While lawmakers have cast doubt on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity action plan, students, faculty and staff at UNL see it as a next step in advancing the well-being and sense of belonging for all Huskers.
Among these supporters is Batool Ibrahim, UNL’s student regent and Association of Students of the University of Nebraska president, who said the Journey is a year-long product of efforts combining concerns many Black, Brown and Indigenous UNL community members have raised since UNL’s founding.
“I can graduate, and I can leave, and I can know that the structures and the rules and the policies are in place for this conversation to never leave the table,” she said.
Chancellor Ronnie Green and Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Marco Barker unveiled the Commitment to Action on Nov. 17, a culmination of efforts from many UNL community members and the Journey’s six co-leaders: Lori J. Dance, Kwame Dawes, Anna W. Shavers, Kara Mitchell Viesca, Sergio C. Wals and Colette Yellow Robe.
Among many initiatives, the plan calls for: reviewing hiring and retention policies, better supporting the Institute for Ethnic Studies, strengthening relationships with the UNL and Lincoln police departments and examining university COVID-19 mitigation responses and whether they were equitable for UNL community members from racially minoritized backgrounds.
Fighting for the plan amid controversy
Critics, including three NU regents — one being Jim Pillen, who is vying for the 2022 Republican nomination for Nebraska governor — two state senators and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, say the plan is divisive and injects critical race theory into every aspect of UNL — a claim both Carter and Green have fiercely rejected, though acknowledging faults in the plan’s rollout.
While Matt Cohen, UNL AAUP Chapter president, a professor in the Department of English and an affiliate faculty in Native American studies, said he’s tried to sympathize with those opposed to the plan, he said he’s seen how they’ve made it hard for everyone at UNL to do their jobs every day.
Opponents are interfering with faculty members’ multi-decade work in understanding systemic racism, Cohen said, which includes this new “full engagement plan.”
Ibrahim sits alongside the three regents opposed to the plan — Pillen, Rob Schafer and Paul Kenney, the chair of the board — and she said their opposition demonstrates how out of touch regents are with the day-to-day life of students.
The plan is needed because people like Ricketts and other legislators did not get that education and don’t understand what it’s like to be a Black person in America, according to Ibrahim.
“I don’t understand their criticism,” she said. “I think that they haven’t been listening to a story that’s been told for a very long time here and it’s just very clear, but I think the most important part is that Chancellor Green is listening and he has been listening, and he’s finally putting things into action.”
‘Everyone has a role to play’
Marianna Burks, a biology instructor in the School of Biological Sciences and a science specialist for the TRIO programs, said her overall reaction to the plan is support and belonging.
Having been a student, graduate student and now a professional, Burks said people must see themselves at the university. For true accountability, she said there must be a baseline to reflect on what’s been accomplished, which the plan accounts for.
“I’ve grown with this institution, and it took 25 years from where I was as a student to see progressive change,” Burks said. “This is the first time I’ve actually seen in my growing with the institution that something has actually, tangibly been done.”
The plan is a result of action from many stakeholders at UNL, including the Institute for Ethnic Studies, African and African American Leadership Caucus, Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of People of Color and Black Student Union.
Ibrahim served as the 2020-21 Black Student Union president, a role that continued after summer 2020 and the ongoing racial reckoning.
She and other advocates wrote a statement in June 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s death and before Green’s announcement of the Journey, calling on University of Nebraska President Ted Carter, Green, ASUN and others to follow through in their demands. BSU was one of many groups that met with Green to outline their needs.
Ibrahim said some went into this thinking they needed to push Green for change or fight for more, but he “understood our pain, he understood where we were coming from.”
RJA has 30 graduate and undergraduate students from nine countries — Mexico, Argentina, Spain, India, China, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria and the United States — and from many different UNL departments and colleges united in their desire to improve UNL.
“To Chancellor Green and to the Journey’s co-leaders, we thank you again and we are confident you will stand strong in your convictions knowing that the work you are doing is making a positive impact on our lives,” RJA’s statement reads.
Green committed to implement action, Ibrahim said, and he’s followed through with the Journey that involves everyone across UNL.
“One of my heroes is John Lewis, and something that he said was that everyone has a role to play,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim recalled an emotional conversation with Green around this time last year when she detailed how she didn’t want her three younger sisters, all on the path to UNL, to come to the university over fears they would not be safe, heard or afforded opportunities they needed.
“I can say right now that that has changed dramatically, and I am very happy about that,” Ibrahim said. “I want to bring my kids here, like it’s just very telling because I’ve dedicated a lot of energy and time and space — mental and emotional space — to this university because of my experiences in the past.”
With the change comes the “very warm feeling” of excitement, Ibrahim said, knowing she can leave, graduate and see UNL better than she found it. And in 2026, she said she’s excited for her sister to begin her freshman year as a Husker.
“I used to always tell people like I’m going to graduate and I’m gonna lie about where I went to undergrad because of how terrible my experiences were here,” Ibrahim said. “But now, I’m gonna be able to be like, ‘I was a Husker, and I was a proud Husker.’”