Written by Maeve McKaig
The majority of the freshman class is unaware of the racial tensions that culminated in an intentionally disruptive demonstration on November 18th, 2015: Blackout Bard. Many of the issues that were addressed at the walkout are still relevant today, including microaggressions on campus towards black and brown students, and a greater need for diverse representation across the institution. Although not a central issue to the Walkout, this piece will explore the continuity of student activism and change on campus that was tackled then.
The walkout was sparked not just by campus tensions, but national racial disparity as well. The national conversation surrounding atrocious police brutality and violence towards black men, like Mike Brown, and walkouts at other campuses like The University of Missouri (Mizzou), prompted a campus conversation between students activists and club heads, especially those concerned with students of color at Bard. Funto Omojola ‘18, who helped organize the walkout, described those early conversations.
“I was involved with the Blackout Bard process kind of from the beginning,” she said. “I remember sophomore year, after the whole Mizzou and Mike Brown incidents, Salim talking to me in the campus center about how we should do something and how we should show solidarity; and we didn’t really know what shape that would take.”
A group of student organizers came up with a plan to have members of the Bard community leave wherever they were at 12 p.m. and convene at Ludlow Lawn at noon. There were certain established routes from various buildings including Kline, Olin, and RKC, all of which led to Ludlow. Once at Ludlow, the organizers planned to read a list of demands and pre written statements by students of color.
“It was organized as a deliberate disruption, where you would have to walk out of your classes or wherever you were,” Omojola said “We had bullhorns, I think we may have had drums; just loud things. We walked. I started from where I was, in RKC, through Kline and right back around to the field in front of Kline [Ludlow lawn]. Then, we had posters ready.”
It is clear just how powerful these actions were in creating a general sense of solidarity in regards to such blatant racial tensions all over the country and at Bard. The students’ Call to Action, from their “Bard College Student of Color Demands” was this:
We, students at Bard College, recognize that in order for these institutional oppressions to end, everyone needs to get involved. There is no room for inaction. We ask that you leave your classes, your jobs, your meetings, to show that Bard is more than a place to think, that we are doing more than copying and pasting Facebook statuses, that we want to and need to actively dismantle systemic racism so that Black students can go to class without fear.
Included within the same letter was a list of demands, which discussed hiring more faculty of color and expanding curriculums like First Year Seminar and Language and Thinking to include more people and women of color.
“We truly wanted a change in the curriculum, because the FYSEM curriculum was just old white men basically,” Omojola said “It didn’t represent women’s voices or voices of color, so we demanded change in that regard.”
For many of the organizers, this was one of the first collective and blatant acts of protest against the institution and daily discrimination. “Before then, there were limited collective events or acts of public outrage about the inequality, underrepresentation, microaggressions that a lot of me and my friends of color felt,” Omojola said. The walkout made it impossible for administrators and students alike to ignore the glaringly obvious yet distressing issues at hand. While Bard appeared to be a liberal and diverse institution, there remained much to be improved about the treatment of students of color and the degree of diversity.
Some responses to the walkout were tense. Omojola described the atmosphere in the class she was in just before the walkout. “Some of the white students were saying ‘well this is just disrespectful’ and ‘I want to be learning right now’ and that they felt really targeted,” she said. The emotionally charged atmosphere on Ludlow Lawn resulted in some minor issues at the event itself, mostly surrounding the disorganization of student speakers. Despite the initial plan to create a space for voices of color, although all members of the Bard community were encouraged to stand and listen in solidarity, the event did not become that space.
“The first half was things that were pre written about why we were doing it, what we wanted to accomplish,” Omojola explained. “And then the second half–I know at one point we had a list where you had to sign up if you wanted to speak at it because we really wanted it to only be black and brown voices, but it ended up just being anyone in the audience who wanted to speak. That part was a little disorganized because we had a lot of things said that maybe we didn’t want to happen, because it was kind of a free for all. People were just coming up to talk, and we had a lot of voices that we maybe didn’t necessarily want to give space to, because the whole point was that it would be only black and brown bodies speaking.”
In the aftermath of the walkout, it was clear that a demand for both social and institutional changes was sparked in those moments on Ludlow Lawn. However, whether those changes have truly been realized is debatable. For starters, the walkout symbolized an incredible stance of solidarity within the student of color community at Bard. Funto recalls a newfound sense of political and social agency, as well as new spaces for racially fueled discussions:
“A lot of the black students of color felt really empowered or that [the walkout] was really necessary,” she said. “Even the ones that weren’t really involved in the processes were really empowered by it. A lot of voices began to emerge in support of those things. A lot of stories from classrooms or times when they felt targeted by professors or things were said around campus started to come to light. I feel like there was more discussion about that.”
She also described a heightened sense of “urgency” regarding issues that were previously discounted, like microaggressions and systemic racism, that were highlighted during the walkout.
“A lot of people started organizing and becoming more politically involved because of the walkout specifically, so I think there was a greater sense of urgency,” Omojola said “And I think nationally too, there was this greater sense of urgency that transferred to how students of color got involved or saw their role in making change.”
These social and cultural changes were substantial for the black and brown community on campus. What persisted, however, were certain tensions between students of color and white students and faculty, specifically white students and faculty who believed that they were not deserving of being called out. Omojola elaborated. “I feel like there is this sense of pseudo liberalism at Bard that has been going on since freshman year in which people think ‘I’m not racist, I have one black friend’ or ‘I go to protests’ or ‘I’m liberal and I’m a hipster and I go to Bard’ and like ‘I don’t do racist things’ but I feel like after those events, people were being called out.” Even though subliminal discrimination remained, Omojola said that the walkout gave students of color the power to call out certain individuals on their ignorance, which hid behind the guise of liberalism.
