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Students petition to redefine BIRT

<ir="ltr">On April 18, two Carleton students started an online petition to limit the Bias Incident Response Team’s (BIRT) definition of a bias incident to a behavior or act that harms historically marginalized groups. The petition has raised debate among BIRTeam members, students and faculty over the role of BIRT on campus.

Currently, the online petition created by Sam Neubauer ‘17 and Meg Crenshaw ‘17, has 73 signatures, and states “we are concerned that the [BIRT] committee has moved dangerously far from its original intent. According to the petition, the current definition of a bias incident would include reverse racism. While BIRT is a work in progress, we strongly recommend the BIRT Working Group develop a definition that is conditional upon a legacy of systemic oppression.” BIRT co-chairs said language will be added to address systematic oppression, but the BIRT team will still be open to other forms of bias incidents. Neubauer and Crenshaw created the petition to address historical oppression in BIRT after attending a March 4th town hall, which presented the working group’s first draft on the purpose of BIRT at Carleton and its definition of a bias incident.

“We read the documents and realized there was a huge flaw with the way that this is currently set up,” said Neubauer. After the meeting, Neubauer and Crenshaw drafted a statement. “We sent out an email to about twenty-two campus organization leaders asking for their thoughts and input.” After a positive response, “we basically just took the language we used, put it into a petition and sent it out to different campus organizations and pushed it on Facebook,” Neubauer said.  

He added that “the long term goal for the petition is to get BIRT to include language in the document and definition of a bias incident that adds ‘of a historically marginalized identity.’ [BIRT] currently states that students should not be targeted on the basis of their identity and characteristics, perceived or actual, and these include, race class, gender, etcetera.”

Crenshaw said that “without specific language about systemic oppression and marginalized groups, [BIRT] can end up helping people that come from privileged backgrounds. I think that’s why it’s really necessary to have those key words in there, to make sure it is protecting the people it’s meant to protect and not be used as yet another tool for privileged people.” The petition signers are almost entirely part of a Carleton network, according to Neubauer. While some alumni and Northfield community members have signed the petition, the majority are current students.

Maya Margolis ’19 said she signed the petition “because I think it’s important for everyone to feel comfortable at Carleton and be able to learn. It will only have a positive effect if it acknowledges and tries to counter the power dynamics that are unfortunately present at Carleton, which often allow some people to feel more comfortable than others.”

Echoing her statement, fellow petition signer David DeMark ’18 said “by not taking into account the historical socioeconomic factors that define race in the first place, the BIRTeam’s construction implies that addressing bias against white, heterosexual or cis students is as important as addressing that towards those groups’ marginalized counterparts.”

While the working group has yet to officially announce a policy, BIRT co-chair chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum said, “We will absolutely look at issues of historical marginalization and oppression. It won’t be the only thing we look at. It’s absolutely critical that we pay attention to all issues of historical marginalization and how to address them while still leaving the door open to other concerns.”

“In regards to the petition, we’ve added the ideas of historical marginalization into a few parts of the draft, but I don’t think it’s legal or ethical to curtail what types of bias incidents we will consider, as every person has multiple characteristics that fit different identities,” she said.  

However, after a meeting on Monday, April 27, BIRT co-chair Thomas Hiura ’17 said “at this time and after our updates this week, our draft does define a bias incident as being contingent upon the targeting of identities that have experienced systemic marginalization. I personally believe that definition to be very important and will do what I can to keep it in our language.”He added that the document will undergo further vetting and review by campus organizations, such as the CSA Senate, and that “our document may go through [changes] before hopefully becoming college policy and revisions may be made.”

Hiura ’17 disagreed with Fure-Slocum’s position on BIRT’s role, saying that he thinks “bias incidents ought to be defined as issues targeting individuals with systemically marginalized identities,” prompting him to sign Neubauer and Crenshaw’s petition. “I think it’s fantastic that people are invested in what we’re trying to do and engaged in our process. We take feedback from all opinions very seriously. It’s kind of a weird thing to do, signing the petition that’s petitioning you, but I personally thought the petition was dope,” he said.

He noted that the “the working group is not a homogeneous entity, which I think is valuable. I think every member wants the BIRT to function in a way that serves systemically oppressed and marginalized groups, but there has been disagreement about what kind of language can or might feasibly be implemented into college policy.”

The working group received significant feedback after releasing its initial draft during winter term, including responses from faculty opposed to a BIRTeam. “The petition is one of the many forms of response we’ve gotten that we’re paying attention to,” said Fure-Slocum. “There are certainly people who think we ought not to have a BIRT at all, as well as those people who think we need to have one and in a particular format. We’re trying to take all of that into consideration and respond in our next draft,” she said. Fure-Slocum said that the working group hopes to release an updated draft of BIRT’s purpose and definition by the end of the term, and the working group will “continue to welcome responses” from the community.

“How BIRT is set up is going to be a legacy of our time at Carleton,” said Neubauer. He and Crenshaw have yet to formally meet with the BIRTeam working group to discuss the petition, but he said that “how we go forward depends on what the response is from [BIRT]. If they include the language that addresses systematic oppression, I’m happy to be done and leave it as it is. If they don’t, then I’m not going away until they can put that language in there.”

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