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As COVID-19 highlights societal fault lines, student activists press on

Senior students talk moving advocacy efforts online, institutional capacities to implement progressive change

As an organizer for Sunrise Providence, Emma Bouton ’20 planned to participate in a mass strike on Earth Day to protest the lack of political action taken to combat climate change. But before that could happen, the coronavirus pushed the United States indoors and the movement’s organizing online. 

So instead, Bouton participated in a virtual rally and a calling day to state representatives for Sunrise Providence — one hub of the national youth-led movement fighting for political action on the climate crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people around the world to reevaluate and adapt normal practices, but student activists like Bouton remain committed to organizing around issues that they believe impede social equality in the United States. Many members of the class of 2020 have dedicated their time as students to public service, and The Herald spoke with four such seniors to understand how the ongoing pandemic has affected their advocacy work. 

In their interviews below, the students discuss how tackling national problems, such as climate change, immigration, affordable housing and disability justice, takes on a new urgency amid a public health and economic crisis that has exacerbated previously existing disparities in the United States. 

“This is just a real wake up moment for a lot of folks, and also just a really clear display of just how deep the inequities in our economy and society are,” Bouton said. “So, yeah, I think it's just personally strengthening my resolve for why we need to have this fight.”

“Still be disruptive”: Activism in the time of COVID-19

While the pandemic has changed the shape of their advocacy work, students expressed some hope that the crisis could foster an environment rife with opportunities to demand impactful change.

Shivani Nishar ’20, chapter co-coordinator of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma and the Undergraduate Council of Students chair of student wellness, said recent administrative actions demonstrated that institutions of higher education could take broad and progressive measures. 

After the coronavirus outbreak pushed most college students off campus, Nishar led campaigns to ensure equity and accessibility for all students as the University implemented measures in response to the public health crisis.

The pandemic has shown that universities “always had the infrastructure to be able to do remote learning” and enact measures that “the disability community on campuses nationwide have been asking for (but) have always been denied,” she said. 

While serving in her positions for UCS and Project LETS, Nishar sought to advance disability justice at Brown and to improve mental health resources on campus. Among other initiatives, she has worked to increase diversity in Counseling and Psychological Services providers, implement a reporting system for unmet accommodations with Student and Employee Accessibility Services, launch a program that sends care packages to students on leave and develop a faculty training curriculum on accessible teaching practices. 

Nishar “really wanted to approach things transformatively and through a radical framework,” said Vanessa Garcia ’20.5, who worked closely with Nishar in both Project LETS and UCS. They added that Nishar’s work was especially impactful because of its focus on “direct action toward providing resources, changing infrastructures, making networks for specifically disabled and neurodivergent communities” and more.

“The hardest thing that mentally ill and disabled students face on campuses worldwide is that people … don't believe we know what we need,” Nishar said. “They think that they're acting on behalf of us and that's enough.”

Equipped with the knowledge of the University’s capabilities, Nishar said she hopes that communities on campus can demand greater support for students with disabilities to transform higher education once the public health crisis subsides.

In a post-pandemic landscape, Bouton also said that she sees an opportunity to call for more aggressive action from politicians, whose climate policies have historically fallen short of activists’ demands and scientists’ warnings. “This moment has really shown that our government can take pretty drastic actions to restrict what people are doing if it's for the public good,” she said.

Bouton joined the Sunrise Movement her junior year after taking several courses at the University which made her feel “like there was not a lot that we were actually doing” to address the climate crisis.

Sunrise offered a compelling solution, Bouton said. The organization aims to “draw attention to the inequities inherent in the climate crisis and fight for a better future, specifically by putting pressure on our elected officials to take this crisis as seriously as we do,” she explained.

Before COVID-19, Bouton helped organize a number of demonstrations, including a climate strike last September that drew over 1,000 people. In anticipation of the November elections, she will run a summer field program to elect Sunrise-endorsed candidates to the Rhode Island Statehouse.

The national Sunrise Movement also now offers online training sessions. “My hope is that coming out of this pandemic, we have a lot more people who have received a lot of training and have all these skills that are just feeling more fired up to take action,” she said.

Yet despite this organizing, Bouton said it’s not always clear if the movement’s advocacy will succeed. “It's really hard to not feel the fear of like, ‘What if we lose? And what if we're not doing enough?’” she said. “That comes up a lot and is normal with a fight that feels so important, but also so challenging.”

But with the onset of a public health and economic crisis, students told The Herald that policymakers in the United States can no longer ignore the inequities that continue to persist in areas such as immigration and housing. 

Angel Mendez-Flores ’20, founder and president of the Brown University Latinx Political Coalition and member of the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, said the spread of the novel coronavirus in United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers underscores how poorly these facilities are run.

“In the ideal world, we are aiming to reform the immigration system in the United States to make it more humane,” he said. In many instances, though, Mendez-Flores pursued advocacy work that could help individuals out of detention facilities. “Even though it’s not a big systemic change,” he said, “it is one life, immediately.”

Following the pandemic, Mendez-Flores said he hopes to see greater calls for immigration reform, given the number of essential agricultural workers who lack citizenship status in the United States. “Farm workers have been in the frontlines picking up the food that then gets distributed to the rest of the country to make sure that America is fed. So I hope that that is going to highlight how important these people are,” he said.

The pandemic has also exacerbated housing inequalities across the country, said Nathaniel Pettit ’20, university relations advocacy director and previous co-director of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

“Homeless communities throughout the nation are some of the hardest hit. Try sheltering in place when you don't have a shelter,” he said. “That's very much true here in Rhode Island as it is anywhere.”

In 2015, just over half of Providence renters were “housing cost burdened,” paying over 30 percent of their income on housing. “There's a lot of human suffering that is happening less than a mile away from University Hall, and I think that's very easy to forget,” Pettit said.

“It’s a pretty stark reminder of how horrible inequality is in this country,” he added.

As co-director of HOPE, Pettit spearheaded the effort with his co-director Jacqlyn Blatteis ’19 to establish the Housing Assistance Collaborative, which serves as a clinic to aid those seeking affordable housing in Rhode Island. Pettit “doesn't just want to have that conversation and talk about (how HOPE can improve) — he’s always then ready to take action,” Blatteis said.

To comply with social distancing measures, Pettit worked to shift the group’s operations with current HOPE leaders to continue supporting individuals experiencing housing insecurity. In addition, HOPE continues to remotely help local partners by building on their organizational capacities, he said.

For Nishar, organizing in a fully virtual sphere is not entirely new. She noted that “disability organizers have always had to do their organizing work in remote spaces or online due to the nature of social justice work in general being very inaccessible.” 

Mendez-Flores said his work alongside other immigration advocates has focused on using social media while interfacing with local community organizations. “Trying to spread information has become the most valuable tool right now,” he said.

Sunrise Providence is also relying on technology to continue their organizing while social distancing, Bouton said, forcing members to consider “what are COVID-safe actions (and) what can we be doing to still be disruptive in this time?”

But even though the pandemic has forced them to change the shape of their advocacy work, students say that their ongoing efforts continue to be guided and informed by their years of experience.

Ultimately, when reflecting on his work, Pettit said that students are “very frequently told that we can do something of worth once we graduate, once you have a degree. But I think the whole community really doesn't believe that.” 

Instead, he said, “young people can contribute to advocacy efforts, in a really helpful way.”



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