Written by Najwa Jamal
“WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS”
Goosebumps rose up and down my arms as I heard these powerful chants shouted into Kline. I think back to the day of the recent protest, rushing down the corridor to New Kline, feeling the gathered students’ united passion for one cause: equity. Seeing other freshman using their voices in this way sparked a realization within me: students are actively demanding change to take place at Bard. Student activism can be transient, in the sense that by design, students are graduating and leaving, and due to a persisting gap in communication between student activists. Yet, there is continuity in the activism in our community. A prime example is the Blackout Bard Movement, which created a platform to patch the rift between upper and lower classmen in relation to views on student activism. Activists pushed for an openly disruptive demonstration that manifested in the November 2015 Walkout. Although the event occurred nearly 3 years ago, the flame it ignited has been passed on and fueled by waves of incoming activists. Recent activist efforts have resulted in the April 19th, 2018 Kline Takeover demonstration. Having already covered the history of Blackout Bard, the 100 Days Initiative finds it vital to keep shedding light on these student-led movements for change.
Million Hoodies Club members spoke out as an empowered front at the evening demonstration and used their unity to make the audience aware of prominent race fueled problems on campus. Their relentless efforts produced an impactful demonstration, one which the activists deemed a perfect opportunity to present their updated list of demands to students. The coordinators of the demonstration posted a list of demands on the door of President Botstein’s home; he preemptively agreed to a meeting with them to discuss the list of demands. At around 6:00 pm that Thursday in New Kline, about 10 or so club members were gathered around a group of tables. Atop chairs, members clad in Million Hoodies branded shirts took turns to subsequently yell out provocative, outlined phrases from small slips of paper that read:
“I’M TIRED OF NOT SEEING SOMEONE LIKE ME TEACH A FUCKING CLASS…”
“I’M TIRED OF READING THESE WHITE WESTERN AUTHORS,
WHO DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHETHER I WAS ALIVE OR NOT…”
“BUT WE NEED ACKNOWLEDGMENT”
“BECAUSE WE HAVE THE WRONG SKIN COLOR”
The demands were read soon after, centering around First Year Seminar curriculum changes, more diverse faculty, the defining of the term diversity, and more. These phrases set the tone for the demonstration. The demonstrators transitioned into an even more powerful means of disruption with protest chants that were reverberated through the crowd, getting louder with each chant: “IT IS OUR DUTY TO FIGHT FOR EACH OTHER.” During this brief demonstration, the Takeover provided those witnessing with a sense of awareness on present issues, and the solutions that students believed could remedy them.
The 100 Days Initiative spoke to Anya Andrews ‘21, Bernadette Benjamin ‘20, and Key Tsering ‘21, three student activists who were involved with the demonstration, to hear what their goals and expectations were of the event. “I want this to be as powerful as it can possibly be,” Andrews explained. Benjamin built on that by commenting, “I just think I want people to take it seriously and know that this is something that is important.” The demonstration was motivated by student concerns regarding issues such as a lack of staff diversity, a lack of diversity in course curriculums, and more. These problems exacerbate racial tensions between students and administrators and continue to ‘other’ many black and brown students. One of the driving forces behind the demonstration was to efficiently, clearly, and most importantly, powerfully communicate goals regarding the necessary change on campus.
“We’re in a space that we try to claim for ourselves, you know, being in Kline. There are so many things that come with Kline, there’s a reason we chose it. You know what I mean, like we face a lot of–there’s honestly a lot of segregation in Kline as it is, and so that–even though we can make it our own space and even though we work to make it our own space, it is also a place of a lot of segregation and a lot of inequality in terms of communication.”
Million Hoodies members deliberately chose Kline dining hall as a space in which they could be disruptive in an effort to make those around them realize that even within a setting as seemingly open as Kline, the microaggressions and racial tension they are combatting persists. Benjamin remarked: “My main concern with the Kline takeover is that when it happens I just don’t want people to make a joke out of it when it’s happening or after it happens, and not dismissing it.” The goal of the demonstration, in their eyes, was not merely to educate, but to impact, and not be something someone brushed to the side.
During the demonstration, a list of demands was read. Andrews described why this was an important and emotional moment for the demonstrators:
“Reading these demands, like we were reading these demands in these meetings and we’re all like ‘wow that’s really good’ it’s like ‘that’s great, that’s so lit, it’s perfect and it just resonates with us.’ and I’m hoping we can do the same for other people, because there are so many people who don’t feel like they can articulate what they feel but they definitely feel it.”
