Butler students work to raise awareness of racial disparities on campus. Graphic by Abby Hoehn.
GABI MORANDO | ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR | [email protected]
For nearly three years, young economics student Braxton Martorano worked to bridge the gap between white students and students of color at Butler. His undergraduate research project, “Shaping Perspectives: Sharing Stories to Build Racial Allyship” began when Martorano found himself in anthropology professor Dr. Mold’s freshman seminar, The Power of Everyday Stories.
A native of Michigan City, Indiana, Martorano described his hometown as very racially diverse. Different from his ethnically rich upbringing, Martorano had a lot to adjust to when he moved for high school to a predominantly white area as a white student. Although he made some great friends, Martorano said his high school peers had skewed perspectives on race — something Martorano felt pressured to talk about, but struggled to execute.
Martorano saw a similar dynamic in Butler to what he struggled with in high school, and again felt called to take action against racial inequality on campus.
After hearing how compelling storytelling can be in Mold’s class, Martorano frequently visited Mold’s office to discuss how the principles of the class could be applied to the interracial dialogue he wanted to put in place. been working for so long.
However, ongoing tours came to an abrupt halt when Martorano and the rest of Butler were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. While stuck at home, Martorano came across a project by Chicago photographer Tonika Johnson. Johnson’s project Folded card photographed and interviewed Chicago natives who had identical addresses on opposite sides of town to show the inequalities between the more affluent North Side and the less privileged South Side of the city.
When he saw the impact the stories could have in addressing racial inequality, Martorano finally felt he had a way to deliver the message he had struggled to share for years.
“All that thought of the project was still on my mind that summer, and when I read [Folded Map], and I was like, ‘Okay, it’s done,'” Marorano said. “I emailed Dr. Tom [Mould] in mid-July and I was like, ‘I’m in. I don’t know what it’s going to look like or how we’re going to do this, but I’m in.’
By being “in,” Martorano meant he was ready to commit to starting his undergraduate research project that would later become the workshop featured on campus today.
After returning to campus as a sophomore, Martorano began working on the project with Donald Crocker, a student who has since transferred, and later senior anthropology major Camryn Ellison.
Mold knew, given the content of the project, that it was important to have a set of perspectives on the team. As students of color, Crocker and Ellison brought needed perspectives to the project.
“One of the key elements of the project [is that] we wanted to make sure there was some representation in Butler’s student body, particularly in terms of racial and ethnic identities,” Mold said. “It had to be a collaborative project; it couldn’t be led by one person and advised by me… We really wanted to have diverse voices in this.
After researching and reading about their topic, Martorano and Ellison began leading discussions with white students and students of color. They asked the groups of students the same series of questions.
The questions Martorano and Ellison posed to attendees began with the conversation. More general questions like “How’s the social life at Butler?” and then evolved into more racial questions such as “How often do you find yourself in a room with someone who looks or doesn’t look like you?” Martorano said he and Ellison found the Butler experience to be very inconsistent based on skin color.
Like someone who has had first-hand experiences with racial disparities on campus, this project hits close to home for Ellison. Especially during her first year at Butler, Ellison remembers how she would be treated differently as a woman of color in social circles.
Ellison has gone to predominantly white schools all her life, and she said that although she has gotten used to the experience, she is still frustrated by the lack of understanding from some of her peers. Hearing the stories of other students on campus helped Ellison see that she was not alone.
“Just interviewing these students I’ve met and learning about their experiences makes me feel like, ‘Okay, I’m not alone, I wasn’t the only one going through these macros, microaggressions,'” Ellison said. “There were, in some cases, worse assaults that these students suffered, so it kind of makes me feel like I belong in this community.”
Martorano and Ellison have conducted 17 interviews so far and have worked over the past year to analyze key themes and differences from the responses collected.
Until this semester, none of the interviews had been filmed, only transcribed. However, that all changed when Emily Fales, a junior double major in marketing and strategic communications, joined the team.
Coming after the research phase of the project, Martorano said Fales brought a new perspective focused on how best to tell the stories and bring humility to telling them on a predominantly white campus.
“Emily’s role brought the vision to life,” Martorano said. “Having a fresh look and a fresh perspective has also been very helpful in redirecting us… When [Cam and I] created the presentation, it was like a research paper, which it shouldn’t be – it should be more informal, or it should be inviting… Ultimately, we’re making a call to the heart, not a call to the mind. ”
With Fales on the team, and some interviews redone and filmed, the workshop was ready to be shared.
Martorano held the first trial run of a workshop in Mold’s FYS class on February 22. Starting from where the project began, Martorano shared the filmed interviews and sparked discussions with the class.
Since then, the workshop has been done with another of Mold’s FYS classes, and it has been shown to both Lacy School of Business mentors and Morton-Finney Fellows.
The workshop is already inspiring other students to start their own undergraduate research projects. In the second FYS workshop, led by Ellison and Fales, a student enthusiastically approached the duo after the presentation and asked if they had ever considered expanding the project to the LGBTQ+ community. Mold said another student approached him about using a similar framework for mental health.
“It was cool, like even after the first try, to see it already spark people way beyond this racial conversation,” Fales said. “[The workshop] It was like the first time, at least for my vision of the project, that you could see the work come to fruition and see the real impact it has on real students. It felt like in theory we were going to see all these amazing things happen, but it was such an affirming moment.
Martorano said it was amazing to see the outlook change. Using stories that took place right here on campus, Martorano said the project was able to personalize diversity, equity and inclusion work in ways that have never been done.
“Our main thing about focusing on stories is that they like to wow people because it’s not just words anymore, or it’s not just definitions and something to understand, but it’s something to feel,” Martorano said.
As the workshop looks to expand to more classrooms, on-campus groups, and possibly an orientation week for new freshmen, the student team working on the project plans also to expand. With Ellison graduating in May and Martorano and Fales planning to graduate in December, the group aims to mentor new students so the workshop can continue to grow.
Ellison, who said she never thought she would be a part of something so big, said she felt like she found herself throughout working on the project. Even though she graduates in a month, Ellison thinks it’s imperative that the workshop continue after she leaves.
“I really want to get [the workshop] in orientation week one way or another, just so that all the students can somehow be exposed to it,” Ellison said. “I also don’t want him to die because it’s so impactful, and I think the university could use it.”
Although the students involved will change, Mold said he will be a constant in the project. He plans to stay on as the project’s research mentor and is working to publish the workshop to help it expand even beyond the Butler campus.
As a teacher, Mr. Mold said that seeing students take the initiative to make tangible changes is extremely rewarding.
“To have Braxton come up with this idea and then Cam, Emily and Donald all running around with it, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Mr Mold said. “Their work exceeds anything I could have hoped for.”