whole like we’re becoming more anti-racist and so on and so forth, it was like alright Pitt, the ball’s in your court, you ’bout to be goofy or you don’t act right and respect Black students and finally you give them a platform and like listen to or amplify their voice.
Jourdan: What was the support that you were looking to receive from the administration? What was the response you feel like students needed?
Morgan: I guess we expected them to respond, but I don’t think we expected them to respond on the level to which they did, because it honestly felt like I have not heard BAS voice and so many mouths more than I’ve heard it this year in my four years at Pitt. And I’ve been in BAS since I was a freshman. Like I don’t think our organization has ever had the platform that it’s had.
Jourdan: Morgan says her voice at Pitt was immediately elevated as president of BAS. She found herself in meetings with Pitt administration and professors across the university to talk to various forums, panels. You know how they do it. Morgan says she was very appreciative of the opportunity, but also felt like it was … hmm. very well played on behalf of the university because of tokenization.
Morgan: My goal, ultimate goal came into this was like, I’m not going to be token Black. I’m not simply not going to do it. And then I slowly realized the various ways in which my voice was being used without me kind of completely being aware.
Jourdan: I try to make sure that when people listen back to any conversation that we don’t assume that everyone is entering through the same door of understanding so express to me, share with me how you define tokenism, how you describe being tokenized. And then what was your experience where you were like, oh, man, I’m being tokenized.
Morgan: So for me, being tokenized is I mean, there’s 900-plus Black students on Pitt’s campus.
Jourdan: For real?
Morgan: Oh yeah. We’re literally five, like 5% of Pitt’s population is about a 1,000. It’s kind of ridiculous. But yes. So to me being tokenized is out of those 1,000. For me, it’s like why is my voice the only voice being put in these spaces? Why are you having me come to meetings with the Chancellor, with the board of trustees when there are 17 other Black student leaders in the Black Senate who can do the same thing? But then it’s also I was told once you become in this role, you’re no longer Morgan, just Morgan the student. You’re Morgan, the president of BAS, I understand that. But then it’s like you represent all of Black students here at the University of Pittsburgh that I simply don’t understand because I don’t — like there’s so many various facets to each of these students, and I simply cannot represent all 1,000 of them. And so I noticed that as I was being asked to, like, take on meetings and stuff, I would always walk in and be the only Black student out of all 1,000. And I’d be like, yo, like, why am I here? Like, what is this? And then it got to a point where it was like, alright, we’re getting like, share your experience as a Black student. And so it kind of just got to a point where I was always in spaces just for that, like just for me sharing my experience as a Black student. And it was just me, no other Black students.
Jourdan: Why do you think they chose you?
Morgan: That is, now, my opinion is because I think I come off as — I really don’t know and I don’t know why — but like someone who is very approachable, not saying that all Black people aren’t approachable, but for some strange reason, I’ve been told that, ‘Oh, you speak so eloquent. Oh, you’re a great representation of what Pitt is.’ This that and he third. And I’m just like, nah, I promise you, like, this is a switch. Like, I’m switching it on and after I get off this meeting, I might switch it off or I could get off, get on this meeting and now you turn it on. I might just give you whoever I feel like being in that moment, like…
Jourdan:…a raw, unfiltered, not saying that that’s bad, but like not having concern for how you’re receiving it necessarily.
Morgan: Exactly. Which is what I often try to go into a lot of these meetings as because I realized like I was growing up — so I’m from Prince George’s County, Maryland. Even though Prince George’s County is a very affluent, like, Black space, I went to predominantly white schools. And so the whole, like, code switching thing pretty much is, like, engrained and so. I guess when I originally was going into a lot of these meetings, it was like, all right, like switches on kind of. Sort of. And so at one point I was like, bro, like, it’s not even worth it honestly, at this point. Like, if you are going into these meetings and not being, like, authentic and authentic in what you stand for and what you believe and what you are advocating for, then there’s no point for you to be in these rooms. Once I started doing that and I started kind of saying, I’m not going to this meeting, this person is going to this meeting, creating avenues of spaces for other Black students to enter in, the people I was working with had like a, I don’t know, like a come-to-Jesus moment or something. And it was like, oh, let’s get other Black students in the room. So then I would hop on meetings and would be like me and my vice president or like me and several other students from the board or president, or even just like Black students in general who go to Pitt, who you may not see often. But I do think I’ve often been told like, oh, you’re such an ideal, you know, like Pitt student. Like, you’re exactly what we see when we think Pitt. And this is often by like a lot of my white professors or by white administrators. And I’m like…
Jourdan: So I can understand why, but what part of that to you is not a compliment?
Morgan: To me. The part that doesn’t make it a compliment is when I see it’s only me. Once I realized it was kind of an excuse not to get other people in the room, that’s when it was no longer a compliment. And it was more so like a slap in the face because I was like, you’re really exhausting, like exhausting me and my time and refuse to, kind of let other people…
Jourdan: …also putting the emotional labor on you, right, to come up with the answers, to come up with the points, to explain, to describe, to unpack, and that’s not fair to you at all.
Jourdan: Tell me how or if you can remember what it felt like in those days after the murder of George Floyd to be a student and still have responsibilities as far as deadlines, papers, meetings, like how did it physically feel in your body to have to meet those responsibilities when there’s so much going on around and telling you that like as a person, as a Black person, your body is not safe.
