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Turning the Corner on Racism

Today’s students are standing on the shoulders of those who came before them and paving the way for those to come

In August 2020, CMU Head Football Coach Tremaine Jackson and his players visited Appleton Elementary School in Grand Junction. CMU’s first Black head football coach and two of his players, quarterback Aaron Howard and running back Isaac Maestas, were invited by the school principal as special guests. The children welcomed Jackson and the players who talked about love, respect and effort. The event was a small reflection of CMU and Jackson’s ongoing efforts to create unity in the community and reduce racism by starting local.

Jackson’s message that day was tailored to be simple for an elementary age audience, but the recent experiences of Jackson and his team have been anything but simple.

Howard and Jackson made national news in 2020 as images of violence dominated national headlines and social media. During the week that followed the killing of George Floyd, Jackson and his players transcended images of violence and replaced them with pictures of peaceful protest. This switch was a result of a chance event that occurred in downtown Grand Junction as Howard shook the hand of Grand Junction Police Chief Doug Shoemaker. As other community members stormed out of a meeting, Jackson told his team to stay and have their voices heard. The decision lead the course of CMU’s efforts on addressing racial inequality. 

According to Shoemaker, the fact that Howard understood the power of his actions created a bridge between his department and CMU.

“The prudence of this young man was powerful,” said Shoemaker. “His understanding about what such imagery could do in the face of national pictures representing its opposite shows the leadership being cultivated by Jackson and CMU.”

The positive results that came from that day’s protest resulted in the two being invited to speak at Appleton Elementary, and resulted in CMU President Tim Foster creating a campus-wide task force committee to reduce racism and bigotry on campus. Called Turning the Corner on Racism, the committee is made up of students, faculty and staff who are collaborating on how to make things better. 

While CMU is making noteworthy progress, current students of color know that today’s progress is made possible largely in part by the Black students that came before them.

Looking back

In the 1990s, Ky Oday was among the few Black students in Mesa County Valley School District 51. When he attended high school, Oday was one of the only people of color on his athletic teams. When he attended Colorado Mesa University, he was one of a few Black students on campus. For much of his life, Oday has felt like he lived on an “island of different.” Today, Oday is a business leader in Grand Junction and is on the forefront of change devoting much of his time to supporting students of color as CMU’s diversity coordinator. Oday was not the first to feel alone. 

Prior to Oday, Jamaal McCoy attended CMU and played football. After graduating in 1999, he enjoyed a brief career in arena football and used his education to build a successful career in the automotive business. While his career paid off, his experience on campus was mixed. 

While at CMU, McCoy and others developed an organization called the African American College Alliance (AACA), known today at the Black Student Alliance. The organization was developed to provide McCoy and others a place to meet and discuss their experiences as Black students. They developed ways to support one another and strategies to recruit other minority students. 

“AACA was all inclusive, we welcomed whoever wanted to attend but the organization was primarily comprised of Black, Latino and Pacific Islanders,” said McCoy. “While on campus I felt very supported by members of the faculty and staff of CMU. The administration was approachable and there were a couple of professors that had a profound impact on my career and life in general.”   

For McCoy the experience of racism while attending CMU occurred while he was off campus.

One of McCoy’s experiences of racism happened in front of one of his teammates who admittedly had never had a Black classmate. After seeing how McCoy was treated because he was Black, his teammate “expressed regret and apologies not only that the incident occurred, but also for not realizing the extent to which racism did exist.”

By the time McCoy left CMU, the Black student population was a few 100 which was many more than in 1969 when Nigerian American Toye Moses graduated. 

When Moses attended CMU there were fewer than 15 Black students on campus. He was the only one born in Africa.  

“As a foreign student, I did not have too many bad experiences, but I was subjected to a racial slur from a boy who was with his mother,” said Moses, who at the time lived less than a block from campus. This happened one day when he went with a couple of classmates to get lunch at a nearby restaurant. “A boy who was about seven years old pointed fingers at me and said, ‘Look Mom, n-----!’ His mother said ‘Hush, don’t say that.’ I just walked away but I felt very embarrassed and my classmates were very upset and sympathized with me. I felt supported by them.”

For McCoy and Moses their faith was an important part of their experience on campus. On Sundays, Moses attended the Episcopal Church. He became close with the congregation and clergy, often accepting invitations to attend dinner at their homes.

“I am very happy to see realistic progress is being made and I think that Coach Jackson will do an excellent job,” said Moses. “Frankly speaking, as the world is saying, we must go from protest to policy. The present movement sparked by George Floyd’s death must ensure changes.”

After CMU, Moses became a civic leader in northern California serving as executive director of Southeast Community Commission in San Francisco where he advanced opportunities and provided special services to improve the well-being, health, welfare and safety of residents of the city’s southeastern sector. Prior to that he also served as the 2016-2017 president of The Rotary Club of San Francisco Bayview, served as a board member of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP and served on several other boards, commissions and nonprofit organizations. Today he lives with his wife of 40 years in the Bay Area.

The future

Today, Oday and Coach Jackson both believe they stand on the shoulders of people like Moses who attended CMU during an era when racial inequality took on a more overt and visible form than it does today. Oday points to the recent decision by the CMU Board of Trustees to rename Walker Field because of the late Walker’s founding of the regional Ku Klux Klan.

“These racially and culturally charged decisions, like renaming Walker Field, are complex and carry much weight,” said Oday. “CMU accomplished a major win for equality without violence or hate and I have to believe Dr. King was smiling from above when that decision was made.”

Despite the acknowledgment of contributions from other people in the past for rectifying racial inequality today, both Jackson and Howard attribute their faith to helping them stay focused. For Howard, his faith informs his advocacy, and he connects with Jackson’s pillar of love philosophy, which is the foundation of the football program.

“Speaking to the children at the Appleton school, and shaking hands with Chief Shoemaker and striving for respect isn’t something I have the power to do on my own,” said Howard. “For me those choices are reinforced by something that comes from a deeper, more powerful place. For me that’s God.”

For campus believers and non-believers alike, it is easy to see that the Turning the Corner on Racism effort is making a difference.


Written by David Ludlam