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Dispatches from the CDC: Remembering voices of diversity

This is the ninth and final installment of a series recording the experiences of students and faculty involved with the Center for Diversity and Community (CDC). The series seeks to highlight why this organization was so impactful on the USD community and why the CDC was more than the sum of its parts. The final part of this series was assembled by Allison Horkey, Bennett Clary, Maddi Kallsen and Zadya Abbott.

Voices of the community

In August 2013, the University of South Dakota President’s Council on Diversity & Inclusiveness was created to help USD become more diverse and inclusive through purposeful steps. Lamont Sellers came to USD in 2014 and started the Center for Diversity and Community (CDC) on Nov. 5, 2014. 

Over the course of his career Sellers said in almost every position he’s held, he has had a hand in creating things. Sellers said that was part of his draw to USD because creating a diversity center was exciting to him.  

The name for the CDC came from student and faculty brainstorming. Sellers said the students almost unanimously wanted the Center for Diversity and Community name and Sellers was able to develop the image of a mosaic from that.  

“That the idea that each one of us has beauty in and of ourselves, but when you look at a mosaic, each piece has beauty in and of itself, and they’re all different. But when you pull them all together in a piece of artwork, you end up with an even more beautiful piece in the end,” Sellers said. “And that’s what we were really trying to create with the Center for Diversity and Community, bringing all of those voices, all of those backgrounds and things that make us who we are, to that space to learn about one another and to understand who we are as individuals and collectively.” 

Kim Grieve, the Dean of Students at USD, said in an email interview with The Volante, the purpose of the CDC was to provide a welcoming space to students.

“The Center for Diversity and Community provided a welcoming space where students, no matter who they were, could come and build strong relationships, develop leadership skills and share their values and cultures while absorbing the cultures of the diverse groups around them,” Grieve said.

Another member of the CDC was Cassidy Geerson, who served as the graduate assistant (GA) from August 2020 until the CDC was removed in December 2021. In an email interview with The Volante, Geerson said her position primarily was helping to organize events and workshops, but the CDC was more than a job for her. Like Sellers, Geerson experienced the community the CDC offered, calling it a “family.”

“I will forever be grateful for how the CDC has affected my life. Before the CDC, I was not a part of a lot of campus activities. After joining the CDC family, I realized how much I was missing out on. I met so many amazing people and learned about different cultures. I also was able to have candid conversations with people about subjects like stereotyping, mental health and so much more,” Geerson said. “These experiences showed me just how important it is to have places like the CDC on campus. The world is a diverse place and as students, it is our responsibility to push ourselves to learn about other people and their backgrounds.”

From the beginning, Sellers saw the need for the CDC on campus. Sellers said USD was “really thirsty at that point” and wanted to engage with diverse populations which excited him. He wasn’t looking to add to his resume, but wanted to truly impact people’s lives.  

“To see all of that dismantled and go away, for me, is heartbreaking because I thought when I left USD to come to North Carolina, I thought that I was leaving a legacy. I was leaving something that people would be able to benefit from for years to come and now to see that completely wiped away, it hurts,” Sellers said. 

The students at USD who were involved in the CDC did see and feel the benefits of the community, but since the CDC was taken away, students are now feeling loss. Benedict Odai, an international student graduating this year, said in an email interview with The Volante, the CDC and USD are intertwined, and with the CDC gone, it was like losing a home. 

“The CDC was my introduction to USD, it was my starting point and also where I met most of my current friends. The CDC gave me the opportunity to interact with students from diverse backgrounds. Through this, I was able to understand and appreciate other students’ culture, experience and identity. This improved my ability to collaborate with other people within the community. It was a vital part of my college experience,” Odai said.

The CDC meant something different to each student, but for many it was a home and a safe space. Pooja Modawel, a senior and international student said in an email interview with The Volante the CDC gave her a space to connect with others.

“The CDC was a safe space where students can make themselves feel comfortable. It gave students the opportunity to connect with other students and staff easily and naturally. With the CDC being taken away, the place I used to hangout every single day since my freshman year almost feels unfamiliar,” Modawel said.

