Week of protests ignites campus-wide conversation

Last week, the Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity (SOBHU) organized a week of action to protest racial injustices occurring across the country and around the world. Through daily demonstrations, students aimed to raise awareness and facilitate conversation across campus around the issue of police brutality and other acts of racial violence.

On Monday, the week began with a day of silence to honor the life of Eric Harris, a man of color who was shot by a police officer and was told: “F*** your breath.” On Tuesday, the action continued. A group of demonstrators marched across campus holding signs and protesting the silencing of violent acts against people of color in the U.S, specifically events involving police brutality, as well as other acts of racial injustice all over the world.

“Every other week we hear news of a person of color being shot, or facing some type of racism or discrimination in their community,” SOBHU Vice President Miriam Valle-Mancilla ’16 said in an email correspondence. “We felt that even though we live in a small community where we don’t face violence like this, we want to bring awareness and solidarity, we care.”

The demonstrations were intended to engage the community with issues of social justice and to urge students to listen and become involved: “We go to an institution where we learn about poverty, inequality, social injustice…but the school does not seem to show solidarity towards [these issues],” Valle-Mancilla said.

However, in response to the students who participated in Tuesday’s demonstrations, certain users of the social app, Yik Yak, wrote hateful and racist statements directed to those students who participated in the demonstrations.

The anonymous Yik Yak posts left many students of color and their allies feeling outraged and hurt by certain members of the Colby community. “The same students we hold the door for on campus, the same students we sit next to in class, the same who students we play with in sports are the ones that think those racist, hateful and ignorant things,” Valle-Mancilla said.

The derogatory posts also exemplified the necessity for campus-wide conversations on race and may have provided the necessary wake-up call for the College. SOBHU ally Emily Taylor ’18 wrote in an email, “I hope that the recent events ‘popped’ the Colby bubble that many students are in. I think this made the community, and the students especially, aware that these racial issues are present.”

Ongoing conversations in the Pugh center are now conversations happening throughout the larger community. “I am glad to know that the conversation I have had all year long have made it out of the Pugh Center space. We are not boxed in, we are not segregated, it is allowing for leadership and growth for people on this campus, which excites me,” SOBHU Co-Chair of Finance Katherine Cabrera Hunt ’18 wrote in an email correspondence.

Regarding the College’s next steps in response to the racist Yik Yaks, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune wrote to the Echo saying the following:

“The College asked legal counsel to explore options for acquiring the names of those who made racially biased posts. Yik Yak is an anonymous posting site, and it does not require or receive the names of posters. After reviewing the Yik Yak terms and conditions of use, counsel advised us that there was no realistic means to discover information on the people who made racist comments, whether by subpoena or other legal process.”

The events and conversations continued with a Die-In on Wednesday, which provided a way for participants to stand in solidarity with victims of unjust acts of violence. Participants laid on the floor of Pulver to symbolize the deaths of marginalized people. “It put you in the position of the dead, yet you know you will get up soon. That’s uncomfortable, but that is the point of a die-in to me, to participate as a way to cherish your own life and use your life to ensure that no one else has to die,” President of SOBHU Tionna Haynes ’15 said.

“It was meant to show grief, pain, to wallow in sadness because that in itself is a beautiful feeling. There is a beauty in being able to empathize and become a better person while acknowledging how cruel and how much hatred there is in this world,” Cabrera-Hunt continued.

On Thursday, in response to the Yik Yak posts and larger issues of race on campus, President David A. Greene addressed a crowd of hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni outside Pulver. Along with Greene, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy Jill Gordon, Oak Institute Director and Associate Professor of Government Walter Hatch, and Associate Dean of Students and Pugh Center Director Tashia Bradley also spoke in support of those students affected and urged the community to get involved in fighting acts of racism and bigotry.

“We were told that this is a inclusive, accepting, and supportive community where you are supposed to feel safe physically and emotionally and expected to voice your opinion without malicious judgment. But the micro-aggressions, dismissal, and belittling experienced throughout our careers here and over the past few days from both students and faculty have made us feel otherwise,” Valle-Mancilla said.

During his speech, Greene addressed the Yik Yak posts and stressed that hateful and racist commentary and actions are not and will not be tolerated at Colby. “We come to say that an attack on any member of our community is an attack on all of us—that we won’t stand for it and that our strength is in the goodness of the overwhelming majority of this community, who care deeply about social justice and equality,” he said.

Afterwards, Gordon urged students, particularly white students, to be allies and to get involved. “Speak up. Be a part of the ‘we.’ Be creative and brave,” Gordon said. For his part, Hatch emphasized the need for learning and addressed the importance of the protests: “Disruption of the status quo is something that must happen routinely.”

In concluding, Bradley commented on how the community must work to engage and learn from one another. “In a community where we say that we’re an intellectual community and a learning community, how do we engage in conversation and listen to each other and learn from each other?” Bradley asked. “And how do we do that in a way where we don’t make people feel as though they are excluded for the basis of things like their skin color, or their cultural identity or their sexual orientation?” she continued.

Bradley urged students to ask themselves regularly: “What can I do?”

The week’s events concluded on Friday with an Open mic/Open forum in Pulver, where students were encouraged to voice their thoughts on the recent events through a variety of mediums, including poetry and song. Many students participated throughout the day, coming together to share their experiences. “It was a moment for the campus to heal,” Haynes said.

“It’s important to connect emotionally with each other and it’s very empowering to hear that people in the crowd whom you may not even know are in agreement with or respect your thoughts and opinions,” Shadiyat Ajao ’15, who co-organized the event wrote. “There were a lot of faces I did not recognize, which made me really happy.…I’m glad that students, staff, and faculty wanted to hear what their fellow members of the Colby community had to say.”

Along with providing a safe space for sharing, the forum ensured that discussions on these issues continued after Thursday’s talk. “It gave students authority over their opinions and ownership of their emotions in a way that could facilitate further discussion and exploration of self, which should all be a part of the college experience” Alexis Atkinson ’15, co-organizer of the event wrote.

To further promote discussion and encourage the entire community to engage in dialogue, the College decided to have a Teach-In on Tuesday, inviting all faculty and staff to use a part of each meeting time with students to discuss these issues. Following the Teach-In was a Dine-In, which included specific times in each dining hall for students, faculty and staff to continue conversations.

Many professors welcomed the idea of facilitating conversation on social justice at Colby. “I was very glad to have the opportunity to have my classes dedicated to the Teach-In,” Professor of Religious Studies Debra Campbell said. “The experience has shown me that students have thought about it and recognize that we need to bring more discussion about Colby into the classroom,” she said.

SOBHU, allies and the College intend to keep the conversations going. Hatch reminded students during Thursday’s talk, “We have a tremendous amount of learning still to do.”

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