Centering Community: The history and progression of Tufts DSDI Centers

Content Warning: Mentions of racism, hate crimes, racial slurs, homophobia

Since the founding of the Africana Center in 1969, Tufts’ Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion (DSDI) Centers have existed as spaces for Tufts students with diverse backgrounds and identities. In the years since 1969, Tufts has established six additional DSDI Centers. For the past 53 years, the implementation of DSDI Centers is in part due to the outsized contributions of student activism, revealing how students push for social change on campus.

The Indigenous Center 

In October 2021, DSDI announced the creation of the Indigenous Center. 

Luz Del Carmen Pliego, the first Indigenous Tufts Community Union Senator and councilmember for the Indigenous Students’ Organization at Tufts (ISOT), expressed its necessity. 

“Whenever you hear about anti-racism and race at Tufts, [Indigenous students] are not involved because we’re not acknowledged. Even though we faced so much discrimination in this country and the genocide of Indigenous people still happens in the Americas… we’re not taken seriously. It’s so difficult walking around campus and no one around you knows your experience, knows the beauty of your culture,” Pliego said.

Pliego explained the need for a specified safe space for Indigenous students. “I don’t feel welcome at [the other DSDI Centers] because there is still so much anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiment there… so the [Indigenous Center] will be like a home far away from home.”

Since 2019, the energy and dedication of ISOT have been integral to the establishment of the Indigenous Center. “It was a very frustrating process… A lot of students felt like this should be obvious, like this should be no question, like the Indigenous Center should be automatically approved for recognition. But it took so long,” Angel Jesus Cruz Salvador, a sophomore and ISOT council member, said.

Salvador highlighted the role student activism played in establishing the center. “Always, without question, the biggest challenger was [the Tufts administration]… A lot of students sacrificed a lot of different things, whether it be time, energy, responsibility, [or] their health and well-being to do all the work that Tufts University wouldn’t,” Salvador said. “[Ultimately,] we have these things because students advocated for them.”

In an email to the Tufts Observer, Kalimah Knight, Deputy Director of Media Relations at Tufts, said the administration saw a need for an Indigenous Center and worked with ISOT to integrate the center into DSDI. “The university believes in the importance of recruiting Indigenous students and will work with the Indigenous Center Director to advance these recruitment efforts,” the email said. 

The Indigenous Center officially opened its doors on March 2, 2022. Salvador spoke of his hopes for the center’s future. 

“I would like the Indigenous Center to ultimately become a symbol of hope and a symbol of joy for every Indigenous student,” said Salvador. “The center [itself] is a protest against the many years when Indigenous students were not receiving the support that they deserve.”

Vernon Miller, the Indigenous Center Director, underscored the significance of the center on Tufts’ campus. “Tufts was built on the Massachusett, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag tribes’ territories, and continues to evolve as an institution in this powerful acknowledgment… The establishment of the Indigenous Center is an extension of the efforts,” Miller wrote in a statement to the Observer. “The [center] will continue the legacy of activism by offering personalized support for prospective and current Indigenous students [and] will always be mindful and intentional in programming to reflect [how] each student’s experience is often individualized in their sovereignty.”

The Africana Center

Tufts’ oldest DSDI center, the Africana Center, was founded in 1969. Originally named the Afro-American Cultural Center, its birth stemmed from what the university’s archives describe as “one of the community’s most significant and effective protests against institutional and societal racism.” 

According to a 1969 edition of the Observer, the protests emanated from the racist hiring practices of Volpe Construction, whom Tufts had contracted to build Lewis Hall. In a letter to the Tufts administration, the leadership of the student Afro-American Society highlighted the dearth of Black students and faculty within Tufts’ academic departments, as well as a lack of policies regarding equal employment for racially marginalized individuals. Specifically, the organization “cited the visible presence of [few Black construction workers],” as only four workers out of ninety were Black, as evidence for the university’s “complicity… in perpetuating racism and exploitation in American society.” 

