University Park, IL,
10:53 AM

GSU Students Show Solidarity with African American Communities

As the Governors State University (GSU)  community and the nation struggle to cope with the recent civil unrest and lingering impact of systemic racism, students and faculty are taking action. Immediately following a day of protests, the Student Senate organized a cleanup of the South Side.

Former President Kristiana Russell, a 2020 graduate, led a group of faculty, students and supporters to the streets. Armed with brooms, dust pans, trash bags, and PPE, the self-appointed cleanup crew went to work to move forward the important conversations being held on and off campus. Words dissipate without action, she said.

“We’re a minority serving institution––our student body is largely African American––it’s important to show that the university stands with peaceful protesters and our school supports efforts to stand with these communities.”

For Russell, GSU’s messages of solidarity were a key part in organizing the event.

“It felt good that the university was so supportive of us being active in the community, “ she said.

While the day started with a cleanup of protests sites in Roseland, the crew soon found itself sifting through vestiges of a system broken by racism and neglect. It was a pivotal moment for Russell.

“The trash we picked up was not from the protests, but something bigger. Our feet were planted in that community and we were determined to leave it better than we found it. We thought about leaving to help other cleanups in protest areas but thought, 'This community needs our help, why leave?’”

Dr. Phyllis West seized the opportunity to deliver a life lesson.

"We decided to stay because we saw trash at the bus stop, where people were sitting, and around the stores, and I said we should stay because we believe the people of Roseland deserve to sit and live in clean spaces,'' she said. "We get to define what cleanup is."

This meant addressing not just the immediate issues, but the decades of injustice that have simmered to a recent boil.

“These communities are affected by racism that was happening before these protests. It didn’t start Friday,” Russell explained.

Dr. Nicole Koonce said she participated in the cleanup as much to calm her own spirit as to help heal a community aching after an unarmed black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

"Like many, I have been struggling with the George Floyd murder, but it hit very deep for me because I have lost two nephews to police violence, and had been feeling helpless too. When I learned that our students were organizing a community cleanup, it felt like a lifeline. I grabbed brooms, gloves, rustled up my 17-year old son and headed for Roseland,'' she said.

For her and others in the crew, the highlight of the day came when an area store owner approached the group to thank them for their work. Then, offered the workers a cool drink.

“He kept telling us how happy he was to see us there helping,” Russell said.

“To see that impact was incredible."

When the group reflected on the cleanup later that day, they all agreed that regular community volunteering is necessary. 

“Our communities need us. It was a wakeup call and it made me realize we could do so much more than what we’re doing. There’s opportunities everywhere, as long as you look for them.”

Russell and members of the Student Senate are planning another cleanup in Harvey in the coming week, with specific dates and times to be announced on GSU's social media platforms.

”If you feel like you want to do something, you can do something.”