As students of color “felt their needs being heard,” faculty and administration responded to address these new levels of activism, tension, and agency on campus. As he was in Mexico at the time, President Leon Botstein released an email to all immediately after the walkout, which highlighted his awareness of the tensions and inequality, as well as his efforts and plans to contact the Council of Inclusive Excellence:
I applaud the initiative of the Bard students concerted with the issues of race both here on the Bard campus in Annandale and in the wider community. The College needs to take steps to improve the campus climate here and push back on intolerance, prejudice, insensitivity, and ignorance. When I return on Monday, I would be happy to meet with students to further the discussion on these issues….The Annandale campus is, and properly so, at the heart of the concerns in the November 23rd document and at the Walkout. Given Bard’s extraordinary institutional investment in bringing excellence in higher education to the undeserved and discriminated against in the inner-cities of the United States and in prisons, there is not reason that the campus in Annandale should not be an exemplar of tolerance and mutual respect […] I would like to underscore my willingness to meet with students, individually and in groups to further the necessary dialogue.
Despite his willingness to engage with students, no direct meetings between Botstein and students took place. Jonathan Becker, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, served as the administrative representative during post Blackout Bard meetings. Becker also shared Botstein’s views on bringing diversity to the Bard Annandale Campus and all affiliated institutions and Early Colleges over the country. The first meeting after the walkout occured on December 1, 2015. According to the minutes of that meeting, other administration and faculty that were present at these meetings included, but was not limited to Rebecca Thomas (Dean of the College), Erin Cannan (Vice President for Student Affairs and co-chair of the Council for Inclusive Excellence), Kathy McManus (Director of Operation and campus visits at Admissions), Jennifer Triplett (Assistant Dean of Studies and Director of Academic Advising), Mary Ann Krisa (Former Assistant Dean of Students), David Shein (Associate VP for Academic Affairs, Dean of Studies), Brian Mateo (Assistant Dean of Civic Engagement)) and Bethany Nohlgren (Dean of Students). Students who were present at the meeting included Abiba Salahou, Salim Chagui, Tayler Butler, Jasper Katz, JaQuan Beachem, Sol Ana Borja, Lexi Parra, Natalie Desrosiers, and other first year students at the time. Some of the topics addressed at the meetings included hiring concerns, specifically in the sciences, Language and Thinking, Social Justice and Diversity Initiatives (introducing new texts, workshops and training for faculty), problems in the classroom, open meetings about FYSEM and Rethinking Difference, and forming a comprehensive list of all the ways students can get involved on campus.
During our interview with Becker, he placed heavy focus on the fact that “faculty governance is slow […] change takes a long time..” He did not demean the anger and emotion expressed at these meetings, but sometimes felt the energy “should be channeled somewhere else” — instead of focusing sentimentality on past injustices, he felt activists should project their energy into constructing joint efforts with administration. These expressions of perspectives demonstrate the historical rift between administration and student activists, who sometimes believe in taking different approaches to policy and practice change across campus. Based on such realities, it is understandable that from an administrator’s perspective certain demands and outcries might seem overwhelming, especially considering their significance to the lives of many Bard students. However, both parties agree that change does not happen overnight, and that the first step is awareness of the issue and a consistent wave of activism to keep the pressure for change relevant.
Both Becker and Omojola acknowledged that there is a disconnect between students and administration due to a lack of transparency and communication. Administrators are making behind the scenes efforts to address student demands, but are not always signaling to the Bard community that there are efforts being made. A lack of communication widens gaps between how each party respectively views the institution. For example, Becker highlighted that some change in the right direction has been made with new faculty and administrative hires, like Ariana Stokas as the Dean of Inclusive Excellence, and changes in the First Year Seminar curriculum. It must be clear to students that even if passive change is happening within administrative offices, change is occuring nonetheless, and it is not a one-sided exchange on the parts of relentless activists.
With these prior efforts considered, there is still a gap to be bridged between the administration and students, especially those actively involved in the ongoing issues that Blackout Bard highlighted. Becker noted that an active student newspaper can bridge that gap. Additionally, he said that he is always willing to meet with students. “I always agree to meet with students when they approach me,” he said. “I wish [meeting with students] would happen more often. I’m open to going to things like student government meetings, but I don’t know if that’s something I can invite myself to.” It is, however, not expected, least of all by the student activists, that this disconnect between staff and students or the persisting racial tensions will merely disappear. The ongoing efforts of activists and students alike should help prompt the faculty to realize the gravity of the disconnect on campus, and instigate a need for change. The walkout stands for not just a disruptive means of action, but the power that student activist voices have in advocating for the change that they want to see. Bridging the gap between new students and continuous change is another task that both the walkout and this piece are grappling with. Omojola shared her perspective.
“Among the students on campus, I know there is this kind of argument or tug of war in which the younger students were saying they didn’t feel like there were enough spaces for communities of color for them, and a lot of the older students or even students who are sophomores are like ‘no there are, and we have established them but it’s your job to show up to them,’” she said. “So I feel like there is this, I don’t know what to call it, but this transformation of the younger group of activists and the shift of change in leadership that’s occurring is also spurring a need for a reinvigorating and a reshowing of needs of students of color. ”
Although it may seem like change has not taken place, it is often taking place in the background of student life. A shift in leadership, as Omojola put it, that is furthering the demands of the walkout in 2015 is underway. Through collective efforts, we can harvest this energy and passion to drive other students, faculty and administration to realize that progress is coming to Bard College. But we as an institution and community must make Bard an environment that encourages these kinds of urgent and independent protests. Bard student activists are in control of the history they are creating. It is a history which, thanks to their constant efforts, will be one to remember.