By Kahwit Tela
Described as “a coalition of students & alumni calling on Belmont from private prison system Corecivic” on their Instagram page, Be Better Belmont has inspired a movement right here in Nashville to change how institutions such as Belmont University profit off of marginalized communities such as those in the carceral system.
I was able to speak Safara Parrott, the Community Outreach Organizer for Be Better Belmont and through my insightful interview with Parrott, I learned not only about what lead them to start this movement but who they’re fighting for, as well.
Describe yourself and what do you do for Be Better Belmont?
Safara Parrott (She/They) : So, I’m a 2020 alumni of Belmont. I studied music business and philosophy and I joined Be Better Belmont like late June/ early July. A whole entire summer, you know, where time kinda doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but I joined right before the whole writing process of our letter of demands.
I serve as one of the chief organizers for the community outreach that Be Better Belmont does and some of the event planning as well.
How did Be Better Belmont come about? What ignited the spark to get it going?
Parrott: I think I need to be mindful of the work that’s been going on before Be Better Belmont was formed this year.
I want to be mindful in saying that student organizing and students vocalizing their opposition for some of the things that Belmont has been culpable in has been going on for years and years and years. It’s been going from what I understand from 2000 to present.
Basically, when Bob Fisher became president and has now announced his retirement. So, in the last two decades, I want to give voice to the people that have been doing a lot of work beforehand, but Be Better Belmont formed officially in early summer 2020.
I wasn’t a part of the ignition of the group cause it loosely and formally started in early May. What was the catalyst for BBB was starting the original Change.org petition calling for divestment was Bob Fisher’s letter that he sent out to current students and I think some community members but I’m pretty sure was just current students and alumni the school’s but really (Bob Fisher’s) response to the George Floyd death and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The response was incredibly disappointing because (Bob Fisher) didn’t even say the word “racism” at all! He did not reference the phrase “systemic racism”. (He) did not acknowledge Belmont’s history that is rooted in slave trafficking and the trading of enslaved people because that is what brought the income to build Belmont as a university and as a mansion. So, that was incredibly disappointing on a multitude of levels but the divestment part of it has been in the works since 2017.
There was a thousand-person march to Belmont Campus calling for divestment and the removal of Damon Hiniger, CEO of Corecivic, largest or second largest (they teeter back and forth) of the private prisons of the United States.
So, that was a catalyst.
So, the divestment is sort of a direct correlation of the systemic racism that Belmont is refusing to even name as a thing that exists.
So (Be Better Belmont) formed and I joined shortly after our letter of demands addresses that (BBB) was disappointed... and were basically dumbfounded by the fact that a Christian university that prides itself on being so welcoming and inclusive that (Belmont) didn’t even say the word “racism” ,
… The vocal point of our letter of Demands is anti-racism as a whole and under anti-racism that (Belmont University) cannot be in the works, financially, with anything that resembles the carceral system or a participation in systemic racism, which is why we call for full divestment. (Belmont) receives from CoreCivic and have a CEO on their board of trustees, along with 2 or 3 other board members who either donate to or receive funds from Corecivic.
Amidst President Trump’s presidency, many injustices involving Black, Indigenous & People of Color (i.e. Systemic Racism) have been brought to light. Do you believe that injustices such as systemic racism will receive more attention under the new transition of U.S. presidency?
Parott: Um, I mean that I have a lot of thoughts, NONE of which reflect on Be Better Belmont as an organization. Like that question itself, I can answer personally but I can’t really answer as Be Better Belmont.
But what I can say is to reiterate what a lot of people said, “The table gets easier to sit at”. So, like not having President Trump in power or should I say authority because he doesn’t have authority over people. Having somebody like (President Trump) in a chair of authority obviously gives voice to the people who agree with him wholeheartedly and I will not say anything else about those people. Those people serve as a huge barrier to any kind of conversation that happens.
So, when we have a new president-elect, like Joe Biden, who allows for that conversation to be had; it does change the game a little bit because you’re able to mobilize more. Historically, (Joe Biden) was the co-founder of the “one-strike” rule in 1994 w/ Bill Clinton and is the reason why mass incarceration took a huge raise in a decade (1994-2004).
(Kamala Harris) was also a prosecutor and both (Biden and Harris) have gone on record in saying that thy don’t believe in defunding the police nor abolition.
For Be Better Belmont, we have to keep that in the forefront and the way we mobilize politically and in our community because I feel like a lot of new voters, young and even boomers that switch sides, think that a president is a savior and that’s something we need to dismantle in the American society.
… These systems have been in place for 400 years. Modern day slavery has existed since 1865. That’s just Period, it has! Presidents upon presidents upon presidents have done nothing to stop that and that’s including when Joe Biden was vice president. When Bill Clinton was president, Obama and Trump. They all
…Cause I think there is no better time than now to push as hard as possible and to know that, just because you feel safe in whoever’s in authority doesn’t mean they’re doing the right thing.
It should be our obligation to call out any injustice that’s happening.
How has the response been with students and alumni of Belmont, pertaining to Be Better Belmont?
