Thursday, May 24, 2018

Students organize public dialogue on campus culture

CHRIS BULFINCH ’18

NEWS EDITOR

The raw and frigid wind that swept across campus on Saturday did not dissuade the football team from playing their homecoming game against Wesleyan, nor did it stifle the energy of a group of demonstrators who also took the field to represent Trinity before the student body, the faculty, and assorted alumni. On Saturday November 15th, during the game’s halftime, over 100 students, faculty and staff members, and alumni stood across the field in view of other game attendees to express their feelings of dissatisfaction with the culture at Trinity College. The participants’ sentiments touched on themes of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but the overall tone of the event was broader in scope; the demonstration was centered around the lackluster dialogue concerning these social issues, and the sense that the culture of Trinity College is one of close-mindedness, exclusivity, and intolerance. The demonstration was motivated in part by recent events at the University of Missouri and Yale University, and the national dialogue about race and free speech that has erupted in their wake.

The demonstration was part of a larger movement that has swept the nation in the past days and weeks, a campaign that involves showing solidarity for the students struggling and protesting in Missouri and elsewhere in the country. Solidarity events have ranged from sit-ins and walk-outs to moments of silence and rallies of various kinds. Many of Trinity’s peer institutions within the NESCAC had campus-wide events to show solidarity last week.

Members of Trinity’s student body organized their own iteration of these events with Solidarity in the Field. The event was coordinated largely by word of mouth and social media, with a Facebook page stating that, “many of us have decided to stand in solidarity with each other, students at Mizzou and Yale, and students across the country who are experiencing discrimination at their respective institutions.” Issues of race and ethnicity are not major talking points around campus, according to the protesters, and students of color often feel excluded from many aspects of Trinity life. In the words of Amber Townsend ’17, “We do not have the privilege of not considering the web of oppression that entangles people of color all across America, because we endure it every day.” Given Trinity’s stated commitment to a diverse and inclusive academic and social atmosphere, that such significant barriers exist on campus is of great concern to both the administration and to the student body. The notion of campus diversity can itself be problematic, according to the speech made by several students on the football field. “We must carry the burden of being both a teacher and a student, because our presence on campus is for the benefit of white students. Diversity is a goal which serves to round out their college experience and we are treated accordingly,” elaborates Townsend.

The protesters made clear, however that “this opportunity is not exclusive to students of color and is open to anyone, including faculty members, staff members, alumni, citizens of Hartford and anyone else who would like to stand in solidarity with us.” The event addressed more issues than those of race. While issues pertaining to students of color were the central subject of the demonstration, the action itself was a reaction by many Trinity students who do not feel a part of campus life and culture. Solidarity on the Field is thus representative of an intersection of many issues, and the effect that they have on many aspects of student life, both social and academic.

Solidarity on the Field began at halftime of the football game. The participants assembled on the track and waited for the players to vacate the field. The mood among the demonstrators was confident and expectant – there was clear faith and confidence in the message that they were bringing forth and spirits seemed high in anticipation of the innovative event. Over 100 students assembled on the side of the field, and with them stood a number of faculty and administrators including Dean of Multicultural Affairs Karla Spurlock-Evans and President of the College Joanne Berger-Sweeney. The demonstrators streamed onto the field and formed a long line from one endzone to the other, arm in arm. Once everyone was on the field, the speech began, delivered by several members of the Trinity community. The opening was delivered by Adachi Ogbenna ’16, and addressed the events in Missouri and at Yale and expressed the intentions of the demonstration: “We, as members of the Trinity community, stand in solidarity with the University of Missouri and Yale University as they endure acts of terror and disrespect both overt and covert against students of color on their campuses,” she said.

Townsend picked up where Ogbenna left off, addressing the illusory concept of diversity and the challenges faced by students of color in the Trinity community. “When our presence is not wanted, we are attacked with racial jokes, epithets, and intimidation,” said Townsend, “We are sexually exoticized, and treated as cognitively inferior. The transgressions we experience here are exactly in line with those that students have experienced at Missouri, Yale, and hundreds of other campuses.”

After Townsend came Camryn Clarke ’17 who addressed the steps taken by the college to remedy some of the issues faced by students of color, saying “Students, faculty, and staff from all walks of life have come out today, dressed in black, to show their support for us and our sisters and brothers at other campuses… We are thankful to our professors for teaching the entire student body about the racialized oppression we face, and for legitimizing our experience as students of color.” She further praised the football team for wearing black athletic tape and black under their jerseys as a sign of solidarity.