Like Modawel, Victoria Callegari, USD senior and president of Latino-Hispanic Student Organization (LaHSO), said she used the CDC everyday as a safe space and gathering place, in an email interview with The Volante.

“The CDC was a wonderful place to embrace all those who come from different backgrounds. It was an amazing opportunity to have to show off all backgrounds in events that can teach people about the culture, food, language, etc. Not only was it a place to embrace culture but it was also like a second home to people,” Callegari said. “For instance, I would go to the CDC whenever I needed a break on schoolwork or if I was ever having an off day. It was a place to forget all those things. Along with it being a safe place for me to be in, it also helped me make a lot of connections with people who come from various backgrounds.”

Isabel Young, a junior and president of Spectrum, said the CDC offered a community to LGBTQ students, a group often ostracized. Finding the supportive and affirming community the CDC offered helped her feel more at home in South Dakota, Young said in an email interview with The Volante.

“The first time I was ever in the CDC I was a student at (Vermillion High School), and I got to see a panel of LGBT+ people. It was the first time I had ever got to hear genuine stories of people who had similar struggles to me, and that is when I decided that maybe there was a space for me still in South Dakota,” Young said.

The president of Tiospaye sophomore Rachel Overstreet, on behalf of Tiospaye, said the CDC created a space for groups to share the gifts of diversity. Just as the CDC was a space for anyone on campus, the loss of the CDC also affected everyone.

 “The loss of the CDC is a loss for everyone at USD. While we wish the new Opportunity Center the best of luck, we need to be honest about the impact this loss has had on our campus. That being said, the time that we had sharing our culture and experiences with others in the CDC has not been lost. The CDC paved the way for a more inclusive and equitable campus, and our job as students is to continue the work that the CDC facilitated. USD is made up of a diverse community of students who all have their own gifts. Now more than ever, it is important that we freely share our gifts with each other,” Overstreet said.

Savannah Lukkes, the president of the Cultural Wellness Coalition, said in an email interview with The Volante the university step back with the loss of the CDC. Referencing a tweet made by Gov. Kristi Noem, Lukkes said she is disappointed the CDC was the victim of a political move especially when it contributed so much to the students.

“I think that the CDC not existing anymore is really a strong hit at any progress that this university has made for diversity and inclusion. The fact that the word diversity now seems taboo for this university is a major step back and I am disappointed. I think this should not have happened, especially because it was politically motivated,” Lukkes said. “Politics should not dictate whether certain groups feel accepted. As a majority white campus, many students of color feel out of place and had this singular place to organize, and that is now gone.”

The tweet referenced was made on Jan. 25, 2022 by Noem’s official Twitter account and read, “we eliminated diversity offices, which were focusing on leftist agendas. We replaced them with Opportunity Centers to help students succeed as individuals.”

With the CDC and Diversity office gone, the Office of Multicultural Affairs is set to somewhat replace the CDC. Now an office in the Student Centered Space, which used to house the CDC, Grieve hopes the office will still be able to continue the work of the CDC.

“I hope that the Office of Multicultural Affairs will continue to facilitate strong relationships among students, to foster advanced leadership skills and to educate our community about other cultures,” Grieve said.

Looking back on the impact on USD, Odai said USD was changed because of the CDC. There were more community events and organizations grew.

“Ever since the CDC was created, the collaboration among the students and the organizations on campus has increased considerably. Most organizations became much larger as the community grew and became more involved, and this goes to show that it was a place that brought people together in spite of our cultural differences,” Odai said.

Geerson said the CDC gave USD a safe space for students. From the events held by the organization to the everyday impact on students’ lives, the CDC was a place of learning and connecting.

“The CDC impacted campus in many ways. Most importantly, it provided a safe space for students. Having a physical place where everyone feels welcome helps set up a foundation where students can flourish,” Geerson said. “I saw students and staff come into the CDC to relieve stress, meet new people and socialize. In addition to the CDC providing a safe space, at every event, I saw how much the campus was impacted. The events provided an opportunity for students to expand their knowledge base and learn from others with different backgrounds.”

