When Lamar Richards arrived at Carolina in 2019, he knew the history of the University.
He knew that he was at an institution that, at one point in time, wouldn’t have allowed him in the classrooms simply because he is Black. Richards knew the history of the University’s struggle over integration decades before he was born and the role students played in opening campus up to all.
“Students have been behind every sustainable and large change that’s happened at this University for its existence,” he said. “That’s just reality.”
Richards wanted to be part of that history and be a leader.
Now a sophomore and student body president-elect, Richards is making his own mark on campus and paving the way for more students to succeed. By amplifying current students’ voices, he has spent his time at Carolina pushing for institutional change to better meet the needs of marginalized students and lead Carolina to what he calls “UNC 2.0” — a campus welcoming for everybody.
“I do truly believe that our perspectives are the most important. … Student perspectives will continually recenter the University to where we need to be,” said Richards, who is studying psychology and public policy. “I won’t say I’m an expert on student affairs and student perspective, but what I will say is that I’m an expert at knowing when a [University] decision lacks student perspective.”
It wasn’t a skill Richards planned to hone. But when he joined Undergraduate Senate as a first-year student and saw very few people who looked like him in student government, Richards said he decided that he couldn’t sit passively while the voices of underrepresented students were largely left out of decisions.
“It was always a challenge to be outspoken. But in this space, in particular, I was really compelled, and I felt like if I didn’t speak up, nobody else would,” he said. “My call to really speak out and be active on campus was from when I entered that space and thought, ‘This is unacceptable. Nobody should feel like they don’t have a space in Student Government.'”
The first big step toward solving those issues happened last May when Richards became the chairperson of the newly formed Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, which was charged with bridging the gap between marginalized campus communities and the larger community. Created by Student Government, the commission consists of students from nearly a dozen student groups from across campus representing various communities.
As chairperson, Richard said his goal is to encourage student-led change when it comes to addressing racial injustices and issues facing students of color on campus.
“One of the things I really, really liked about Carolina was the visibility of an institution that was able to take ownership of its past and was very visibility working toward this new idea,” he said. “As an institution, Carolina is moving — at a very slow pace — in the right direction. I saw that on the outside looking in. When I got to Carolina as a student, I was surprised that we were really only moving from the top down.”
By working from the student-level up, Richards and the commission want to meet administrators in the middle. He said this approach helps changes led by administrators impact the campus community faster and bring ground-level issues to leaders’ attention.
“People on the ground — the students, staff, especially marginalized students and staff — weren’t getting the effects of this pace and moving in the right direction,” he said. “A lot of times, when changes are made at the top, it takes an additional two or three years to trickle all the way down and actually affect change on the ground.”
Richards cites internet stipends for students as an example of how his philosophy has worked. When the pandemic forced students to move off campus and back home last spring, Richards and members of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity proposed internet stipends for students studying remotely. When the proposal was initially rejected, Richards worked closely with University administrators to make it happen.
“We knew many of our peers did not have access to the internet,” Richards said. “We knew that in order to be successful, students needed access to the most vital thing right now — the internet. I’m really thankful to see the impact it’s had on students directly, and I feel like that’s really my purpose on this campus.”
As of early February, the stipend program has distributed nearly $1.5 million to 4,000 Carolina students. That is just the start of what Richards envisions for the commission. He said it will continue to address student issues, including unpaid work, career service programs and admissions testing, and will host a social justice conference in March.
Richards plans on being involved in all of those discussions but will now do so as the student body president after winning the election on Feb. 23. He will take office in April. As part of his role, he will also serve as a voting member on the University Board of Trustees.
He will also continue to serve on the Campus and Community Advisory Community to help Carolina navigate its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On a committee of faculty, staff and community members, Richards is again bringing the voice of underrepresented students to the table.
The role Richards has taken on hasn’t always been easy. But he said he wouldn’t trade it for anything because it provides the “opportunity to know that I’ve really done something with my life so far, and it gives me hope that I can continue to influence change no matter where I am.”
It also continues the critical decades-old legacy of Carolina students fighting for change on their campus.
“That torch is really important. We can’t let this flame go out. We have to keep passing it off. “