The last person to speak was Nico Nagle ’17 who spoke of the continuing dialogue that Solidarity on the Field hoped to inspire. “There is much that remains to be done,” said Nagle, “we are reaching out for your help in making it [Trinity] a safer and healthier environment not only for us, but for all of Trinity.” He ended the speech with a call to action, encouraging all students to walk out of class on Monday at noon as a sign of protest, followed by a meeting to continue the dialogue and consider further courses of action.

Immediately prior to the beginning of the demonstration, the stands cleared out with spectators going to find food or to visit the tailgate. The speech was delivered to a largely vacant stadium, with small knots of students and alumni huddled against the cold. Those who remained however, seemed receptive to the message of the protest, and a large number of viewers joined in after invitations from the speakers, to cheers from the participants. President Berger-Sweeney stood alongside those who spoke, applauded their efforts, and joined in the chant of, “one, two, three, solidarity!” That erupted from those standing together in the middle of the football field.

The Solidarity on the Field event was, as Nagle said, not the end of the efforts to promote dialogue around issues of race and inclusivity on Trinity’s campus. A walk-out from classes began at noon on Monday the 16th, and students, faculty, and staff all flowed from academic buildings and elsewhere on campus to the Washington Room in Mather Hall. By a few minutes past noon, the room was bustling and the energy was mounting. Chairs were assembled in a large circle, stretching across the room, and additional rows were added, fanning out throughout the space. A sign-in sheet on the wall kept track of the myriad attendees, who ranged from students to faculty to President Joanne Berger-Sweeney. Additional postings on the wall asked three probing questions: the first “Where on campus do you feel most safe?” the second “Where on campus do you feel most unsafe?” and lastly “Who do you turn to when you feel most unsafe?”

The opening remarks were delivered by the organizers of the event, who thanked everyone for being in attendance and laid out the basic structure of the proceedings. They addressed the Solidarity in the Field event and spoke of the need for a broad-based discussion of campus culture, particularly in regard to issues of race and gender.

The crux of the event was based around audience participation. Each attendee was handed a notecard and asked to write briefly about an experience with discrimination from Trinity’s campus, either a direct experience or simply something that they had witnessed. Those who were comfortable relating their experiences were encouraged to do so at a microphone in the center of the circle of chairs, and those who wanted their experiences discussed, but were not comfortable sharing themselves, put their notecards in a jar to be read later. A stillness and silence descended upon the room while people plumbed their memories, considering their own experiences and how Trinity and other students may have impacted those experiences.

A small queue of students formed around the microphone, and one by one, the students shared their stories. While some were small occurrences emblematic of the problematic culture of Trinity, others told stories of profound hatred and bigotry. Emboldened by the brave few who began, more and more students came up to share their perspective and recollections. The stories were as varied as the students telling them, and they addressed issues as far ranging as identity and belonging to institutional and individual experiences with discrimination. Emotions ran high, and tears were common. Whenever someone showed their distress, they were invariably supported by a friend or two, and outbreaks of snapping in approval or bursts of applause were common during people’s narratives. Even President Berger-Sweeney related an experience of hers, where a vendor on campus was enormously rude to her, not realizing or thinking that she was the president of the College. “I belong here,” she asserted, “and all of you do too.”

Wake Up World began winding down at a quarter past one, as many in attendance had to leave for class or other obligations. Yet the momentum of the event proved hard to stop. Many people remained behind, and the sharing of stories continued past the time when the Wake Up World event’s reservation on Washington Room expired at 2 p.m..

On a campus that is so often reticent when it comes to issues of race, class, and other social issues, Wake Up World was representative of new energy that is breaking the apathy and stagnation that often bogs down Trinity’s campus culture. The issues confronted on Monday are rarely discussed so publically around Trinity, and such substantive discussion is a rare occurrence. It is unclear at this moment whether the dialogue begun with Wake Up World will continue in a productive fashion as the organizers and participants hope. What is clear is that these issues, previously left to simmer under the surface of tradition and convention. The poignant power of the event defied easy description, and it is difficult to put words to the energy that transcended the barriers of class and race in an attempt to bring the campus community together to form a more sensitive, welcoming atmosphere at Trinity.

In all, the last week saw significant change in the nature of social dialogue on Trinity’s campus. There is no guarantee that the conversation and energy will be as productive as many would like, or that it will permeate through all of Trinity’s disparate social and academic circles. Nonetheless, Solidarity on the Field and Wake Up World signify a shift in norms and modes of thought on Trinity’s campus, and bring to the forefront of student consciousness issues once relegated to a few on the margins. The changing conversation will likely come to involve many different groups around campus, and those intersections will likely provide fodder for interesting changes in the weeks and months ahead.

Leave a reply