4Qs: Johnelle Simpson fights discrimination downtown

From downtown nightlife and safety to student housing, the college experience is woven inextricably into its surrounding city. This presents a problem when policies downtown prove to be less-than-welcoming to its student population. University of Georgia Student Body President Johnelle Simpson sat down and talked with us about the work he’s done alongside the municipal government to curb racial discrimination in downtown Athens, Georgia.

Johnelle Simpson

Student Body President

Institution: University of Georgia

Major: Risk Management & Insurance and Political Science

Student Population: 35,197

How did the issue of discrimination downtown come to your attention, and how did you decide to address it?

It’s been an issue–we have eighty or ninety bars in Athens. It’s probably eight to ten bars that are actual violators, but students know which bars they’ll run into trouble at. The whole thing is in the dress code. Now if I had a bar, I would have a dress code, and the dress code would be suits only, because people don’t fight in suits. I understand the safety precautions behind a dress code. But when you use it and don’t equally apply it; if one person gets in with holes in their pants, but another gets turned away for having holes in their pants, this gives students the feeling that they are not safe or welcome. And when your downtown is right next to campus, it affects how students look at their whole college experience.

What steps did you take to partner with your local leaders?

We held a big town meeting where we invited our local officials to campus to talk about community relations. So all the commissioners came, the mayor came, students in and outside of student government came. It was a good meeting of all the people involved at the local level. And so we brought up downtown, the discrimination and safety concerns we have down there, as well as the lighting on campus. It’s kind of our local lobbying efforts, and I think a lot of students want to rush into the federal or state level, but some things can be done on the local level to enhance the experience of students who are living off campus. We have 25,000 students living off-campus, and we need to look at those experiences that happen outside of the university.

How did you involve the student population in your project?

We sent out a survey, and the first time we only got five or six responses. But then a “cheat sheet” for bartenders got leaked, there was an offensive drink [using a racial slur in the name] on the menu, and when that hit the newspapers we got over seventy responses. This was really helpful because it turned out those people who would be most likely to answer our survey: those students who have been affected by these practices downtown. And now we’ve been working with our local officials, chief of police and the county attorney, and we’re looking at different measures we can take. We’ve talked about ordinances, liquor licenses, and we’re trying to figure out what’s going to stick, what’s going to work, what’s enforceable. We’re having conversations that haven’t been had in the past thanks to that survey.

What advice do you have for other student body presidents trying to replicate your efforts?

 

  • Work with your local leaders. Through this project, we opened the city up to talking more about student issues with students. So now we’re talking about alcohol, about safety, walking back and forth from housing to the bars. Downtown is a bug itself, and we want to make sure it’s the best it can be for everyone.
  • Involve the student body. They’re a part of the community too. Are the students being good neighbors? Are those in the community being good neighbors to the students? It’s important to help everyone understand they’re not only a part of UGA, but also a part of the community-at-large.

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