After a protest that resulted in students occupying the construction site on November 5, 1969, as well as other clashes, an agreement was reached. Both the Tufts administration and the Afro-American Society filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Volpe Construction Company, and the university was pressured to establish what is now named the Africana Center. 

Over 50 years since its conception, the Africana Center exists as a safe haven for students of African descent. According to presentations produced for the center’s 50th anniversary, the center was integral in supporting students through rallying for an independent Africana Studies Department in 2011, as well as the #TheThreePercent rally in 2015, which protested the lack of Black students admitted into universities across the nation, including Tufts.

Harrison Clark, a student peer leader with the Africana Center, shared his personal experience with the Africana Center. “I don’t think you can survive a place like this without some sort of affinity group that allows you to express your identity… the [Africana Center] programs were really big for me in terms of thinking about who was supporting me on campus, who was rooting for me, even if I wasn’t interacting with them all the time,” Clark said.

The Women’s Center

The Women’s Center was established in 1972, first as a student group. It wasn’t until 1985 that the center became independent of TCU jurisdiction. Initially, students organized in the Miller Hall basement, sharing the space with the Tufts University Abortion Coalition.  

Student organization is integral to the legacy of the Women’s Center. On November 6, 1979, the center organized Tufts’ first “Take Back the Night” march, meant to bring awareness to relationship and sexual violence

Hope Freeman, the senior director of the Women’s Center and LGBT Center, spoke about her vision for the Women’s Center, highlighting the need for intersectionality within affinity spaces. “I’m trying to make sure that the folks who don’t typically get the mic aren’t being censored and are being thought about all the time in programming…”

Freeman continued, “I think… intersectional identities are never [cross examined]… as they fit within systems of oppression. All of that is to say… the Women’s Center [is] always assumed to be white or supporting white people, and that anyone who does not fit in that demographic of white, cis woman does not fit in these spaces. Now we know that’s not true… A lot of the work that I [have] been trying to do is undoing this single-story narrative.”

Saira Mukherjee, an intern at the Women’s Center, spoke about the center’s current programming. They said, “There is Gaze, which is a body liberation zine that we’ve been putting out. And then we have the POC Circle… Queer Desis… there’s a lot of crafting events… [and] transformative justice workshops.”

Mukherjee also explained that through the center’s programs, they are able to address sometimes taboo topics, such as mental health and sexual health resources.

The Asian American Center

The Asian American Center was established in 1983, following a targeted racist incident on campus. According to an official apology from the Kappa Chapter of Zeta Psi, a now-disbanded group on campus, pledges “were instructed to line up and yell derogatory remarks of a racial nature such as ‘Nuke the G-ks’ in front of Start House.” At the time, Start House was an affinity residence for Asian-American students. 

According to a 2009 Tufts Daily article, “[M]embers of the Tufts community came together in support of positive change.” In the incident’s aftermath, due to student outrage, the Asian American Center was founded.

Aaron Parayno, Director of the Asian American Center, revealed how the center’s activism-rooted history plays into its current mission. “Student protest is aimed at making the university accountable to the community… Students show the university what they believe it should look like.” 

Arnav Patra, an Asian American Center intern, commended the center’s work. In a statement to the Observer he wrote, “The AAC plays a role in creating space for Asian and Asian American identifying students to celebrate their identities and build community. We are one of only about 40 college Asian American Centers [at US colleges], so our presence on this campus is really special and something that sets Tufts apart.”

Sophomore Michelle Zhang, an Asian American Center intern, likewise lauded the center’s efforts while continuing to implore the university for more. 

“The university gave us a center… We have a center library… space for clubs to gather… study space… [and] community food supply… but it is concerning to think about [the fact that] there was over a 300 percent spike in anti-Asian American [hate crimes] last year. It all correlates: What is the university doing about that?”

Zhang continued to discuss the necessity of cross-cultural exchange among students. “Tufts has such a high Asian and Asian-American student population, but their presence isn’t as necessarily integrated the way it should be. The centers are so interconnected, but [advocacy] isn’t less required.”

