History and the people who make it: William Atkins

This month, the SPOHP team is highlights two very important themes, antiracism and the political process. 

This 2018 interview with Mr. William Atkins, former Director of UF’s Multicultural Affairs focuses on the Black experience at UF, while exploring what student activism looks like. Mr. Atkins [A] was interviewed by Cheyenne Chang [C]. 

C: How did the UF community take your activism? What was the environment like for people of color and when things happened what was it like?

A: Directly connected to my experience, one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela, “Education is one of the most powerful weapons you can use to change the world.” To me, that’s my approach to raising awareness around things and engaging with different people, using education as a tool. Not formal education like you gotta go to high school and college and get all these degrees, but this idea of lifelong learning as part of the education process. 

To me, any way I can continue to learn and grow and help others learn and grow, that’s my contribution to my progress and social change. My experience was heavily grounded in education as a means to raise awareness and engage people around change. 

Another big thing that means a lot to me is being involved in civic and political processes. Not only registering to vote and going in regularly and of course, the national elections, but city, state, local elections. Those matter so heavily and making sure that my peers knew about what was going on. 

It’s actually one of my fraternity’s national programs as well, a vote less people is a hopeless people, so we’ve been committed to voter and civic engagement for a while. It’s not only important to be a regular voter but an informed voter and know who you’re voting for, what you’re voting for. We do forums to help raise awareness about what’s going on with different elections and political figures. I can go on and on.

C: I’m an ambassador for API which does the same thing but for the API community so I totally get it. What was it like your time in undergrad with the two houses? What was the environment like? You mentioned BSU meetings were on the second and they were always full. What was the environment of the houses?

A: As a first year student here, we knew about the history of the institutes and also knew about the history of Black UF through programs like the PAACT program, Pledging to Advance Academic Capacity Together. That brought in incoming first year students and we had faculty, staff, mentors helping us get adjusted to UF. 

I  remember Dean Shaw, he was in Liberal Arts & Sciences, and him coming into the room in Carleton Auditorium where we had our welcome kick-off meeting. He gave a history of Black UF and said whenever you see a Black person on campus, you speak. Whoever they are, whether it’s faculty, staff. You always speak to people. 

If you can’t speak, you give the head nod, something to acknowledge people who look like you on campus because it’s not often you’re gonna see people who look like you. We can’t silence each other, we have to make sure we acknowledge our existence. 

I remember stories like that. I remember hearing about Black Thursday and hearing about protests and demonstrations. When I was a first year student, BSU would have meetings in the IBC. We didn’t know anyone, we were just like, “Okay this is where we’re going for these meetings.” 

If you got there late, you’d be standing or in the hallway or in the stairway around the corner. You had to be there because that’s where family and community happened. That’s where you knew about what was going on on campus. 

I remember the BSU President when I was a first year student. I was actually just with her when in D.C. Even just those lifelong connections, we still have them. It was jam packed. We were on the second floor and the space was limited. Sometimes the AC didn’t work, you just toughed it out and kept it moving. 

Those memories, right? After the meeting we just hung out downstairs or upstairs, just seeing how everyone’s week was going and how classes were going. Just having that community meant the world especially as a first year student. 

Similar things were happening with La Casita. I had some friends and they would invite me for different events over there. I never really felt like I couldn’t go over there. Being a Black student on campus, the IBC was a hub for community.

C: How has the climate changed from being an undergrad at UF to being a staff member here?

A: The climate has changed in a couple of ways, particularly with the students. 

It’s a different generation. When I was here, millennials were the students on campus and now millennials are no longer students. It’s Generation Z. It’s a different lived experience that students in this generation have, compared to my generation and the one before me. 

I think those transformations will always be there. That’s the nature of education. While staff have been here for a while, the student population will for the most part be eighteen through twenty-two, and some nontraditional students as well which is something else we are needing to spend more time attending to. 

The population and the makeup is a lot different than it was generations ago. The emergence and the permanence of social media and how information is communicated, disseminated, that definitely has changed the climate, not bad or good, it’s just different. 

I talk with a lot of alumni who were at UF from around the time I was here, and I’m like, “Were things this all over the place when we were here?” I think for us there were situations that happened and we knew we were students of color at a predominantly white institution. Navigating certain spaces came with some challenges and the need to be able to adapt and code switch in a way, but everyone is like, “What is going on now?” If something happened when we were notes, we would’ve looked at that like it’s not good and we expect more from our university and this is not normal. 

Today there are some things that are happening on a much more frequent basis of racism and discrimination, bias, specifically towards minoritized students. That’s becoming normal and to me, that is disappointing and a reality we are grapplingwith on a daily, hourly basis.

C: And all these acts of racism that are occurring on campus. What is MCDA’s role in the aftermath?

A: We do have some influence but if a student organization does something racist, I actually cannot kick a student organization off campus. As deplorable as something may be, I have to remember what my scope and expectations are along with the department. 

I think before the people thought, well actually they should be holding people accountable. There’s a way we can do that, but there are some things that are beyond our control. What we can do is influence in the areas that we have influence, and that’s heavily in education. Last year, right around the time of Richard Spencer, we did do a lot around antiracism education.

We had events for that. We tried bringing students together to have space to process things, Together UF. Also if students want to mobilize through demonstrations, or protests, we helped students think about the history and educate them on the history of different social movements so that they’re well informed and prepared for what could be outcomes or consequences. 

Education is that big world that we do have influence over and can utilize. When things do happen, we do our best to be involved with the conversations. Relationships and partnerships we’ve built on campus help us with that. We’ve had to re-temper expectations around what we can do.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy.

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