Rhode Island School of Design students and resident advisors gathered Wednesday night in front of Nickerson Hall to demonstrate their opposition to hateful acts that occurred on campus in the past week and a half. The first occurred the weekend of Feb. 18 and attracted national attention: A swastika was drawn in human feces on the wall of a bathroom in Nickerson, a first-year dorm on campus. A few days later, in the same first-year quad, wall art that originally spelled out “vape” in decorative tape was changed to read “rape.” The perpetrator(s) of both acts remain unknown.
“We don’t know why someone would treat the student body like that,” said Felicita Devlin, a first-year at RISD who lives in Nickerson. The fact that a perpetrator may be one of her peers — and likely someone who lives in the same quad as her — is “scary” and “feels creepy,” she said.
This was the 12th time an inappropriate incident involving human excrement has occurred in the first-year bathrooms since she came to campus, Devlin said. While at first students thought someone had been sick, it became clear that the acts were intentional when feces were put in air vents and on walls, she said. She added that it was upsetting to think of the custodial staff having to clean up each time an act like this occurs.
“I feel like professors should address this in class,” said Alla Alsahli, who is a first-year at RISD, adding that the perpetrators of these acts may be students in professors’ classes at RISD. Neither Alsahli nor Devlin’s professors had brought up the incidents in their classes.
“That bothers me … (that) the professors never address any of these issues,” Devlin said, adding that professors have an obligation to discuss incidents that seriously affect students. But despite her frustration with professors, Devlin was “really proud of” the administrative response to the events, explaining that the office of Residence Life and student RAs have supported students wishing to talk after the events. RAs at the demonstration declined to comment for the story.
“My first thought was, ‘What are the students feeling?’” said Kyle Stuber, who works in the Residence Life Program at RISD as the area coordinator for first-years. Stuber held a community meeting immediately after the events and asked his residents what support they needed. Students told him RISD needs to give back on an institutional level. There needs to be “an institutional response to an institutional problem,” Stuber said, adding that though “this may have happened in the first-year area,” it “affects the community” as a whole.
But some felt the greater administrative response to the incidents was insufficient: “I was frustrated with (the administration’s) use of euphemistic language and hedging,” said Jacob Poindexter, a junior at RISD, in reference to a community-wide email sent out in response to the incidents.
“I feel that the administration, in a systemic way, fails to holistically address issues of bigotry … (and) disenfranchisement within the school,” Poindexter said. He added that he feels that pushes for change come almost exclusively from students. The administration does “the bare minimum in response” after intense demands from students, he said, adding that even then “there seems to be a lot of hoops to go through to reach structural change throughout the school.”
Poindexter said bigotry and activism against it have been a part of RISD for as long as he has been at the school.
The gathering moved from the green in front of Nickerson to the dorm’s lounge, located down the hall from where the Swastika was found. Inside of Nickerson, resident advisors had hung a large poster that read “This Community Values Love.” Beneath these words, students could write their own comments on what values they felt the RISD community should reflect. Next to this poster were statements of “community values,” and down the hall ResLife had set up snacks and music for students. The group of attendees grew in the Nickerson lounge, with students sitting in small groups and chatting among themselves.
“Please tell us what would make you feel safe in the community,” Stuber said to attendees, encouraging them to write down their complaints on papers and leave them in a yellow envelope that would “go to the right person.” An email circulated by an RA said that student concerns would be compiled into a list of demands to be presented to the college’s administration.
“We have been proactively focused on fostering an environment where differences flourish, where disagreements are productive and framed by trust and where all community members are encouraged to embrace the unknown and expand their worldview,” wrote RISD Public Relations Director Jaime Marland in an email to The Herald. “Issues of concern are taken seriously and addressed swiftly,” she added.
In a statement published on Facebook, Brown/RISD Hillel similarly decried the incident. “We were saddened and angered to learn of the anti-Semitic graffiti found in a RISD dorm bathroom,” the statement read. “There is no place for hateful symbols on a college campus or anywhere.”