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'TogetherUF' Group Formed To Heal, Exchange Views After Spencer Event

UF students and Together UF committee members prepare for a meeting with Heather White, the director of UF’s Career Resource Center, on Nov. 16 outside of Peabody Hall. From left: Robert Lemus, Bijal Desai, Rebecca Kravitz, Ianna Itchan, Brenda Villanueva, Cassie Bell. (Jayna Taylor-Smith/WUFT News)
UF students and Together UF committee members prepare for a meeting with Heather White, the director of UF’s Career Resource Center, on Nov. 16 outside of Peabody Hall. From left: Robert Lemus, Bijal Desai, Rebecca Kravitz, Ianna Itchan, Brenda Villanueva, Cassie Bell. (Jayna Taylor-Smith/WUFT News)

White nationalist Richard Spencer’s Oct. 19 appearance at the University of Florida sparked controversy and protests, and it led Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency.Law enforcement brought in for the appearance cost an estimated $600,000.The appearance became the catalyst for a group of students to form a campaign called TogetherUF, a campaign built on keeping conversations about race relations open to better prepare the student body for future events like Spencer's.The campaign was created when news was released of Spencer coming, said Bijal Desai, president of Volunteers for International Student Affairs at UF and a TogetherUF committee member.The campaign began with collaboration among the "Big 8" organization leaders at UF, Desai said. Those eight organizations are the Asian American Student Union, Black Student Union, Hispanic Student Union, Inter-Residence Hall Association, Jewish Student Union, Pride Student Union, Volunteers for International Student Affairs and Women's Student Association."We came together in a meeting creating the campaign we hope to keep a tradition at UF," Desai said.However, one student had a different opinion of the campaign.Mitchell Kaye, a 21-year-old international business graduate student, called TogetherUF "lackluster," saying that the campaign is only about "looking like there is a safe environment" and not actually creating one.In an email to WUFT News, Kaye also said that university President Kent Fuchs should resign because he "just added to the oppressive element of the event" by bringing in more law enforcement to work the day of Spencer’s visit. Kaye created an online petition, and it has received about 200 signatures."Watching Kent Fuchs do the exact opposite of what students of color, trans students, Jewish students, and Muslim students wanted, demonstrated that he does not care about those students," wrote Kaye, who started a petition to get Fuchs to resign. "This disrespect and lack of transparency inspired me to start the petition."UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the administration was "listening to a lot of voices" reacting to the Spencer event."We took notice of all of these opinions, but at the end of the day, the president had to make a decision that was best for the university," Sikes said. "And there will always be people who disagree or agree. It's just part of being the president of a $5 billion public research university."To make minority students feel more welcome and safe on campus, Kaye said the university should fire Fuchs, accept more students of color, and punish students and organizations for "racist, transphobic, Islamaphobic, and anti-Semitic rhetoric."UF Vice President of Student Affairs David Parrott said that punishment for students who make racist remarks may not be effective in teaching them why that kind of speech is inappropriate."Most free speech is protected," Parrott said. "Punishing someone for saying something is not something a public university can do."Instead, Parrott said that putting more speech into the conversation can help students learn not to speak with a racist undertone. In regards to TogetherUF, Parrott recognizes the campaign as a driving force to ensure long-term unity among students.He said the campaign has the capability of making significant changes, but to what degree is to be determined because the campaign is relatively new."The ongoing collaboration, the reaching out and focus on TogetherUF is outstanding," Parrott said. "I like to see the students come together in unity. It warms your heart."The goal of the TogetherUF campaign, Desai said, is to give students an ongoing platform for discussion, especially for minority groups or those who feel like they don't fit in at UF.One of the first events hosted by TogetherUF after Spencer came to campus was a student panel on diversity and inclusion.On the panel were representatives from the Brazilian Student Association, Greek American Student Association , Hispanic Student Association, Indian Student Association and Russian Culture Club. The discussion, Desai said, "really showed students are more unified than they think they are.""We want to keep the conversation going, and the how is the most challenging factor," he said.Panel speaker Daria Bulatnikova encouraged students to educate themselves about multicultural opportunities on campus.Bulatnikova, a 21-year-old marketing student at UF and president of the Russian Culture Club, suggested that students begin with curiosity, make themselves aware and get involved with groups on campus instead of just doing nothing."It’s the problem of the students who don’t take enough action," Bulatnikova told WUFT News. "I blame myself for seeing the problem and not doing enough. We should work on ourselves to be more attentive to campus events and to talk about things, but also do something about it."Desai said the TogetherUF committee will create future events that reflect people's perspectives and explore why things happen. He also said TogetherUF is looking for students to share their needs.African American studies lecturer Vincent Adejumo said the tone of fear that surrounded Spencer’s arrival to campus has faded away. Since Spencer has come and gone, Adejumo said attitudes have moved on and conversations have shifted to football coaching."In that moment when Spencer came on campus, people were jazzed up and revved up. … Things are back to almost a feeling of complacency," Adejumo said.He said that TogetherUF puts a Band-Aid on deep-seated issues regarding separation on campus."It doesn't address the issue of there being this idea that marginalized communities on campus are alone," Adejumo said. "Their voices aren’t heard."He said the intention of TogetherUF to bring people together is good, but "without proper dialogue and policy, then it’s not gonna be as effective as it should be.”Adejumo suggested better communication between the UF administration and the student body as a tangible way for the university to improve its inclusion for marginalized communities."Something as simple as [Fuchs] sending emails not sounding insensitive," Adejumo said. "A lot of students feel like he’s not conveying a message of understanding through his communication."According to Sikes, Fuchs works closely with his speech writer and communications team when emailing students. These emails, she noted, go through multiple edits before being sent.Will Atkins, associate dean of students and senior director of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, said there is no one solution to complacency.  Improvement takes everyone's effort to keep the momentum going, not just during events such as Spencer’s visit to campus, he said."We need to continue having conversations on race and racism on a higher level," Atkins said. "We need to do that more frequently and make it more normal. And it starts with everyone. It’s a collective responsibility."

Jayna is a fourth year journalism student at the University of Florida and can be reached at jayna.ts@ufl.edu with any questions.