As DeSantis targets diversity in education, FAMU students fear for future

TALLAHASSEE — Part of the reason students choose Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University is to enmesh themselves in their history.

To become a Rattler, they say, is to become part of a legacy. Florida A&M was founded in 1887 to educate the descendants of enslaved people. Today it’s an epicenter of Black culture and achievement, top-ranked despite repeated underfunding.

From campus, with its stately columns and Greek houses, students can see the towering Florida Capitol a mile away.

And they fear what’s happening inside.

Lawmakers, moving forward with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda, are poised to dramatically reshape Florida higher education in the name of combating “orthodoxy” and “uniformity of thought.”

They propose dropping the consideration of diversity in hiring at public universities. They hope to eliminate funding for diversity and equity programs. And they aim to ban certain college courses and majors involving gender and ethnic studies, race and “identity politics.”

Students worry that such changes could upend Florida’s only public historically Black university — a rare place that feels like it is truly theirs.

Florida A&M spends the most per student on diversity, equity and inclusion of any public state university.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with student leaders and activists, freshmen and seniors, Florida natives and newcomers, about the tension they feel balancing fear of repercussions with their commitment to resistance — all while trying to get an education.

Below are eight of their stories, in their own words.

Christian Baker, 22

Baker is a senior studying political science.

I’m a military kid. I’ve lived overseas in Japan and Germany. Those cultural experiences were definitely breathtaking. It was eye-opening for me. It’s how I know the standard for how real government should look.

Coming back here, seeing how politics have become more extreme … there’s no center anymore. It almost feels like we took a step forward to take 50 steps back.

I’m a Black man in America, and particularly in Florida. Going out every day, I fear for my life. I might get stopped just cause my taillight is out. I might not come home.

So when you talk about taking away diversity, equity and inclusion, you’re talking about taking away the bones of progress, the programs that are supposed to help move us forward, keep us all safe.

(DeSantis) doesn’t feel what we feel. He doesn’t go outside every day and feel what I have to feel.

Education censorship directly affects us and the next generation. And who’s to say it won’t go further? Who’s to say other states won’t do the same thing?

Every day there’s uncertainty. That’s part of why I organize.

I had to ask myself how I could impact history. I went back and I researched different types of civil rights history in Tallahassee and I saw bus boycotts, the Woolworth sit-in … they were led by Florida A&M students, just like me.

Zachary C. Bell, 22

Bell of Jacksonville is a senior studying business administration. He’s currently serving as student body president.

It’s scary times that we’re living in. It’s scary times to attend a historically Black university and to be a student leader.

Student leaders have always led the good fight. It was students that led bus boycotts and sit-ins during the civil rights movement. Now we’re fighting for our history — to be able to learn it the way that it happened, not the way that some people want to make it seem like it did.

We’re going to have to utilize the fact that, geographically, we’re right here in the state capital. We’re right here in the city with the people that are making decisions that affect us.

It’s a blessing and a curse. It gives us the opportunity to talk to our legislators firsthand. But it gives them the opportunity to hide from us.

I really wish that people would realize equity isn’t an ideology or a trend. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live their life and pursue happiness.

Paige Moore, 18

Moore is a freshman studying business administration and supply chain management.

I’m from Atlanta. Living the politics here has been a lot.

To think that just eight years ago we had a Black president, and now it’s like we can’t even talk about certain things in school … it’s so unbelievable.

Just being a Black person, period, you already have to face your own battles. But in Florida, it’s a constant fight. Being at an HBCU, especially. Our whole foundation was built upon our ancestors and how we weren’t able to go to other schools. Our history is the reason we exist.

My professors are telling me there are things they’re worried about not being able to teach us anymore.

History repeats itself. If you erase something, it will happen again.

Grace Stanley, 20

Stanley of Pensacola is a sophomore studying health science and theater.

I came to FAMU from Pensacola, Florida, although I am a military brat. My mother served in the Army for 28 years.

I love to read. I love to learn. I love to perform.

The intersection between performance arts and activism has always been very apparent. You see it with music and poetry. Like when Kendrick Lamar performed “Alright” during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

My mother saw my love for acting and performance and mixed it with her love for history. When I was younger, I would participate in National History Day fairs. I would do monologues sharing different stories of Black women.

I told the stories of Mamie Till and Emmett Till. I told the story of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, which was the only all-African American, all-female unit to serve in the military during World War II. I told the story of Henrietta Lacks and how her immortal cells were stolen and how her family never received reparations. I told the story of Elizabeth Eckford, who is a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine students in 1954 who helped desegregate Little Rock Central High School after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

History is not really disputable. You can’t go back and erase it.

Schools are supposed to be safe and sacred spaces, but some states are trying to turn back time.