Morgan: So fortunately, when it occurred I was home like it wasn’t that I was OK, but it was summer break, so I didn’t have too many things to worry about. But I’m still taking, I think I was taking biochem. And I still remember the day it occurred and not wanting to do anything out of pure fear that the next time I walked outside could be the last time I ever walk outside, or it could be the last time I ever see my parents or even for both of my brothers, like being very fearful of them leaving the house. And my older brother lives in New York. So I literally was on his behind like, where are you? Send me your location. Like, terrified to the point where it was completely disabling, where it’s like, what am I waking up every day for if I’m waking up scared? It was hard. But then at the same time, I got my homework. My deadlines were like the demands. I thought my biochem professor would say something and kind of like acknowledge it — didn’t. So for me, I was like, it is what it is. If I pass, I pass. Like, I don’t really care at this point. I’m gonna watch lectures whenever I feel like it. I’ll take notes if I want to, but at the end of the day, like it’s above me, I don’t really care because…
Jourdan:…Because how can you? How can you when you feel like your life force is being challenged by people’s hate?
Morgan: Exactly. I don’t know if it’s easy for people who aren’t of color to really like grasp, and I don’t want to make this a space for like two Black women expressing and explaining that. Like, that’s definitely not what this is. It’s us holding space for your experience,
Jourdan: but to really understand what it feels like. I mean, and maybe coronavirus is a good place to start, but to be afraid to go outside, to be afraid to leave your home. And unfortunately for people of color, you don’t even have to leave your home. Someone can come into your home, like.
Morgan: It’s like waking up is scary because it’s like, well, what will this day hold? You never know, like you just simply never know. And I know for me, that is probably one of my biggest fears in life, is just the thought of not knowing and the fact that I don’t feel safe in my own space. The one space that you’re supposed to feel the most authentic, you’re supposed to feel the most at home, the most comfortable. I simply am not allowed. I can’t allow myself to feel safe in my own space because I have to be on guard all the time because I never know who’s coming in my house. I never know who could be at my front door. I never know who could be literally coming in here ready to take my life just because they can.
Jourdan: Do you feel like predominantly white spaces can can be safe spaces for Black students, or is it that as people of color we should just accept that we’re never going to be completely comfortable, completely welcome, completely free to be ourselves and express ourselves in a way that it’s natural to us? Do you think it’s possible for people of color to be completely comfortable on the campuses of PWIs?
Morgan: I hope one day that that will be the case, that students will be able to feel comfortable because the PWIs are doing the work to make sure students are feeling comfortable. I think a lot of people right now, like at a lot of PWIs specifically, are trying to work from here up, if that makes any sense, rather than really looking at, OK, what in our foundation is making these students uncomfortable? Not looking at our now because our now is them promoting diversity, them promoting inclusion, them trying to make these universities more than what they used to be. But we’re not looking at what they used to be, what started the problem of us not feeling comfortable in these spaces. And so I think that until that is the primary focus, until we really our examining the history and the layout of a lot of these PWIs, then we won’t —minority students, students of color, marginalized students — simply won’t feel safe because these places aren’t meant for us to feel safe. We were never meant to be in these institutions. I think if you’re trying to make a place safe for someone who is simply never meant to be there, then that’s where you need to start. Why weren’t they meant to be there? How can we change that dynamic to make a new space where these students do feel comfortable?
Jourdan: I wonder, like where universities see themselves in ending, like, racial injustice and oppression and discrimination. Is it just we’re preparing tomorrow’s minds? What is it? The minds of tomorrow? Is that the only responsibility? Is the responsibility to keep you safe on campus? Is the responsibility to make sure the check clears on time, like, what is it? And do they see that responsibility as evolving and changing or something that’s fixed?
Jourdan: Do you feel they see it as something that’s evolving and changing, or is something else fixed as far as their mission?
Morgan: I really don’t know. I mean, if you look at like past chancellors and how everyone’s administration is different, I would say that it is viewed as something that’s evolving and something that’s changing. But I think when you kind of look at individual terms, it can often seem like it’s fixed. It can seem like, Ok, and this is like coming specifically from Pitt from watching our chancellor, who I think probably started like a few years before I got here. And his whole thing has always been diversity and inclusion. Like that was one of his pillars when he first got to campus, when I was in a meeting with him, he said something like, ‘This has always been on my list.’ Ok? But diversity and inclusion doesn’t look like what it did when you first started. Simply doesn’t. Like, I don’t know what to tell you. This wave of social injustice that’s been occurring has kind of been an eye-opener. I don’t know. Ok, I like to call it a poke in the forehead because, you know, it’s like oh, you plucked me. I feel like that that’s kind of what it’s been like for the administration right now is what it looked like. Administration, not of color specifically because it’s like, Ok, even though this is going on at large, our students are fine. Like our students aren’t experiencing this because we’re creating this diverse and inclusive space that, you know, we’ve always said that we were going to make that would protect our students. But it’s like, nah, bro, that’s really not like… Yes, that was your goal. That was your plan. Sure. It worked two or three years ago, but that looks different now. What you were doing is simply not good enough and you kind of need to step up with the times. And so I do think that it is fixed often until something happens and students kind of react in a very large, upscale way. And then it’s like then it becomes ever changing. But it always needs to be ignited is something that I’ve noticed.
I dream of a Pitt where we don’t have to call it a predominantly white institution. We can call it an institution that is full of various people, whether they be Black, whether they be non-Black, whether they be other minorities, other marginalized groups, just a Pitt that is truly as diverse and inclusive as it claims to be.
Jourdan: For more insights on the effects of the racial justice movement on higher education from students, faculty, staff and administrations of Pittsburgh-area universities, check out the accompanying stories to this podcast by PublicSource higher education reporter Naomi Harris. This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch with me. You can send me an email J-O-U-R-D-A-N at PublicSource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at PublicSource.org.
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