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‘The core of what makes Brown good’: Student activism on College Hill over the past four years

Seniors, students discuss their experience in Rhode Island activism as Brunonians

<p>In recent years, activists on College Hill have taken particular interest in Brown&#x27;s relationship with the city of Providence, demanding the University pay it&#x27;s fair share to the municipal government.</p>

In recent years, activists on College Hill have taken particular interest in Brown's relationship with the city of Providence, demanding the University pay it's fair share to the municipal government.

In warm weather, Brown’s quads are known as gathering places for students to throw a frisbee or quietly read a book. But all year round, the University’s outdoor spaces also host different types of gatherings: protests.

The University has a deep history of student-led activism, and the class of 2023 is no exception to this tradition. Over the past four years, the class has advocated for issues including increasing the University’s voluntary payments to Providence, maintaining test-optional admissions and divesting the endowment from fossil fuels. 

Over the past four years, the focus of the activism has changed, but the passion of the activists has remained steadfast. Even with the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, student organizers have been a near-constant presence on and off campus. 

The past half decade provides storied insight into the culture of activism at Brown and how it has been impacted by the graduating class.


Environmentalism, immigration, Palestine: Pre-COVID activism

Much like the first-year classes that came before them, the class of 2023 arrived on campus wide-eyed and eager to get involved in the bustling campus community, activists told The Herald.

Despite knowing she wanted to enter the activist sphere even before arriving, Carina Sandoval ’23 was struck by the number of student organizations she had the option of joining. “I realized that activism meant so much more than my original conception of it,” she said.

She and fellow student Zoë Fuad ’23.5 were two students who joined the newly-founded organization Students for Educational Equity, which focuses on improving education equity at Brown and in the broader Providence community.

At the beginning, the student organization “felt very, very disconnected,” Sandoval said. But through SEE she learned “how one effectively organizes and mobilizes the student body.”

While SEE worked to understand its role in the activist community on campus, other student activist groups such as the local chapter of Sunrise, a national youth-led coalition advocating for legislative action to stop climate change, had fully-fledged campaigns underway.

In September 2019, a group of Sunrise activists protested at the office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., for over five hours to encourage him to sign onto a Green New Deal, a legislative resolution to restructure the American economy in order to encourage clean energy use and reduce inequality.

Two weeks later, the organization held a rally for a Green New Deal attended by more than 1,000 students, The Herald reported. In the following days, the Sunrise Rhode Island chapter split into two separate entities: the Brown/Rhode Island School of Design chapter and the Providence chapter. Organizers cited long-standing concerns about University activists’ role in Providence as a reason for the split.

Despite the split, climate activism remained prevalent among student organizers. In fall 2019, The Herald’s semesterly poll revealed that the top issue on the mind of student voters was climate change.

Sunrise climate activism escalated in December 2019 when 14 of its members, including at least 10 University students, were arrested and later released for staging a sit-in at the rotunda of the Rhode Island State House. This followed a rally where over 600 activists, some of whom attended Brown, marched through downtown Providence demanding action to combat climate change and for then-Gov. Gina Raimondo to sign a pledge not to accept money from people and companies associated with the fossil fuel industry.


Climate activism continued into the new year, with a group of protestors at one point interrupting a speech by former R.I. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston. Still, activism aimed at encouraging the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuel entities was relatively quiet in 2019 compared to peer institutions, The Herald reported.

In March 2020, the University decided to sell its direct investments and managed funds that focus on fossil fuels. But this divestment was motivated by “escalating uncertainty” in the economic future of fossil fuels, one member of the Investment Office told The Herald at the time — not by student activism.

And climate change was not the only cause for protest on campus at the time.

In October 2019, during the University’s annual Family Weekend, protestors demanded that the University cut ties with Warren Kanders ’79 P’23, owner of the Safariland Group — a company that, at the time, was selling tear gas used by law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border. In June 2020, the company announced it would divest from tear gas, though The Intercept reported in 2022 that Kanders maintained ties to the manufacturing of crowd control products.

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In March 2019 — before the class of 2023 arrived on campus — a referendum was passed by the student body to “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”

A year later, the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies recommended that the University divest from “any company that profits from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” Subsequent action has not been taken by administration.

Two days after ACCRIP’s recommendation was released, on March 13, the University canceled classes for two weeks and moved the remainder of the semester online. The next day, the first positive COVID-19 case on campus was detected, and former Provost Richard Locke P’18 said that all students must vacate Brown-affiliated housing by March 17. 

