Stand in Solidarity: Interview with Melanie Flowers

Students waiting in line

We recently interviewed Student Body President Melanie Flowers about her thoughts on being NC State’s first Black woman student body president, the Black Lives Matter movement and what will happen in the aftermath of recent events relating to injustice and racism, both locally and nationally.

Diversity Digest: What does it mean to you to be NC State’s first Black woman student body president?

Melanie FlowersMelanie Flowers: As I prepared my campaign, I knew there was a chance I would be the first Black female student body president. Nicole Teague, our outgoing student body vice president, was our first female Black student body vice president and I was like, “Oh I think I’m the first, so if I win that’s kind of crazy.” It was really weird to understand that I would be the first, because Student Government is 100 years old and that’s a really long time to go without someone with my identities filling this position. Nevertheless, I was excited to do that. Also there was a pressure there and there is a pressure here to share that this year — and even more than normal years — this year upholds the Black community and their needs and their concerns and their voices. So that has been really important to me.

Digest: Can you explain a little bit about the Black Lives Matter movement?

Flowers: The Black Lives Matter movement came out of Travyon Martin’s death in 2013. I was a freshman in high school, and it was this new thing and it was picking up, and then it would die down a few months or a few weeks after an instance of police brutality. And then there would be another one, and it would pick back up again, and that went on until this point. After Ahmaud Arbery’s death and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, it has just blown up, and everyone has decided to take the Black Lives Matter movement as this objective need to move humanity forward. I think a lot of the value in the movement is just communicating that there needs to be a focus on this issue and this concern, because it’s killing people in a specialized way. This movement is fighting against Black people being murdered unjustly; this is one of our nation’s greatest pandemics.

Digest: How can the NC State community stand in solidarity with Black communities and the movement?

Melanie Flowers, student body president, at a protest with megaphoneFlowers: I think the biggest thing for Black students that they can do to support the movement is to not be afraid to speak out. There is an amount of courage that it takes to be vocal in these situations and now it’s more important than ever — you really need to take advantage of your voice. And it isn’t necessarily fair because — it’s not the best thing — because the people who are victimized by the system are the people who have to stand in opposition to it, but unfortunately that’s how things are set up to work. This year especially, it is important for Black students to not be afraid to stand up when things happen. As courageous Black students continue to labor for their presence on campus, non-Black student allies are willing to contribute as well.

For non-Black students, it’s important to get educated and know what’s going on and just stay informed. One of the most privileged things I hear in passing from non-Black people is, “Oh, well the news is stressful right now” or “Oh, I don’t want to hear it, this is really sad, this is depressing,” and to a point, yes, you need to prioritize your mental health, but above that, the fact that you can not tune in to what is going on in the world is a huge privilege, and I think that’s one of the biggest boundaries from non-Black students becoming allies, is they just refuse to know what’s going on, so that’s a huge first step. And beyond that, being willing to educate others and speak out when things happen on a micro level before it gets to a macro level.

Digest: What can NC State faculty, staff and students do to educate themselves on the historic and current day perpetuations of racism? Do you have any specific recommendations?

Flowers: One of my favorite Netflix shows is Dear White People. It’s about an Ivy League institution, a predominately white institution, and it follows Black activists — students on campus. I think it does an incredible job of representing some of the hardships that Black students go through and also shows the dynamics of the Black community. I think a lot of times from the outside, the Black community looks like we’re all this single faceted body of people but in reality that’s not the truth, there are so many different ethnicities within the Black community, different personalities, interests — all of that — and there is conflict in the Black community because we are not all the same person. The show shines a needed spotlight on how different people are within the Black community and how not everyone in the Black community believes in the same approaches in funding solutions. We are multi-faceted. It’s a great show.

For students day to day, you go to NC State and we have a lot of amazing speakers who come to campus all the time. I think that’s a really great opportunity for students to come sit in and listen in a space that’s appropriate. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest going to a space that is meant to be a safe space for Black students or students of color because sometimes if you are going with the intention of learning about the community, and that’s the Black community or a person of color’s community’s safe space, it’s off-putting and it’s not you needing the safe space, it’s you needing to benefit from it, which creates a whole other space of concern for Black students who need a safe space, who then don’t have it because non-Black students or non-people-of-color are trying to benefit from it. Also, OIED has a link to books, podcasts, and all of that. Additionally, Nubian Message has done a fantastic job not only advocating for the Black community but sharing Black stories as well.

Digest: Following incidents of racism on NC State’s campus or by NC State students, how can the NC State community, specifically Black members of this community, feel welcomed, valued and safe on campus?

