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Students reimagine activism under COVID-19 restrictions

Student groups at Brown lean into remote advocacy to pursue change on, off campus

While the conditions that shape the “new normal” have made it exceedingly difficult for community members on campus to safely organize, they have only made activism and advocacy more urgent. 

The coronavirus pandemic gripping the nation “exposes the worst imbalances, inequalities, corruption in our society and how systems are not designed to help people,” Samy Amkieh ’21.5, a member of Brown Students for Justice in Palestine told The Herald. 

Coupled with this summer’s national reckoning on racial injustice after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the urge to organize and advocate for the communities impacted by racial and economic inequality is more powerful than it has ever been, Amkieh said. 

This semester, Amkieh said SJP has been working to maintain pressure on the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, to divest from companies identified as potentially facilitating human rights abuses in Palestine, as recommended by the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Practices in March 2020.

SJP has also spent the semester collaborating with Grasping at the Root, a recently-formed abolitionist coalition on campus, to amplify their demands, which Amkieh said are “very closely tied with why we’re even fighting for Palestinians.”

For Sunrise Brown and RISD, which is one hub of the national Sunrise Movement, their efforts to demand the implementation of Green New Deal legislation in Rhode Island have been shifted toward electoral work from their usual mass demonstrations

“We have a super, super huge election looming over us,” Sunrise member Ilan Upfal ’22 said. “It’s really terrifying that we have a president who is … opposed to, I think, the kind of reforms our society needs the most right now to address systemic inequity and climate change.” 

Upfal said Sunrise Brown and RISD is focusing its efforts on text banking to increase voter turnout with student group Brown Votes and phone banking with the Rhode Island Political Cooperative to support progressive candidates campaigning in the Ocean State. 

Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere has also had to shift from in-person work to remote advocacy. In years past, direct service has been paramount for the group, which did outreach around Providence with clients experiencing homelessness. But the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to the state’s homeless population has made in-person work a non-starter, HOPE Co-Director Dhruv Gaur ’21 said. 

This semester, HOPE has focused more on advocacy and working virtually with state and local organizations centered on housing opportunities. 

HOPE has supported the Rhode Island Center for Justice, which has been working to provide tenants at risk of eviction with declaration forms from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gaur said. Tenants can use the declaration forms to obtain protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent if they are covered by the CDC’s temporary eviction moratorium intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.  

HOPE has also submitted written testimony this month in support of a proposed bill in the city of Cranston that would prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants receiving housing assistance, he said. 

On-campus advocacy has also been made more difficult in the virtual sphere, Decolonization at Brown member Junaid Malik ’20.5 said.

While the University has hosted more virtual town halls and community events, there have been fewer avenues for students to share their concerns with administrators, Malik said. “There is more of an idea that administrators are there to answer questions about updates that have happened rather than trying to listen proactively to students and the kinds of things students are experiencing, the kinds of concerns we have, the kinds of ideas we have.”

While virtual access to certain decision makers has proved to be more difficult, remote advocacy does have its benefits, Malik added. DAB, in its efforts to reach out to local organizations, communities and tribes in Providence and Rhode Island, has found that virtual modes of communication have “opened up an interesting avenue in the sense that we can bring people to Zoom that we might not have been able to bring before,” he said. 

Amkieh, Upfal, Gaur and Malik also described the challenges of building community virtually, with student activists and advocates split between being on campus and studying remotely or taking leaves of absences. 

“The trust-building and community-building component is a lot harder, but it’s still really possible,” Amkieh said.

Upfal added that many people still “want to find community, want to plug in,” and Malik said that regularly checking in with members has become more important.

With the University permitting more student gatherings, HOPE plans to have safe group meetings in person. “Being in the same space (and) talking about these issues in a very passionate way is very energizing,” Gaur said. “Hopefully, as things open up safely, we can build a little more solidarity.”


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