The pandemic was just beginning.

Coalitions, quarantine and admissions: COVID-era advocacy

As COVID-19 continued to spread around the globe, students adapted to connect with each other virtually. Although in-person advocacy had slowed to a near halt, students began vigorously planning for their return to campus.

Sandoval credited the death of George Floyd and COVID-19 with “a much larger push for students to be socially responsible to the communities that they're in.”

Fuad also cited the pandemic as a “pivot to focusing a lot more on our virtual and social media materials.”

Fuad and Sandoval worked together on SEE throughout the pandemic. The culmination of their work in fall 2020 led to a referendum proposed to the Undergraduate Council of Students that would ask students if the test-optional admission policy implemented during the pandemic should become permanent. According to Fuad, SEE believes that this would make the admissions process more equitable by allowing students to choose whether to submit standardized test scores.

The referendum, which appeared on UCS’s spring election ballot, passed in April 2021 with nearly 74% of voters supporting a permanent test-optional policy. UCS referendums are non-binding, though, so there was no change to policy.

Perhaps the most influential outcome of the pandemic was the creation of the Student Activist Coalition, Sandoval said. Originally formed on Zoom, the coalition sought to bring together various student advocacy groups with similar objectives to better communicate and collaborate on their organization efforts, according to Fuad.

“You can't necessarily build from the ground up,” Sandoval said. “You need to build upon existing networks.”

In fall 2020, with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, a variety of activist groups became engaged in political activism.

Brown/RISD Sunrise partook in phone banking to support progressive candidates up for election. Grasping at the Root, an abolitionist coalition at Brown, called for the abolishment of the Department of Public Safety as well as increased effort to combat white supremacy on campus.

Students for Justice in Palestine continued to put pressure on the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — to divest from companies potentially profiting off of “human rights abuses” in Palestine.

Meanwhile, activism concerning sexual assault on campus resulted in protest and advocacy both in-person and virtually. After experiencing sexual assault during her first year, Ha-Jung Kim ’23 was inspired to found End Sexual Violence, a student organization that aims to “prevent sexual violence … and support those students who do experience this violence,” she said.

In April 2021, ESV hung approximately 2,000 posters around campus calling for the University to improve efforts to combat sexual violence. The posters read “Dear survivors, we hear you” and “End the silence, end the violence.”

“Planning around public health and Brown guidelines were difficult, and we tried to abide by them as much as possible,” Kim said. “The actual timeline was not severely impacted by COVID-19, but the ways in which we delivered our activism was.”

The following summer, organizers continued to plan their campaigns and a return to in-person instruction — and activism — that fall.

Unions, payments, disruptions: In-person activism

Upon a return to a campus with less restrictive public health measures in fall 2021, activism began its resurgence with a leading charge from SEE.

The organization launched a campaign to end consideration of legacy status in admissions in October 2021. The following month, Fuad organized a town hall to discuss this consideration with Dean of Admission Logan Powell. During the meeting, Powell cited a 25% decrease in legacy student enrollment over the past half decade. 

He also dismissed the idea that legacy applicants are advantaged over other groups — such as first-generation and racial minorities — in the University's admissions process.

That fall, Fuad, alongside the Office of Admission, “set up the first-ever student committee to start really discussing how student voices can be centered in the admission process.”

In fall 2021, rumblings also began among activist groups for a “University accountability campaign,” Sandoval said.

The goal of this campaign was to “redistribute Brown’s funds to the Providence community,” Sandoval said, aiming to increase pressure on the University’s responsibility to the surrounding community.

Around the same time, a small cohort of undergraduates kickstarted Students Against Koch Influence. 

In December 2021, a proposal was brought forth for the creation of a Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics, which would absorb the Political Theory Project. Students and faculty expressed concern that this center would accept donations from the Koch Foundation, similar to a grant accepted by the Political Theory Project in 2016. The Koch Foundation is run by billionaire and conservative political mega-donor Charles Koch, who has a long record of denying the existence of climate change.

For Ethan Drake ’24, an organizer of SAKI, this called for reform “of the ethics policies of what a university should accept,” he said.

In March 2022, the Advisory Committee on University Resources Management recommended that the University revise its gifts and grants review policy to disassociate from businesses that perpetuate climate denial or disinformation. 

“ACURM is an advisory body to the president,” Brian Clark, University spokesman, wrote in an email to The Herald. The committee “is responsible for considering how the investment and expenditure of Brown’s financial resources are conducted in alignment with ethical and moral standards consistent with the University’s mission and values.”

