Executive Remarks, Student Body President Lamar Richards
Student Body President Richards’s Heartfelt Message on University Day
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
(Video, courtesy of University Communications)
Good afternoon — President Hans, Chair Boliek, Chancellor Guskiewicz, and all those in attendance.
I greet you today on behalf of the 30,000 students of this great University — undergraduate, graduate, and professional alike. I’d like to start by first acknowledging my team — fellow leaders within UNC Student Government, for their tireless efforts in advocating for and representing the most central constituency of our University — its students.
I stand before you, saddened, somber, and disheartened. Saddened because those I represent are hurting. Somber, because the loss of one student is one too many. Disheartened because I am an extension of my community, the Carolina community, and we are not well.
On this day of supposed celebration, Carolina is grieving. Our community is aching. Today — October the 12th, 2021 — University Day — is a sad day. It is a day that cements the necessity of the fundamental and institutional change necessary to protect the sanctity, the peace, and the wellbeing of us all — regardless of age, sex, gender, socioeconomic status, discipline, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
We acknowledge that the loss of life of even one Carolina student is devastating for us all. We acknowledge that mental health and wellbeing is not retroactive, and that offering support is not a worthy reimbursement for trauma. We acknowledge that the tragedy experienced by our campus community must not be normalized by the absence of adequate time and resources for grieving and reflection.
In a 1981 dissent, the first Black United States Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, wrote: “The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.” He further wrote, “There exists no manual in the world to tell me how to be compassionate… Compassion, love, empathy — they are flames from within that cannot be put out.”
I believe the first step in displaying the compassion Justice Marshall so eloquently described 40 years ago, is honesty. It would be a dereliction of my duties if I did not acknowledge the rocky relationship the words of Justice Marshall have had with this University — a place where compassion and, by extension, justice, has been historically selective in its practice. For a long time — too long, the only way into an event like this for someone like me would have been silently — dressed in white, khaki shorts and holding a silver tray stocked with food and drink and ready to serve. Instead, I stand boldly before you today as UNC’s 100th Student Body President to declare that I am grateful UNC is not the institution it was 228 years ago.
However, UNC has a long way to go still. As an openly queer Black person, for most of Carolina’s history, I was not intended to be a student. I was never meant to be a scholar, a researcher, a campus leader. I sure wasn’t supposed to be its Student Body President. Compassion, love, empathy? Those weren’t for me. The truth is, I take classes, attend events, and represent a student body inside buildings and within an institution that was built not for people that look like me, but by people that look like me.
That is why I am quick to question any notion of celebrating this University’s founding amidst such a ceremony of remembrance and hope — I’m quick to challenge the embellishing of this University’s conception here on University Day. If we sincerely aim to reflect, reckon, and reset with our eyes toward the future, we must acknowledge that it was 1789 when our University was founded. 1865 when slavery was abolished in our country. 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment prevented American states from denying the right to vote on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed mainly white women the right to vote. 1951 — and only after a court order — when the first Black students were able to enroll and attend this University. And it was in 1972, a date near to my heart, when UNC elected Richard Epps its first Black student body president.
So when I ask what we are truly glorifying today, I ask because University Day’s contradictions overwhelm me. The constant uplifting of Carolina’s founding confuses me. Today, however, I do not call only for reflection, reckoning, and a resetting, but a rebirth of the values we call our own. Let us build upon the foundations of equity, inclusion, and resilience. Let us value the perspectives of each faculty member, staff member, and student. Let us embrace head-on the conversations that cause our discomfort.
I say often that I am proud to be a Tar Heel. I am proud not because of who we are currently, or what we have done in our past, but because of what we can be and who we aspire to be. But what I, alongside 30,000 of my peers, have come to realize is that we cannot be that to which we aspire without prioritizing our wellness as an institution. Without keeping ourselves safe. Because the safety of the Carolina community is invaluable. The safety of our community is non-negotiable.
Carolina has always been governed by a grounding curiosity to lead, to be better, to shine light and liberty into the communities we touch. But our light can shine brighter still.
We have hurdles to keep vaulting, inequities to continue destroying, wrongs to right and commitments to fulfill. And I say to you gathered here today: There is no way to do that — to sustain the flames of curiosity and determination — without compassion, love, and empathy. Without being gracious as we seek to unify and understand our differences. Without being empathetic as we celebrate our cultural diversity, recognizing that we are operating on stolen indigenous land. We must show compassion as we work to support each person in the Carolina Family.
I urge all of you to consider, at heart, the purpose of University Day. Do not solely seek to celebrate our school’s beginning, but acknowledge the student-led, student-focused, and student-driven vision of a University of all people, by all people, and for all people. I impress upon you to vigilantly pursue a more just and equitable world, recognizing the potential in each student and the role each of us play in breaking down Carolina’s historic barriers.
It is my solemn hope that our students, faculty, and staff together soon find the well-needed time they deserve to prioritize and protect their wellness, their peace, and their safety, outside of this one Tuesday, October the 12th, 2021.
And while we reflect on our institution’s history, let us also examine the present needs of our community — of students, faculty, and staff.
It has become evident — time and time again — that it is up to us, leaders of the now and future, to speak when others are silent, fight when others retreat, and to lead, when others cower. Students have always led the charge for change and have too often borne the burden of supporting each other when those with power, titles, and resources fail in their responsibility and mandate to support us.
So today, my message to the Carolina Community — our passionate students, dedicated faculty, and hardworking staff alike — is that it is up to us to work together for good. It is up to us to lift each other up, even as challenge upon challenge attempts to force us down.
It is up to us to ensure we lead towards a brighter tomorrow. We did not choose this world — it chose us — to protect it, to nurture it, yes — to save it. It chose us to tell its truths, to defend its oppressed, and shine like beacons for its hopeless.
That is why we must lead — and we will do so together. Our community is depending on us.