I attend a small school in the South of the United States that is overwhelmingly white and upper class. As a person of color from a lower middle class background, I experience micro aggressions on campus quite often. Despite this, I was still somewhat shocked when I read an article featured in my school’s newspaper on Ferguson that expressed racist beliefs about the black community. People are currently campaigning for my college to designate gender neutral bathrooms, so non-binary students can feel more comfortable. This is wonderful, but the same author who wrote the Ferguson article doesn’t think so. She wrote an article about the idea of gender neutral bathrooms, and it was filled with homophobic and transphobic aggression. Although the two articles were classified as opinion pieces, they were more than just someone’s “opinion.” The sentiments she expressed was akin to a hate speech.
This doesn’t look good for the school, but it also creates an uncomfortable campus environment for students who are part of marginalized group. I teamed up with other social justice oriented students to challenge our school newspaper for allowing such offensive writing to get published. We organized a demonstration outside our campus library to highlight this issue and other discriminatory issues at our college.
Our fight was inspired by countless activists who came before us, so many good fights have been fought and won in the past few decades, especially this year.
Some of us go to college to seek an education, have new experiences, and expand our worldview. This is a time when many of us discover social justice and begin to question the system that creates hierarchies and works within a notion of power and privilege.
2014 was an important year for social justice, including academic spaces. Do you feel you might have to fight for what’s right on your campus this upcoming year? Let’s look back at 5 college protests from 2014 that sparked conversations about important social issues.
Back in July, President Obama signed the Non-Discrimination Act, which bans federal contactors from discriminating against people in the LGBTQIA+ community. The president of Gordon College, D. Michael Lindsay signed a letter asking Obama to be exempt from the ruling. Gordon College is an evangelical Christian college that explicitly bans “homosexual practice.” Lindsay’s action divided Gordon college community. 4,000 people including students, faculty, and alumni signed a petition against President Lindsay’s decision, asking him to repeal his letter to Obama. OneGordon, “a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allied members of the Gordon College community who believe in the full equality” used its website and social media to spark discussion and raise awareness about the issue. OneGordon even protested the college’s homecoming. The school has received a lot of negative backlash because of the controversy. Lindsay has expressed his regret for signing the letter and “said he wouldn’t be taking public stands in the future on any politically charged issues.” Hopefully this will put enough pressure on Gordon College to change its discriminatory policies.
Carry that Weight
Emma Sulkowicz is a student and artist at Columbia University who garnered the attention of the media this year for her art project and senior thesis called “Carry That Weight.” The piece is a protest against the University for allowing her rapist to continue attending school there. Sulkowicz’s project consist of her carrying a 50 pound mattress wherever she goes on campus until her rapist is no longer at the school. This resulted in October 29th becoming the “Carry That Weight” National Day of Action. 130 demonstrations took place that day of people carrying mattresses in support of victims of sexual violence. Students at Columbia University carried 28 mattresses, symbolizing the 28 times that Title IX complaints have been filed by students against the school. Sulkowicz inspired others to discuss the fact that they’ve been sexually assaulted at Columbia University and even caused to the school to change some of their policies when investigating sexual assault cases. The New York Times says that now students are allowed to bring lawyers to these cases, and if they don’t have a lawyer the school will provide one.
Colgate University is a majority white school, and racist views by some of the student body were highlighted on social media this year on the anonymous app Yik Yak. Many students on the campus have experienced racism in real life and online. Seniors of Colgate University Melissa Melendez, Natasha Torres Kori Strother, and Kristi Carey started a collective which led to a movement called #CanYouHearUsNow. The movement reflects the lack of listening from Colgate’s administration. The students protested outside the admissions hall and on September 22nd they had a 100 hour long sit-in at the admissions building, where over 500 people attended. With a viral hashtag and the attention of the media, Colgate students are definitely raising awareness about their intolerant campus climate. Even the faculty got in on it when professors flooded the Colgate University Yik Yak page with positive messages in an effort to reclaim it from all the racist posts. The activist students at Colgate are very organized and have an official action plan outlining how the school’s staff can create a more inclusive, diverse and sensitive campus environment. Hopefully their requests will be met, and Colgate University will become a safe place for all students.
With more all-female colleges accepting transwomen, Smith College’s Trans discriminatory policy turned out to be insensitive to their applicants. Calliope Wong’s application was rejected from Smith because the documentation registered her gender as “male” on her FAFSA. It is very difficult to get one’s gender transition, especially for a senior in high school like Wong. In April, over 36 Smith students gathered outside the admissions office to protest the injustice, holding signs that said things like “Trans Issues are Feminist Issues.” On October 18th some students met with the Board of Trustees to discuss the issue. Unfortunately the school won’t implement Trans inclusive policies until 2020. Fortunately it is likely that many students will contribute to creating an accepting and safe environment for future Trans female students at Smith College.
Die-Ins in Response to Race-driven Police Brutality; #ICantBreathe
Recently, across the country people have been conducting “die-ins” in response to the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, among many other people of color who are victims of police brutality. The die-in’s are part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and involve a large amount of people laying down on the ground, which represents all the African Americans who are murdered by police officers. Approximately 80 students held a die-in demonstration at Penn State University with many of the students wearing black. Over 100 students, and faculty, at York College in New York held a dies in at their school. Many wore shirts in respect to Eric Garner that said “I Can’t Breathe.” Despite not being able to secure a permit, some students and faculty still participated in the “canceled” die-in at Boston College, subsequently receiving disciplinary action from the school. Over 800 students at the University of Wisconsin marched to the College Library and laid on the ground in silence. Protests on college campuses don’t have to be aimed at the college. They can rally for larger social change as well.
Maybe the brave actions by these students can help inspire your own social justice endeavors. It’s not easy standing up for what you believe in. It’s not easy standing up to the people who have power over your educational future. If you are able to challenge the social injustices of your college you aren’t just helping the current class, you would be helping future generations of students. Those of us who have felt the burdens of oppression our whole life may sometimes feel like our voices don’t matter. Whether you go to a small private college or a larger public university, your voice does matter, and you can make a difference. Keep fighting the good fight.
Check out the ACLU for more information about your rights as a protester.