I’ve begun to feel numb.

My generation, we find our coping mechanism to be saying things like “we’re on a floating rock, it’s spinning, we’re going nowhere and we’re all going to die.”

It becomes very nihilistic very quickly when you feel overwhelmed with the amount of violence, the amount of death, the amount of racism.

My message to young people is to vote, pay attention, know what you’re talking about. But also take care of yourself. You can’t fight for a new life if you’re not going to be here because you’ve stressed yourself out with the violence of the day. I know it’s exhausting.

Take care of yourself first.

Devan Vilfrard, 25

Vilfrard of Fort Lauderdale is a senior political science major.

I attended Florida State and I didn’t feel like a part of the university. I felt like the “other.”

The “other” versus “family” concept is something a lot of HBCU students can tell you about. We go to these other institutions to obtain a quality education, however, we might not feel like we get quality service or community there.

I wouldn’t be who I am without FAMU. Now we need help from whoever is willing to hear us.

I started organizing after (former President) Donald Trump was elected. His influence, and the influence of people who believe in and think like him, has shown throughout our country. This is the continuation of that.

I was serving in the military on active duty during the summer of 2020. I’ve heard people say the “N” word while I was in uniform. When there were social justice protests, I was told by other members in uniform that they believed protesters should have been shot. This is the influence I’m talking about.

It’s not isolated. All news publications should be looking at Florida right now because the injustices here could happen anywhere else next.

Our students are suffering. Our youth are suffering. As HBCU students, we’re nervous and scared to speak up and fight back against it because we’re nervous that our university will lose funding from our state.

We’re nervous that we’ll be arrested and charged. The mere act of voicing ourselves, our First Amendment rights, are threatened.

We need it to be documented.

Kenyana McCray, 21

McCray of Jacksonville is a junior studying business administration and fine art.

It’s a difficult atmosphere for Black individuals and other people of color right now.

We have to be kind of careful with how we’re … talking about it because we don’t want more repercussions from what’s already being taken away.

A lot of the student body is aware of how destructive a lot of the bills being considered this session could be to our HBCU, specifically.

If the state doesn’t support us then we no longer exist. There’s a lot of tension there.

The reason that we have HBCUs is because of segregation. The reason that we kept HBCUs around is because they were a place for us to feel safe around each other. To take away diversity, equity and inclusion is to jeopardize that safe space.

We have to be careful with how we step right now. It’s important for people to understand that we feel like our hands are tied.

We need community support more than anything else.

Sydney Aitcheson, 21

Aitcheson of Titusville is a senior studying broadcast journalism. She’s currently serving as president of the FAMU branch of the NAACP.

I always wanted to go to Florida A&M. I went to a predominantly white high school. We didn’t really learn about African American history, so I wanted to get some of that culture — my culture — here.

We’re continuously doing things in this community to let the governor know that we’re going to stand up to bullying. We don’t want to attack him but become an ally. We just want to ask him ‘Why?’

Why does he want to take away our Black history? Why does he want to take away LGBTQ rights? Why does he want to take away the rights of anybody or the history of anybody?

We need to continue to protest, but it’s very discouraging at times. It’s like we keep taking steps backward.

Black history is American history. It’s a part of the story.

We’re going to teach it in churches, we’re going to instill it in our little brothers and sisters and future kids, and we’re going to continue to host events for people to get out and learn.

I want to be the difference, I want to be the change. I want to be in somebody’s history book fighting for my people and just making sure our history is accurate and being taught.

Jalauria Mills, 20

Mills of Orlando is a sophomore history student.

As a queer woman who grew up in Florida, I was never brought up in a culture that accepted or celebrated me. Being Black is compounding the risk to my safety.

At the beginning of high school, I was struggling with my own sexuality, and (it) wreaked havoc on my mental health trying to be one person to the world and one person internally. More people are going to feel that way, and it’s queer children who will be most hurt — queer children who have higher rates of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation, especially queer children of color.

I want lawmakers to know that they have a whole generation of people who have been taught that it is our constitutional right to resist oppression. We do not fool ourselves into thinking we live in a perfect society, but we do demand better. And if you think you’ll be able to blatantly disrespect our rights, we won’t stand for that. I hope you don’t think we will.

In any generation, there will always be people who resist. Particularly as a Black woman, it is my tradition. It is my duty to uphold the people who came before me who resisted. If they resisted in times of oppression, what makes you think I will not as well?

And for Black and queer youth, people who are both and who live at that intersection … I want you to know that even though you live in a world that wants you to hate yourself, you do not have to.

Just because the world may give you a message that you are unnatural, that you should hide who you are, you can love yourself.

Loving yourself is the greatest gift you can give yourself in a time like this. It is radical and it is threatening to some people. You should do it anyway.