Parrott: I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive, which was incredible to see. The Change.org petition has over 2,000 signatures, which is fantastic but it’s also a lot! I don’t think (Be Better Belmont) was prepared for that much positive reinforcement and that also has to deal with the entire summer being dedicated to Black Lives Matter because everyone was in quarantine and there was no way to look away from it. So, that was great and I think now, it’s just been creating a space to use BBB’s platform as an educational base because (Be Better Belmont) is aware that people who follow BBB’s movement are new to a lot of this stuff, so BBB did a good series about anti-racism and how Belmont is culpable in systemic racism.
We also do different educational things, like (BBB) did one about what is the Electoral College ‘cause Lord knows. Nobody understands how that works (chuckles)
Even reading about it, I was like “This. Is. Stupid!” (Laughs)
But I think doing that provides a really good space for people to come in and be like “oh, okay cool”.
This wasn’t just a petition. Like they have a letter of demands, which is very well written if I do say so myself!
We have a letter of demands.
We have this education.
We had press.
We have all these things. We center ourselves trying to have a community conversation on things, like myself and a few others who live in town, cause (some members of Be Better Belmont) don’t live in town but rather nationwide.
Yeah, a lot of the alumni don’t live in Nashville at all.
BBB made it a point to try and be as active as possible with the Grassroot organizations that’s happening in town and making it understood that divestment and systemic racism isn’t just a Belmont issue. It’s a Nashville issue and also a national issue
So, in doing that, you get a much positive response because it’s not to say that “oh, we’re making it all about us” but (BBB) is making a point that this is something to be done across the board.
I respect that! Also, when you mentioned about the core demands, I was reading them, and I have to say they were very nice!
Parrott: Thanks! (BBB) worked very hard on it!
Also, on the positive response, I’ll say that Bob Fisher, President of Belmont University, announced his retirement on November 10th.
What (Be Better Belmont) is trying to do right now is to understand what the recruitment process is for getting a new (Belmont University) president. As of right now, they have not made that public knowledge.
So (BBB) is trying to speak to the board, Marty Dickens, who is head of the board and trying to figure out recruitment process while also opening it up to the Nashville community, be asking what they want to see in a new (Belmont) president and how they can better represent the community.
One positive thing I will say about Bob Fisher is that he was very plugged into the community with like, an open hand.
Like Belmont as a whole, as an institution, does pay attention to the community and they try to cooperate as much as possible.
Granted, (Belmont) also encroach on Black and Brown communities and have been culpable in real estate encroachment but that’s a different story!
But (Belmont) is very known and are very welcoming in the community and so, it’s important that (Be Better Belmont) gets the voice from the community to know what they want and how (Belmont) can be involved with the community in an ethical way, in a way that (the community) is actually voicing what they want.
So, I know that you mentioned Bob Fisher announcing his retirement this coming May. I know there’s still the process of finding and getting a perfect candidate, but do you believe that the next president of Belmont University will work with Be Better Belmont or at least, acknowledge the cause they’re fighting for?
Parrott: That’s a great question! You know, I won’t make a definitive statement because (Be Better Belmont) doesn’t have enough information yet to really say anything. But what (BBB) can do is survey our community.
(Be Better Belmont) can speak to current (Belmont) students, alumni, community members, other organizations like Gideon’s Army, Free Hearts and others doing abolition work and working with the incarnated community.
Also, (working with) Never Again Action: Nashville, who works with ICE communities.
They have the expertise that (Be Better Belmont) doesn’t, if that makes sense?
(Be Better Belmont) wants to give (the community) a platform, a power in saying what is going to affect their community (i.e. the president of Belmont University)
So, is (BBB) in hopes for that happening? Absolutely!
Is (BBB) going to do everything humanly possible to have a voice in the recruitment process? Absolutely!
Whether (BBB) is invited to that conversation or if we have to yell from the outside door.
It is the right thing to do for (Belmont) to give the community and their current students & alumni a voice and a seat at the table.
In the previous recruitment process to find Bob Fisher, there was only one student delegate and one community member delegate and at that time, Belmont’s population was only 3000.
Now, (Belmont) has 8700. So, if (Belmont) thinks that one student is going to be the voice of 8700, that’s insane!
So, (Be Better Belmont) is going to keep pressing on, essentially.
Is there any way that someone can be involved with Be Better Belmont, even if they’re not a Belmont student or alumni?
Parrott: Oh yeah! Absolutely and there’s a bunch of different ways. One immediate way is that if you aren’t able to dedicate too much time, you can sign our letter of demands. Read through it, sign it and share it with people like your community members, friends or whoever!
Cause it matters that Belmont students and alumni sign it but what matters more is that this isn’t just a Belmont problem. This is a national and a Nashville problem.
This systemic racism is a problem. Period! So, any voice to add to calling it out is helpful and amazing.
Another way is that you can DM’ (Direct Message) Be Better Belmont or fill out this google form that we have on our Linktree (ex. who you are and what you can attribute to the team)
Like if you’re a graphic designer or a lawyer, which would be sick cause (BBB) doesn’t have one (Laughs)
Or whoever! You could literally be a kindergarten teacher and that’s sick. Like great! You have plenty of assets as a teacher to help dismantle systemic racism.
If you’re in a grassroots organization and want to partner up, DM us on Instagram.
Just get connected with us! Get connected with me personally or get through with Be Better Belmont.
Ya know, I’ll still see it because I run the account anyways (laughs)