Flowers: I’ll speak to the experience of our incoming students. I think it’s going to be really important for them to find their community, and this year especially it will be important that that community does have people that reflect their identities. This year especially, it’s also going to be challenging to find that community because COVID is informing how we are reopening our institution and they’re limited in how they can gather. College is an interesting space in that when you enter, people are much more bold about their opinions and their feelings about the world and society and how all of these different cultures socialize within society, and it’s different than being in high school. And something that I experienced was, I went to a predominantly white high school and was like well, “I’m going to a predominantly white college, it’s gonna be the same, I’m good, it’s not going to be that much different, it’s not going to be that much worse,” and that wasn’t the case. People in college are a lot bolder and I think making the jump for Black students this year is going to be, or potentially is going to be a little bit harder.

Once you’ve got your community, stick with them. I think it’s really important to take advantage of spaces like the Multicultural Student Affairs center, African American Cultural Center and spaces like that for Black students specifically. They feel like they’re isolated from campus because it’s one of the only places where you walk inside and you’re reflected in the majority of people in that space. Day to day on campus for Black students, you are not going to see people that look like you unless you are really making an effort or you live with somebody who looks like you. You have to intentionally seek that for yourself and I think it’s important that Black students and Black faculty and staff take those steps to do that.

Digest: What changes can we expect to see in the fall and onward on our campus and by the NC State community to stand in solidarity, denounce racism and speak out against injustice?

Flowers: Chancellor Woodson is committed to reevaluating the university’s values and setting higher expectations for students when it comes to how we respect our diverse population. Student Government has been working for a very long time to get cultural competency training and we are closer than we have been. This started in session 96, so that would have been 2017. And at that point, it was something that was going to be virtual, and now we are looking at it in person, which I think will be much more impactful. It’s very easy to disengage from virtual anything, so that will hopefully educate our students on how we expect them to interact with other students that don’t share their identities.

It’ll be something they complete the second semester of their freshman year. It’s not something that is repeated. Obviously if it’s in person, the bandwidth of that program means it’s going to be hard to scale to an annual program for 37,000 students. So I think it’s most appropriate for it to be the first-year students. We do offer training through OIED for faculty and staff, however, it’s not yet required of everyone. That’s something that the NAACP and other Black organizations have pushed for, I’m pushing for, it’s one of the first things I talked to Chancellor Woodson about when coming into office — if we could standardize it for faculty and staff. I think we are getting closer to that.

Digest: What is Student Government doing to serve the Wolfpack community during this time?

Right now, I put together a commission to work on COVID-19 and reopening of the university, and they’re going to be reviewing all of the reopening plans and also analyzing the submission form we put out several weeks ago. And they’re going to be giving me reports about the issues they find in the reopening plans, and then I’m giving those to the chairs of the chancellor’s task forces. Early May, Secretary DeVos from the U.S. Department of Education gave us our new Title IX regulations that get enacted August 14, 2020, so we are actually going to be operating in two different policies, and so Student Government is working to organize a town hall. I’m also organizing a commission to deal with other things, like putting together legislation for the ASG , which is on a state level, so that’s something on our radar.

For our Black community and our race relations on campus I’m working with Chancellor Woodson and OIED to have communication between Black organizations and then in meetings where it’s appropriate, really trying to raise the messages that the Coalition of Black Students is putting out and really making sure they’re heard and that the administration feels like these are things that they need to take seriously.

Digest: How has this movement impacted you personally and what changes have you made to your everyday life?

Flowers: The continuation of Black Lives Matter has impacted myself and the country in a way that just hasn’t happened in the past with the movement. Things really seem to be at a boiling point. I was at a protest Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; Saturday night when I was in Raleigh, I had never seen Raleigh get so angry at the world, it was honestly kind of nice to see that because typically when I go to a Raleigh protest it’s really light — somebody says something encouraging, everyone claps, we do some chants, we march around and then we leave, and that’s productive but it kind of — there’s emotion missing from a lot of those events. And Saturday night, there was pure emotion, people were really upset with what had been going on, and that continued throughout the week. So I think for me, I was able to see that people really do care, and we’re getting to a point where the world is really starting to care, and especially knowing that it wasn’t just Raleigh having something — it was Charlotte, Asheville, Wilmington, all over North Carolina — cities were engaging in this movement, and it just felt like a very unified, solid push for change. So yeah, I attend protests whenever I am available.

I have also just really done deep dives in the university and what we have tried to do in the past, and trying to see why it hasn’t happened, because a lot of the things that petitions are pushing for right now with the university have tried to happen in the past, they just haven’t gotten there, so I’m really trying to ask ‘why?’ as often as I can and have things be enacted for now and the future.

Digest: Last thoughts?

Flowers: I would really love to return to NC State and feel like students understand the weight of this summer and potentially understand how to be better classmates to Black students and just understand the weight of their micro actions. I would love to return to NC State and really just feel a cultural change within the student body. To go back to an NC State that we left in the spring would be really disheartening.

Jenna Nabors (she/her) is a fourth-year student majoring in communication and international studies and a Park Scholar. Share your thoughts about this article on Twitter at @NCStateOIED.