Student affinity groups at Pomona fight for permanent space on campus, reject dividing wall

Students gather in Walker Lounge listening to the speaker.
Pomona’s LXA, BSU and CSSA mobilize students in a town hall to protest the plan to build a wall in the lounge. (Courtesy: Josh Yum)

Over the past month, several 5C affinity groups have been in an ongoing struggle with Pomona College administration to preserve and provide permanent safe spaces for students of color.

Leaders of Pomona’s Latinx Alliance (LXA) and Black Student Union (BSU) mobilized students to protest the college’s plans to accommodate more affinity groups, such as BSU, in the same space in the Clark V basement by building a wall through the Students of Color Alliance (SoCA) lounge, which is already used by six affinity groups.

Dean of Students Avis Hinkson and Associate Dean of Students Brandon Jackson offered BSU half of the SoCA lounge during a meeting after BSU was displaced when their temporary meeting location in the Smith Campus Center was partially converted into office space.

Tension over a potential wall being built in the SoCA Lounge culminated in a sit-in on Wednesday, when a group of over 50 students walked into President G. Gabrielle Starr’s office hours at Pomona’s new Athletics Center chanting “Stop the wall.” 

Starr told students present at her office hours that the administration no longer has a timeline to build a wall in the SoCA lounge. However, she said that she couldn’t promise that a wall would never be built in the lounge due to a “space constraint” on campus.

Starr said that Hinkson regretted not consulting student leaders prior to Hinkson and Jackson’s proposal to partition the SoCA lounge to add space for BSU.

“I think it was a good faith effort to try to accommodate one group,” Starr said.

Starr’s update on the status of the SoCA lounge wall came almost a week after BSU, LXA and Caballeros & Señoritas Student Alliance (CSSA) hosted a town hall meeting to discuss administration’s lack of transparency with affinity groups. 

In the town hall, members of BSU and LXA talked about BSU’s struggles to secure a permanent space to meet on campus, the upcoming construction of a wall in the SoCA lounge and the continued expansion of administrative office space at the cost of safe spaces for students of color.

BSU co-president Jonathan Williams PO ’24 told students at the town hall that after BSU met with Hinkson in the spring of 2021 to discuss finding a consistent space for Black students on Pomona’s campus, they were told they would have access to Smith Campus Center’s Room 212 as a temporary space during business hours when not in use by faculty, staff or student groups.

Hinkson told TSL that “SCC 212 has been made available to students in the evenings and on weekends.” 

 Williams said BSU was told they would have access to the space until 2023 when a hired contractor was expected to have found a permanent space for BSU. 

However, during an Oct. 10 meeting with Hinkson and Jackson, the BSU executive board was informed that part of their temporary meeting space was being converted into an administrative office and that they would not be able to access SCC 212 during the construction period – which is set to end this week, according to Hinkson and Jackson’s statement to TSL.

During the renovation, the administrators told BSU it could use another temporary meeting space in the SCC during the construction. Williams said the executive board was not told that three other groups also used this new temporary space. 

Williams told TSL that this violates their temporary contract with Pomona, which states that their meeting place needs to be a safe space for students of the African diaspora.

During the same meeting, Hinkson proposed that half of the SoCA lounge could be a permanent space for the BSU moving forward by building a wall through it, Williams said. The SoCA lounge is also used by LXA, CSSA, Eritrean and Ethiopian Student Association (EESA), African Student Association (ASA), Women of Pre-Health and Asian American Resource Center (AARC).

Pieces of artwork on the walls of the SOCA lounge, with a black couch in the foreground.
The SoCA Lounge provides a safe space for Pomona affinity groups to gather. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

LXA Co-president Elisa Velasco PO ’23 told TSL that neither she nor her Co-president Kenia Garcia-Ramos PO ’23 were told about the potential construction of a wall through their meeting space.

“We were just going to come home after winter break and there was going to be a giant wall dividing our space,” Velasco said. 

Williams added that both deans said they were unaware of the fact that the SoCA lounge was already being occupied by numerous other groups.

“We told [Avis] that we did not feel comfortable taking space from other students of color just because space was taken from us,” Williams said. 

Despite BSU’s refusal to make the SoCA lounge their permanent space, Hinkson told several affinity group leaders that construction of a wall through the space would happen during winter break regardless of whether or not BSU moved into the lounge.

Following meetings with Hinkson, students mobilized in protest over the past two weeks. Besides attending Starr’s meeting and hosting a town hall open to the student body, BSU, LXA and Occupy Pomona shared social media posts and hung flyers across campus, prompting a shift in the timeline to build the wall.

In a joint statement to TSL, Hinkson and Jackson confirmed that despite their offer to partition the SoCA lounge to give space to BSU, all plans for construction are on hold “while [they] continue to explore alternatives with student input.”

“BSU, like many other clubs on campus, doesn’t have a permanent place of their own to meet but instead can make use of a number of shared spaces,” Hinkson and Jackson said in a statement to TSL. “Creating a space for students from the African Diaspora is distinct from the needs of one club and will provide access to several student groups and individuals.”

After an Oct. 10 meeting with Hinkson and Jackson, BSU worked with Kristin Walters, ASPC vice president of student affairs, to find an adequate permanent meeting space. They proposed the Heritage Lounge, a space under Norton Clark that accommodates 50 people, to Jackson during an Oct. 31 meeting. 

According to Williams, Jackson said he would put the Heritage Lounge on a list of “open space,” but could not guarantee access, despite BSU having received approval from Housing and Residential Life to do so.

“These affinity groups are doing the work that student affairs should be doing, and we’re doing it for free,” Williams said. “These affinity groups are creating safe spaces on campus, not student affairs.”

Garcia-Ramos said she feels betrayed by the Pomona administration. 

“It’s important to think about how little space there already is for students of color on campus and the fact that we’re literally fighting over space that five groups share in a basement,” they said. 

Velasco added that affinity groups and students of color at Pomona feel unheard.

“The administration seems to be going towards a more multicultural colorblind approach to student spaces, and so they said, ‘Why is it an issue that you guys have to share the space?’ but we all have our different issues,” she said. “We all want to have our own individual spaces where we can feel safe and have events.”

Velasco says that her experience at Pomona has not reflected one of a supportive community for people of color.

“It’s disappointing to see that Pomona, with the biggest endowment of three-point-something-billion, can’t provide spaces beyond a basement for students of color, when at the same time, they’re constantly advertising the same students on their website with all these statistics,” she said. 

Emily Pereznegron PO ’24, who was present at the meeting, also said the administration’s actions seemed to contradict the way Pomona markets itself.

“I can’t shake it off that all people of color are seen as one homogenous group,” Emily Pereznegron PO ’24 said. “Because Pomona advertises the school to be full of diversity, that should be their priority.”

Williams noted that as administration works to increase the number of students of color at Pomona, there aren’t systems in place to support them.

“People of color are now more than 50 percent of the population at Pomona,” Williams said. “And the fact that they don’t have a safe space is a serious issue.”

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