In this way, the reading of demands was more than just an articulation of what was at stake, but also served as a chance for those are not usually given the space to speak, to do so and be heard. Benjamin felt similarly, in that there was a newfound sense of fulfillment in being able to communicate their grievances:
“We have been developing the skills to talk about our problems in spaces where we are not supposed to be, according to whoever. But not everyone has that privilege of being able to articulate how they feel. That’s something that I’m learning is a privilege of mine.”
Student activists cultivated demands that addressed a slew of other issues, such as accessibility on campus to resources and courses, faculty training, and changing the difference and justice distribution requirement. For example, accessibility to certain courses is often a financial hardship to many People of Color (POC) students:
“We also talked about finding diversity in terms of accessibility. [There are] a lot of POCs on this campus who are really interested in certain things that they don’t really have access to,”
Andrews commented. Linked to the issue of a lack of accessibility to resources is a lack of accessibility to a social network. POC faculty connections are needed to fuel POC social networks and capital, neither of which are necessarily present or well executed: “We don’t have a network of faculty of color to go and say ‘hey, I need a little more help’,” Andrews continued. Trainings were demanded to educate faculty on themes of diversity in and outside of the classroom, trainings which would apply to new hires and existing faculty on campus:
“Our goal is for our professors to listen to us […] so they can feel more comfortable. Because a lot of times, the professor is also uncomfortable in situations like that [difficult classroom conversations]… And it’s completely understandable, we want to relieve that stress though so that the pressure is not on us to stand up for ourselves and always be the ones speaking and educating other people in our classes. We shouldn’t have to be the only ones doing that,”
She presented this issue through the lens of a student who has likely been tasked with correcting a problematic professor. Inadequate or non-existent classroom standards renders professors unable to correctly handle the tricky subject matter, which enables racial tensions between students and faculty. The ambiguous difference and justice distribution requirements also perpetuate tensions. Andrews explains: “It’s one of those silent reproducers of inequality and silent reproducers of the term ‘other.’” In this way, the current difference and justice requirements act as a vessel to continue vague distinctions and meanings in a way that perpetuates a lack of real diversity. Student activists started with the old demands and revisited details to provide the faculty and administration with specific plans of action:
“…the biggest difference between the last demands and this set of demands is that they are incredibly specific. The last demands were more ‘so this is what we want’ and these are ‘this is what we want and this is how you can do it, and this is the research that we did to show you that these changes need to be made,’”
Andrews explained. However specific, the expectations and understandings remain that the proposed changes will not happen overnight.
Activists continue to ask for transparency and acknowledgment of their nonstop efforts for change on campus. Andrews elaborated that
“… we have not stopped working. So I think the acknowledgment of that is important, that just because we didn’t do a Blackout Bard every year and it’s not in that month of February when they remember black people do social justice things, beyond that transparency is important.”
She went on to explain the process behind formulating such thorough and well thought out plans, which included multiple roles assigned to activists, as well as intra-club relations.
“We did a whole lot of research, we had people breaking off into specific groups to work on each demand separately to work it properly. We would come together once a week outside of our original organization meetings, with different groups–there were three different groups running around; there was FYSEM, there were demands and then there was like part of the demands in terms of working, in terms of researching, meeting with Ariana Stokas, meeting with Brooke Jude, and just trying to solidify things that are relevant and that exist now.”
It is important to acknowledge how much of the work that is done goes unseen. Though their daily efforts are not disruptive walkouts or demonstrations, there must still be an acknowledgment of how much time and energy is spent to efficiently and accurately create those events. Although Student activists find that difficulties persist in bridging the gap between upper and lower classmen, the constant achievements and work being done behind the scenes are helping create a connection between the distant groups. While it is not easy to create a campus-wide awareness of racial issues, activists are actually working all the time to show everyone what needs to be done to make Bard a more inclusive, racial and socially aware place.
Blackout Bard has transcended time and will continue to do so, through the aforementioned loyalty and passion of student activists and clubs alike. By having these public conversations about the institutional racism on campus, the flame behind Blackout Bard will be kept alit: “We’re open to having people come in, we’re open to having people work. And it’s about who wants to work, about who wants to put in the work.” The imperative lies in open dialogue, honest conversation, and the willingness for all involved to listen and be proactive about making tangible change.