By Sean Reis & Tom Ballard
Staff Writer & News Assistant
While the world has recently been stricken with tragedy — from the attacks in Paris and Lebanon, to the protests at the University of Missouri and unrest at other colleges across the nation — the College hopes to start a push for peace. To do so, the College is focusing on starting conversations many feel “uncomfortable” talking about — primarily race and religion.
The College’s movement began in the middle of November, when the leaders of various clubs on campus — including the College’s chapter for the National Association and Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Black Student Union (BSU), Haitian Student Association (HSA) and the Association of Students For Africa (ASFA) — organized a “blackout” on Monday, Nov. 16. Students were asked to wear all black to show solidarity with those at the University of Missouri who were in the heat of a battle for equality. However, following the horrifying events that transpired in Paris and around the globe the previous weekend, organizations at the College felt that there were too many issues that could not be ignored.
“If they wear black for hate, why don’t we wear black for peace and love?” said AFSA President Peter Okoh, a senior biomedical engineering major. Okoh knew that although they originally planned to show solidarity with the University of Missouri, their movement must now also focus on other current issues in society.
Later on Monday, Nov. 16, in an open discussion entitled “50 Shades of Black,” hosted by BSU, HSA and ASFA, students discussed how they felt about racial tension on campus. The open forum allowed for all students to discuss situations in which they felt they faced prejudice from fellow students and faculty.
“In wake of the events that happened at places like Mizzou and Ithaca… (we said,) ‘Let’s talk about some of the other issues in the country,’” said BSU President David Brown, a senior communication studies major. “We don’t talk about (racial tension) unless it happens here, and so it was time to get the conversation started.”
In addition to race, students who attended the discussion also talked about religion, gender and sexuality. However, no matter what the topic of discussion was, the underlying theme of oppression due to misunderstanding was prominent and heard.
“If you’re going to take a test and you haven’t studied, you’re going to get an ‘F’ and there’s no way around it,” sophomore communication studies major Mete Eser said. “So it’s like, how are you going to know about Islam, or Christianity, or Buddhism or anything if you don’t go out and you don’t talk to the people that actually practice these religions?”
Other students expressed similar views to Eser and expanded on his analogy.
“I think that (‘50 Shades of Black’) was a great example of how we can (get out and learn about what is happening),” sophomore communication studies major Nolan DeVoe said. “Whether it is going to the BSU meetings or the rally, and even the panel that was on Thursday, and all things like that, I suggest to get out of your comfort zone.”
At the peace rally held on Wednesday, Nov. 18, students read a poem titled “It’s Up To You.” The poem concludes, “One life can make a difference / You see, it is up to you.”
Following the reading, Casey Dowling, the student body president and a senior biology major, spoke in regard to the poem before leaving the podium.
“Today is not the end of the conversation,” she said. “It has only just begun.”
Kerri Thompson Tillett, the associate vice president and chief diversity officer for the College, told students that they represented students all across the country.
“We stand here today in support of the students at other institutions across the United States who are having to exist in environments of discrimination and (hostility),” Tillett said. “We stand together today as allies who are committed to ensuring that (the College) is an institution that affirms and respects the basic dignity of members of our community.”
After the speeches concluded and before the audience dispersed, all of the attendees, both students and faculty, held hands and formed a circle around Quimby’s Prairie in order to show that they “stood united” against prejudice and discord.
“I felt like the circle brought a sense of unity to our campus,” freshman finance and political science double major Justin Brach said. “It was incredible seeing students of different backgrounds come together to support such a critical movement in our time.”
“Everyone holding hands to encircle Quimby’s Prairie was incredibly symbolic and powerful,” Vice President of Student Affairs Amy Hecht said. “It showed that (the College can) stand together and that collectively we are not willing to tolerate injustice toward any individuals or groups.”
The College was not the only higher educational institution in the state that held events in the wake of the recent events. Kean University in Union City, N.J., and Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., made headlines as well.
According to Kean’s Facebook page, the university received threatening tweets from an anonymous Twitter account on Tuesday, Nov. 17, following the students’ own peaceful demonstration for the events that occurred at the University of Missouri. According to an nj.com article from Wednesday, Nov. 18, the university’s president, Dawood Farahi, vowed that the school will do all that it can do to find the source of the threats.
“Hate will never succeed,” Farahi said in the same article. “It will always fail. (The university) stands behind (student demonstrators) when they peacefully use their constitutional rights.”
According to the New York Times, 200 students at Princeton University walked out of their classes to protest the university’s approach to racial sensitivity and a campus organization, the Black Justice League, presented a list of demands to the university. Fifteen students also occupied Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s office on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Those students occupied the office overnight, and the following day, Eisgruber promised to sit down with the student demonstrators in order to hear their demands.
At the top of the list of demands, according to a New York Times article from Friday, Nov. 20, was renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy” of the 28th U.S. president and former university president. Other demands included having staff members attend diversity sensitivity training, along with providing housing and a meeting space for students interested in black culture.
In his meeting with students, Eisgruber said that while naming decisions are up to the university’s board of trustees, he promised to remove a large mural of Wilson that is currently placed in the school’s residential dining hall.
With tension getting closer to home, certain events that have taken place at nearby institutions have become personal for some students at the College.
“It breaks my heart, because in 2015, I never thought that I would see students being threatened, not being able to attend something as important as education,” Brown said. He then compared the events with the demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement.
“For me, I can’t believe that (racial unrest at colleges) is happening and it makes me think back to the literature that I have read or the documentaries that I have watched (about the Civil Rights movement),” Brown said.
Senior psychology major Queneisha Jones, the president of the College’s chapter of the NAACP, said that the students at the College are grateful for administration’s support in regards to student demonstration.
“Luckily, we have the support of our institutional president, too, and I don’t know how many other schools have that,” Jones said. “So it is really up to the student body to combine their collective thoughts, but I think in terms of making an actual change, a systemic change or institutional change at their college, (colleges experiencing racial unrest) are going to need more support from people in places, not to say (who) matter, but (who) have a stronger say so.”
In a statement released to The Signal by the College’s spokesman David Muha, President R. Barbara Gitenstein expressed support for the events of the week.
“The actions of our students… exemplify exactly the kind of leadership that we all should show in expressing our concerns about fair treatment for people,” Gitenstein said. “At (the College), we value diversity and strive to foster an inclusive community, but we do not take it for granted. We recognize that elsewhere, many do not enjoy the same degree of respect and that compels us to speak up.”