“Injustice” at Florida public universities; UM students demonstrate against HB 999

Lys Isma, a second year PhD student at the Rosenstiel school, speaks at a Thursday demonstration against HB 999 on Lakeside Patio. Photo credit: Nonii Randall

At the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel school, Lys Isma runs SEAS, Seeking Equity and Success. After George Floyd’s murder in May, 2020, students founded SEAS to create a safe space at the Rosenstiel school.

SEAS is “unapologetically Black” and devoted to increasing racial diversity in the sciences through monthly conversations focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) amongst other initiatives.

At a Florida public school, SEAS would be threatened by Florida House Bill 999. The recent Florida bill seeks to prohibit public funding of DEI alongside a litany of other restrictions on educational content.

Initially, this would have included Black and multicultural Greek life. A March 15 update changed the bill to allow student-funded organizations, yet students at private and public universities alike remain worried.

“The implications of taking funding away from that means that we’re next,” Clayton Seniors said in reference to DEI funding.

Seniors, a senior at Florida International University and president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) at FIU, spoke at a demonstration in the center of UM’s campus on Thursday, April 20. UM’s Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) chapter organized the demonstration in collaboration with several other groups on campus.

“It just seems like they’re attacking us right now. I know this bill doesn’t directly affect us, but it’s close enough,” Seniors said.

The sentiment is similar amongst UM’s multicultural and Black groups and Greek life.

AKA is a part of the NPHC, also known as Black Greek Letter Organizations. It includes nine national fraternities and sororities of which seven are active at UM. First founded in 1931 as a “haven and outlet” for Black students, the organization now spans the United States and includes nine organizations.

“Today the need remains the same,” NPHC’s mission statement reads.

At nearby Florida International University, any organization that promotes DEI and is not entirely student-funded would cease to exist. While UM would not need to comply, the concept feels inherently threatening to some UM students.

“I am part of United Black Students on campus and a number of other multicultural and diversity based organizations, so it hits very close to home,” said Asia Chester, a senior studying biochemistry and global health studies. “I feel unwelcome within this state and that existing as a person is not allowed.”

She has found these organizations essential to community building, especially alongside peers who have similar experiences.

The demonstration included a series of other speakers, one who invoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” written in his “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The quote resonated with students. HB 999’s direct effects at UM would be minimal if passed, yet significant at public Florida institutions. Students also fear what may come in the future.

“He’s [DeSantis is] pushing his own agenda with this bill, and, by doing so, he’s preventing people from the education that they deserve,” said Rohith Edupuganti, a senior studying business analytics and accounting.

Coming from a minority background, Edupuganti has found the organizations threatened by HB 999 important to interacting with people of similar backgrounds and finding a community.

He hopes by demonstrating students will continue finding the resources they need as he has at UM.

Isma echoed this, also voicing that she hopes students at the university become more aware of Florida’s legislation. The demonstration attracted the attention of passersby and received the approval of UM’s Dean of Students.

However, Isma noted that more support would be necessary in protesting Florida legislation.

“I do think that at least the administration of UM, the people who are getting paid, need to be louder,” Isma said.