This week, the Rice Program Council changed the theme for Esperanza, which will take place at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, from “A Night at Gatsby’s” to “A Taste of the Twenties.” The change occurred after the Black Student Association, Rice African Student Association and the National Society of Black Engineers reached out to RPC with concerns that the initial theme was based on a novel that is not racially inclusive and overlooks the contributions of the African American community to culture in the 1920s. By meeting with student leaders and altering the theme, RPC responded in a thoughtful and appropriate way. The discussion that led to the change is an example of honest and critical conversations that we should be engaging in.
However, in an ideal world, such a conversation would have taken place long before the theme was chosen. Student organizations, especially blanket tax organizations tasked with serving the student body (including the Thresher), should take this occurrence as a learning opportunity to be proactive about understanding our weaknesses when it comes to serving and engaging the Rice community.
Our leadership at the Thresher is not reflective of the demographics of the student body, an issue that persists in leadership in other student organizations as well. Often, we join organizations because friends already belong to them or because we see students who are like us succeeding in that organization. And once in those organizations, we tend to recruit familiar faces — those who look and think like us. This leads to a cycle in which clubs become less — rather than more — representative. One concrete way to break out of this cycle and avoid situations like the original Esperanza theme is through proactive change.
Change looks like gathering input from the community before deciding on campuswide themes and recruiting beyond our inner circle of friends. Close examination of metrics used by organizations to judge merit can reveal integral biases in the most well-meaning leadership teams. And change does not mean relying on representatives of diverse communities to continually educate on these issues — it means learning from mistakes and seeking ways to proactively prevent casual discrimination or microaggressions.
We can, and should, do better to ensure that all populations at Rice feel heard and included.