Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith was in "unfortunately, very familiar territory" when she stepped on stage at the Performing Arts Center on Cal Poly's campus Friday afternoon.
McLaughlin-Smith, who serves as the diversity and inclusion specialist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington — another predominantly white school — has been hired to consult Cal Poly during a particularly turbulent time in the school's history.
Hundreds of San Luis Obispo community members, Cal Poly faculty, students and alumni showed up to listen to McLaughlin-Smith's keynote address during the university's biennial Baker Forum, an event aimed to provide an open dialogue following a string of racially-charged incidents on campus.
Hours before the forum began, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong issued a video statement condemning a second case of blackface by a campus fraternity.
McLaughlin-Smith said she arrived at Cal Poly on Wednesday and quickly understood the campus community, particularly people of color, are dealing with pain over the current racial climate.
"It is fueled by ignorance, it's fueled by a lack of exposure," she said. "I will challenge the campus and the community to spend just a little bit of time helping each other unlearn what has been so incredibly instilled."
Cal Poly ethnic studies professor Jose Navarro was among the six panelists who fielded questions from the audience after McLaughlin-Smith's address. He said the recent acts of racism on campus affect both students and faculty, and that racism at its core is about power and exploiting those who are different.
The university has made national headlines in recent weeks after incidents of racist behavior by two fraternities and the posting of hateful fliers and graffiti in university buildings sparked waves of outrage on campus. Armstrong responded to the public backlash and multiple on-campus protests by placing all Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic sororities on suspension.
"I don't know what (Greek Life) does for us as a university," Navarro said.
A question was asked about Kyler Watkins, the former fraternity member who was photographed in blackface, and the numerous calls for him to be expelled from school. That sparked a larger discussion on free speech and First Amendment rights, with philosophy professor Patrick Lin saying expulsion would have been counterproductive.
"I think it makes our collective efforts in inclusivity look unreasonable," Lin said. "I'm afraid that kind of anchors or nails into place an impossible bar to clear.”
Cal Poly has the least racially diverse student population among all 33 public universities in California, according to enrollment data provide by the CSU and UC systems. The school has the highest percentage of white students (54.8) and the lowest percentage of African American students (0.7) in the state by a significant margin.
Leilani Hemmings Pallay, a Cal Poly student majoring in ethnic studies, invigorated a mostly subdued crowd when she was asked what the benefits of inclusivity are to white males.
"You will restore your own humanity by no longer denying the humanity of other people," she said as the crowd applauded.
"I can't wait to see who you become, Leilani," McLaughlin-Smith quickly responded.
Both Navarro and mathematics professor Stan Yoshinobu supported the proposed Cal Poly Opportunity Grant as a way to improve diversity on campus.
Armstrong introduced the plan in February to bring more low-income students onto campus, but students and faculty did not agree with the fee that would be assessed to incoming out-of-state students and the grant program was put on hold for at least another year.
Bryan Hubain, the assistant dean of students and director of the Cross Cultural Centers, said he hopes to see true change happen after a tense month on campus. He said that can start by changing the way community members treat each other and reiterated that change will take a completely collective effort.
"I would love to see some of my privileged colleagues doing some of the work that needs to be done," Hubain said.