WESTFIELD — Hundreds of Westfield State University students and faculty members gathered for a walk out today in response to reports of hate crimes recently on campus.
Reports of racist vandalism, graffiti and an assault of a female student led up to the event.
Organized by the WSU Education Department, the walkout started at 12:30 p.m. on the campus green and lasted one hour.
Both faculty and students made speeches, with the majority of speakers sharing the message that racism on campus was not new, but needs to end.
“I have been here 24 years, and what we’re seeing now, we’ve seen in the past,” said Nitza Hidalgo, a professor of education. “We have to change the culture. We need to protect our students.”
The Education Department faculty read several demands, including having a class about racism and white supremacy that every student must take as a freshman in addition to training for faculty and staff.
Hidalgo demanded that the incidents that led to the walkout be called racism.
“Name the oppression and hate actions as systemic racism,” she said. “They are hate crimes. They are not biases, folks. Let’s call it what it is.”
Senior Bridget Higgins said she is appalled at what is taking place on campus.
“I never could have pictured our university being a hot pot for racism,” she said. “I have lived a life where I thought racism was a dying thought, but apparently not.”
Higgins called for change from her fellow students.
“We need to protect our community … my name is Bridget Higgins. I am white. I am a young woman. I am a senior. I am Westfield State University, and I was proud to be an Owl (the school mascot) until today.”
Friends Avory Luna and Joel Mercier participated in the walkout and stood in the crowd. Mercier, of Attleboro, said as a gay person, being on campus has become scary.
“I don’t feel welcome here sometimes,” Mercier said. “I’m gay and these events make me feel unsafe here.”
Luna, of Chicopee, said he attended the walkout because what is happening on campus is not right.
“I’m here because as a person of color, I’ve grown up with racism,” Luna said. “People have said this has been going on here for years, and it’s time to bring light to the situation.”
A student speaker who identified herself only as Genesis said she was disappointed that few white students joined a Monday student march held in protest of racism and in support of students of color.
“We had our own march because we’re tired of the Kumbaya,” she said. “We wanted our voice to be heard and we felt like nothing was happening except emails and turned faces.”
Genesis said a young woman was assaulted simply because she’s Latina, but that would not deter her from being on campus.
“If you don’t want us here that sucks, because we’re gonna stay here,” she said.
Student Candace Alexander, who did not give her hometown, spoke while tears streamed down her face.
“I’ve never felt so unwanted,” she said. “The fact that this is happening today, it really hurts. I don’t know what I did wrong except for the color of my skin.”
Alexander said she regrets her decision to attend WSU.
“I feel like I made a mistake coming here,” she said. “I hope you know how much it hurts. How far does it have to go before it stops? Do you have to find a dead body hanging in a dorm? I want Westfield to do better.”
Westfield State President Ramon S. Torrecilha told the crowd he stands with them and thanked faculty and students for participating in the walkout.
“It’s heartening that we are standing together,” Torrecilha said. “Your voices, your ideas are being heard.”
Torrecilha said he hopes to draw upon the collective knowledge at WSU for change. He said the campus could “bring about a new era of dignity and respect for all members of this community” and said he envisions WSU being a “more compassionate and inclusive place.”