Patra expressed an evolving vision for the center. “My vision is that of an inclusive space where all Asian students feel welcome… This has been a historic challenge for our center, but I am confident that we are improving this each day and that we can do more to make sure that our work isn’t solely centered on East Asian students, as it may have been in the past.”

The LGBT Center

A four-hour, 200-person rally in front of Ballou Hall on November 4, 1991 began the fight to establish the LGBT Center at Tufts University. 

The rally came after years of discrimination faced by LGBT students and faculty. For instance, during a 1969 Commencement speech, a student came out as gay and called attention to administrators’ lack of support for queer students on campus. Immediately, the student’s mic was turned off. 

In 1988, a lesbian student residing in Metcalf was the victim of homophobic graffiti sprayed on her door. In response, the disciplinary panel imposed a mandatory discussion session with the residents of the dorm, aimed at addressing the “wider issue of homophobia.” Sharon Wachsler, a student organizer at the 1991 Ballou Hall rally, highlighted one of her motivations for orchestrating it. Wachsler’s friend, a member of the LGBT community on campus, was “violently harassed by a Tufts staff employee.” Wachsler told the Daily that when the incident was reported, “the dean subtly implied… the incident was not harassment.”

The 1991 rally, coupled with the efforts of existing student LGBT organizations on campus, established the LGBT Center in September of 1992. 

Freeman outlined the continued need for the LGBT Center’s work.

She said, “We might be present, but students are still getting dead-named. Folks can’t update their names in all these millions of systems [and] people’s housing and genders are constantly getting messed up.”

The Latinx Center

In 1983, according to the Latinx Center’s website, a group of students organized and created the Hispanic American Society. In subsequent years, the organization engaged with the TCU in order to advocate for the establishment of the Latinx Center. After a ten-year effort, the center was founded in October 1993. 

Since its conception, the Latinx Center has evolved to more comprehensively address student needs. Ashley Gomez, a former intern with the Latinx Center, commented on this progress. “I think, in the past, it wasn’t a space that was welcome to many folks… specifically Black Latinx folks. And I think, in my senior year, I see that… has changed,” Gomez said. 

Under the leadership of Director Marvin Casasola, The Latinx Center currently partners with a number of student organizations to further the Latinx community on campus. Gomez spotlighted “Questioning Latinidad,” an initiative from the center she had a hand in starting. 

“Questioning Latinidad came from Black history programming last year… Latinidad is a political term, it’s anti-Imperial in nature… With this series, I’ve been able to understand how Latinidad has served the countries under its bracket.”

The center’s programs additionally include the Latino Peer Leaders Program, on-campus affinity housing, and the Tufts New Entry Food delivery. 

The FIRST Resource Center

Established in 2018, the FIRST Resource Center serves first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students on campus. The center’s creation built off the work of the First Generation Collective and the now-dissolved Office of Student Success and Advising .

Bella Hook, an intern at the FIRST Resource Center, explained its mission on campus. She said, “We serve as a support system… [The center] was founded to reassure students that their identity [and] background on campus is important. It allows them to feel more pride in their identity, and allows them to work together with other students that share the same difficulties and hardships.”

The FIRST Center aims to provide essential resources and knowledge to the students it serves. Hook described one such resource, the lending library, “which allows students to reserve textbooks for free. We have a food cabinet [for] students. And at the beginning of the year we work to [donate] a lot of free necessities, like dorm items, supplies, school materials that the FIRST community can use when coming back to campus.”

Additional resources from the center include mentorship, career workshops, a peer leader program, and a photo campaign to represent the first-generation community at Tufts. 

Hook also shared hopes for the center’s continued role on campus. “I hope to see more resources being built for the first generation of incoming undocumented student populations here at Tufts.”

Tufts, like many universities of its kind, was not initially created to serve students with marginalized identities. Tufts was founded in 1847, however, it wasn’t until 1905 that the university admitted its first Black student, and 1980 that it became officially co-educational. The history of Tufts’ DSDI Centers reveals how students have determinedly striven to carve out spaces of support on campus, as well as the work that must continue to be done to ensure that Tufts meets the needs of its diverse study body.