University News

Teach-in recounts history of activism

Students say past protests have informed current experiences both inside and outside the classroom

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 5, 2013

Activism boils down to the “creation of tension,” said Kenneth McDaniel ’69 P’13, a participant in the 1968 protests over Brown’s diversity, during a Wednesday teach-in on student activism throughout the last 50 years.

The teach-in, attended by about 75 people in Barus and Holley 168, was organized by a group of students in light of student activism this semester, said event coordinator Anselmo Fuentes ’16, who introduced the panelists.

Robert Lee ’80 P’15, chair of the Department of American Studies, said discussions of activism should focus on current challenges amid progress made by past collective actions. “We need to think of these gains that we have made as ongoing sites of struggle,” he said. “They need defending. They need expanding.”

Understanding the history behind activism provides a “blueprint on how to act now,” said Paul Tran ’14, who is conducting research on student activism as part of a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship in history, Africana studies and ethnic studies.

The fact that undergraduates have only four years at Brown amplifies the need to see causes for change as ongoing campaigns, panelists said.

Students cannot “romanticize” their causes, Tran said, adding that activists must recognize that Brown “change(s) slowly over time and accept that we are here for four years.”

Multiple panelists said past activism can provide context for the gravity of current moments. The University “saw for the first time in a long time real, deep student anger” this semester, Lee said.

“I am so incredibly grateful for the Ray Kelly protest,” said Gina Rodriguez-Drix ’09, co-founder of the student group Coalition for Police Accountability and Institutional Transparency.

McDaniel said he has been involved in many protest movements, which have been “two standard deviations out from the norm … but always with a strong sense of where the center really lies.”

McDaniel highlighted his experience participating in the 1968 student walkout intended to focus administrators’ attention on the need for greater racial diversity on Brown’s campus at the time. The class of 1969 had eight black males and virtually no Hispanic students, McDaniel said, pointing to greater diversity in today’s student body as a positive result of activism.

Other panelists drew connections between past activist movements and the current realities of the Brown experience.

“My degree would not exist if it were not for student activism,” Rodriguez-Drix said, referring to her concentration in Africana studies.

Though student activists have made progress over the years, ongoing campaigns still face many obstacles, including dissent within the Brown community, panelists said.

While some administrators support student activists, “the administration and the Corporation are not really your friends,” Rodriguez-Drix said.

“There are different voices within the Corporation,” Lee said. But as a whole, the body is a “reminder of what universities are all about and who they serve,” he said, adding that the Corporation serves a “specific class.”

When students are unable to communicate directly with administrators, they must remember that “these are people with whom we are dealing” and there are other ways to reach administrators other than direct dialogue, Tran said.

Authorities who are the focus of activists’ efforts usually “are doing the best they can with what they have at that time,” McDaniel said, but effective protest movements may have to “put organizations or individuals into potentially embarrassing situations” to achieve success.

“Making movements fun is what brings people in,” said Ian Trupin ’13.5, a former Herald opinions columnist and a student activist who addressed how to make change happen at the grassroots level.

Activists should also acknowledge that not all students will agree with a cause, Tran said.

Rodriguez-Drix said her activism efforts were most successful when she learned to build a bridge between different groups of students.

Disagreement can sometimes arise over activists’ personal backgrounds and how different experiences inform their opinions, Rodriguez-Drix said.

“It’s very difficult when your position is called invalid because of how you look,” she said, citing one difficulty she faced while organizing student activist groups at Brown.

Student activism also yields benefits for movement participants as they learn about themselves throughout a campaign, Rodriguez-Drix said. “The process is the point.”


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