In the wake of recent high-profile cases of police brutality that have attracted national attention and led to mass Black Lives Matter protests, a group of Brandeis students came together over the summer to establish the Black Action Plan — a list of demands for structural and inclusive change on campus. Realizing that action needed to be taken at the University level, DeBorah Ault ’22 and Sonali Anderson ’22 organized the Black Action Plan after meeting with students to discuss their concerns within each department at the school, as well as speaking with administration and seeking advice from professors. “We can’t change systemic racism in all of America by ourselves, but we can have a little bit of control about what’s going on at Brandeis,” Ault said.

In a Sept. 18 interview with the Justice, Ault and Anderson spoke about the plan and how it is being implemented. Ault said, “We combed through all of the concerns that students brought up, and we responded to them with a holistic demand that could … address the concern and also make a lasting structural change at Brandeis, so a concern like that would potentially never arise again.” Anderson explained that in response to the concerns students raised, the question they are focusing on is, “What can be done that can be structurally implemented that will change not only BIPOC students’ [experience], but will change the student experience for all students on campus?” The Black Action Plan is “action-oriented,” Ault added, including specific demands that the University administration can address to make these changes on campus. 

The pair launched this initiative quickly, as they were working on a strict deadline, Ault explained –– the administration planned to release a Sept. 1 announcement about how they would be addressing racial issues on campus, and Ault and Anderson wanted the Black Action Plan to be a part of that. Ault said that they sent the plan to members of the administration and the academic departments that the plan addresses. 

As a result of submitting the plan, Ault and Anderson met with University President Ron Liebowtiz and have been hired by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to help with the implementation of the plan. The pair has been hired to work closely with the administration within this office to ensure that the Black Action Plan is carried out and that students are involved in the process. Ault described their new position as a “big deal,” explaining that the University allowing them to take action in this way is a step in a positive direction. 

In reference to the recent Student Union elections, Ault said that she and Anderson also “strategically applied to be in junior representative positions … in order to gain as much support as possible.” Ault will be serving on the Alumni Board and Anderson on the Board of Trustees. She noted that they also expanded their team of students working with the administration to include Kyra Frazier ’21 and Inaara Gilani ’23.

The Black Action Plan not only resurrects unaddressed demands from the Ford Hall 2015 protest and the Still Concerned Students protest in 2019, but also calls for lasting structural change. During the Ford Hall 2015 protest, students held a sit-in in the University president’s office (at the time the position was held by Provost Lisa Lynch) to deliver a list of 13 demands for diversifying the school. The Still Concerned Students protest in 2019 was in continuation of Ford Hall 2015. Students marched across the campus and delivered their demands to Liebowitz, protesting “racist policies” and demanding that the University take action.

Anderson said she felt that the most important parts of the plan address leadership concerns within the Department of Community Living and concerns with the Hiatt Career Center within Academic Services. Within Hiatt, Anderson said, the University should “provid[e] more people of color more representation in these staff roles that concern … the opportunities that Brandeis has [for] marginalized students.”

Another important piece of the plan is the addition of a required academic class that would meet to “talk about various cultures around the world, … systemic racism and how it comes out in different cultures globally, and … celebrating other cultures and dismantling the hierarchy of celebrating whiteness more than other people and other cultures,” Ault said.

Ault also emphasized the importance of “restructuring and reimagining” campus police and public safety. This, she said, includes hiring more therapists and mental health professionals with the goal of determining the reason for an individual’s behavior instead of “instantly criminalizing” them. Acknowledging that students, and particularly students of color, have felt over-policed in this way in the past, Anderson added, “Especially as Black students and as people of color on campus — on this campus specifically — and as undergraduate students, there is no reason why we as students should be undergoing policing like this. … A lot of this [policing] was coming from leadership, which again reflects the greater scheme of what’s going on in our country with leadership and its influence on how policing structures are followed.”

Ault expressed a similar sentiment, adding that the conversation should instead be focused on public safety. “If you are looking out for the best interest of the people that you are serving, you’re not going to treat them in a way that dehumanizes them and strikes fear in them,” she said. “Instead, you’re going to find creative ways to talk to a person and deal with them in a way that reaffirms their humanity and treats them … in the way that you would like to be treated.” One improvement, Ault explained, would be having more resources in terms of overnight staff beyond just Public Safety, since that is not the appropriate place to call for all circumstances. 

Stewart Uretsky, the Executive Vice President of Finance and Administration, is also putting together a search committee for a new police chief, she said. Ed Callahan, the University's former director of the Department of Public Safety and chief of police, announced his retirement this summer in a July 21 email from Uretsky and Lois Stanley, the Vice President for Campus Operations.

Other demands in the Black Action Plan include changes to the Brandeis Counseling Center, Academic Services, the transparency of the University administration and student life on campus.

In order to ensure that the University administration implements the Black Action Plan and is held accountable, Ault and Anderson will be meeting with administration weekly. “The only concern we have,” Ault said, “is making sure they’re not putting us in a loop and just having us go to all these meetings without action being taken.” The pair will also continue to be transparent with students and professors and seek their support as well, she added.

According to Ault, the two are also planning ahead to ensure that these demands continue to be met even after they graduate by “build[ing] leaders up who are able to see where instances of racism might be coming up and address them and hold the University accountable.” She explained, “It’s not going to just be over when the demands that are on the Black Action Plan are over. It’s going to change, and there’s going to be different things that need to be done, and we want there to be a consistent place where people can state their concerns and see structural change.”

To publicize the Black Action Plan, there is an Instagram page that will be used for communication, Ault explained. On this page, students can find a link to the full list of demands, as well as a document to add their signatures in support. Ault added that she and Anderson are looking for more students interested in being part of this process, and they will be sharing a form this week to garner support for specific sections of the plan and find more student leaders. “This is for everyone, and we want everyone to know that this is to make Brandeis an anti-racist institution,” she said.

Anderson hopes that these demands will be met quickly, but noted that some changes, such as hiring new staff, will be longer projects. “If they can put together a COVID task force in a matter of months during a pandemic that rapidly, I think the same should be done with the Black Action Plan,” she said. “Ideally, by the spring, before we come back … I want to see the actual, physical implementation of some of … these changes. It can be done.” Anderson noted that the issues brought up by this plan are not new, and its implementation therefore relies on the effectiveness of the University administration in meeting the demands.

“The Black Action Plan is a living document,” Ault said. “It’s not like once you do this, racism at Brandeis is going to be over –– that’s not the case. As I’ve been learning, racism often takes on different forms and shapes and it becomes different.” She continued, “I’d like to acknowledge that at Ford Hall, their battle was to have students of color on campus. Now our battle is, now that students of color are here, how do you make them feel included? How do you make them feel welcomed? How do you make them feel like they belong here in a space where, in the past, they weren’t able to be? So that’s the battle that we’re fighting now, and I don’t know what battles are going to be needing to be fought in the future.”