Through the hurt, Sellers said he has been trying to see the positive sides to the CDC’s end because although it is gone, the impact it had and continues to have on students hasn’t stopped. 

“There are students that are now out in the world, there are students that are doing great things that were impacted by the CDC in such positive ways that those ripples will continue to reverberate throughout time,” Sellers said. 

Voices of the past

USD’s Center for Diversity and Community (CDC) was opened on Nov. 5, 2014 and in the following seven years, The Volante covered the CDC’s effects on, not only the students that frequented the space, but campus culture as well. 

The CDC was in the works for two years before opening, and was founded as the child of the university’s efforts to nourish diversity and inclusiveness on campus. These efforts were highlighted by the founding of the USD President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusiveness in Aug. 2013. This council’s statement of purpose was, according to the 2014-2015 annual report of activities, “to advise the President on issues of diversity and inclusiveness and to promote diversity and inclusiveness as a strength, a core element in academic exclusiveness and a reflection of a caring community.” 

Sellers was hired in 2014 as the CDC’s first Director and Jesus Trevino as the Associate Vice President for Diversity. Under the direction of both Sellers and Trevino, the CDC became a home to the following organizations: Spectrum, Tiospaye, Union of African American Students (UAAS), Association for the Advancement of Women’s Rights (AAWR), International Student Club (now International Club), Latino Student Association (now Latino-Hispanic Student Association, LaHSO), African Student Association (ASA) and Muslim Student Association (MSA). 

The CDC became a place for students to find their voices and lead different conversations. 

“Those marginalized students have a place and those students that are of the majority can feel as though they can come and be part as well and have those conversations,” Sellers said.  

The first of which was a conversation in Dec. 2014 about race relations in the U.S. after Ferguson. The CDC hosted the moderated discussion amongst students that was sponsored by the USD Office of Diversity. 

According to the Feb. 1 issue of The Volante, in Feb. 2017 the CDC uplifted student voices again by hosting USD’s first participation in a “story circle,” a national movement by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture,  in which stories from across the nation were collected and poets compiled them into a “People’s State of the Union.” Then according to the Feb. 19 issue of The Volante, in Feb. 2020 the CDC hosted the first ever Professionals of Color panel, an event that was organized by Laura Chandler, the CDC’s director at the time, and USD CDC alum Saeed Dabbour. 

The CDC gave a home to student voices again in 2020 by hosting a student forum in the aftermath of the USD Stroller’s racist tweet in the promotion of their 97th annual show. This forum served as a place for students to address and lead a conversation about the culture of their own campus according to the Feb. 26 issue of The Volante. Then in Sept. 2020 the CDC hosted its first Students of Color Panel that brought the problems of systemic racism on and off campus to a student-run conversation. 

While being a space for students to engage in educational conversations, the CDC was also home to celebrations. 

Some of which were solemn commemorations such as the memorial services for, then active, students, Brant Blaha and Diedra Gatzke by the CDC, in 2015 and 2019 respectively. 

Others were meant to bring awareness to diverse cultures on campus. In Sept. 2015 the CDC hosted an Eid al-Ahda celebration, and in November of that year over 150 people attended when the CDC organized USD’s first Diwali celebration. Both of those events became annual for the CDC. Then on Dec. 7, 2015 the CDC hosted its first Hanukkah celebration. 

In the following years the CDC kept up their events and collaborated with other USD groups.

On Oct. 31, 2016 the CDC was filled with students celebrating Dia de los Muertos, an event organized by the CDC, LaHSO and Sigma Delta Pi. In Feb. 2020 AASA and the CDC held an event to celebrate the Asian Lunar New Year. Then in Sept. 2020 the CDC and the Campus Activities Board hosted USD’s first outdoor movie. 

The history of the CDC is filled with events and conversations that marked the Center as a safe place where students could learn about a variety of cultures while celebrating their own and defining their own identities with their newfound collegiate freedom.