Paxson announced in April 2022 that the University would adopt this policy in its review processes. The following month, faculty voted to establish the PPE Center.

While these discussions were underway, SEE and other student groups continued to organize their accountability campaign. Beginning in March 2022, the groups hosted an event in which they discussed Brown’s voluntary payments to Providence in lieu of property taxes. All of the University’s institutional properties are tax exempt, but Brown contributes to the city’s coffers through independent agreements, one of which is set to expire this year.

In 2022, Brown paid the city about $4 million in voluntary contributions. If it were to be subject to property taxes, the University would pay approximately $50 million to the city, according to a report by the Providence City Council’s Committee on Finance.

Sandoval called for increased payments by the University during SEE’s March event. A year later in April 2023, SEE and other student groups continued to call for the University to pay the city at least $15 million in voluntary payments — a cause that has rallied many students on the Main Green.

With new negotiations with the city underway, Clark previously highlighted in an email to The Herald that there are “many models across the nation for agreements between cities and universities.” 

“We believe the City of Providence and Brown could benefit from an agreement in which our interests are more aligned and where we bring not only our financial resources, but our intellectual resources as well,” he wrote.

“We look forward to continued conversations with the mayor’s team in the weeks ahead,” he added.

But this accountability campaign is not the only initiative igniting students’ passion. The College Hill chapter of Sunrise was re-launched in fall 2022 — this time under the name Sunrise Brown — following its dissolution in fall 2020. 

Isabella Garo ’24 was one of the founders of this new iteration. The idea was proposed by Gregory Hitch PhD’22, who previously taught a class on environmental equity, in spring 2022. Garo expressed interest but “by the time summer break ended and we were back on campus for the fall, there were three of us that had survived the summer,” Garo said.

“But then something crazy happened,” Garo said. “At the beginning of last semester, we found out Exxon Mobil would be recruiting on campus, and we said that we should protest that.”

Approximately 60 students interrupted an Exxon recruiting event to highlight the company’s lack of action in the climate crisis.

Garo credits this resurgence to the class of 2026. “It was really refreshing to see new students fresh off of high school … still so energetic and excited about doing this work,” she said.

Since then, the organization has launched a new campaign asking Brown to divest from fossil fuels and invest more in Rhode Island, which launched with a Main Green rally.

The Department of Computer Science’s teaching assistants also took to the Main Green to request a voluntary recognition of a TA union. The Teaching Assistant Labor Organization formed in December 2022 in response to difficult working conditions.  

A week later, the University denied voluntary recognition of the union. 

In March 2023, TALO held a workplace election with the National Labor Relations Board in which 91.5% of votes cast favored union formation. This decision marked the creation of the first undergraduate labor union on campus.

Students for Justice in Palestine has also recently continued their efforts demanding that “the University divests from companies profiting from human rights abuses in Palestine,” according to an SJP press release. A prominent protest at the February 2023 corporation meeting and rally in March brought this issue back to the forefront of students’ attention.

In a March 2021 letter to ACURM, Paxson wrote that “Brown’s endowment should not be used as an instrument to take sides on contested geopolitical issues over which thoughtful and intelligent members of the Brown community vehemently disagree.” Clark said that this stance has not changed.

Perhaps the most notable outcome of the seniors’ last semester was the revival of the Activist Coalition after a period of inactivity during the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to campus. Over a dozen on-campus activist groups — including SEE, Sunrise Brown and SJP — have joined the coalition.

“Even though we all have different campaigns that we're running … being in communication with each other has been really helpful,” Sandoval said.

And for each of the graduating activists, their work seeking social change will not be left behind.

“I will take these experiences with me as I move forward to this next stage of my life,” Fuad said. “Being in this space has definitely affirmed for me that I want to be involved in organizing in some capacity for the rest of my life.”

Although she has experienced burnout with anti-sexual violence advocacy, Kim hopes to “eventually pick this work back up in other settings and even help students at Brown mobilize in the future.”

“I think that the activist space and the activist community on campus has taught me more than ever,” Sandoval said. “That community really is the core of what makes Brown good and what makes the human experience special.”

Owen Dahlkamp

Owen Dahlkamp is a Section Editor overseeing coverage for University News and Science & Research. Hailing from San Diego, CA, he is concentrating in political science and cognitive neuroscience with an interest in data analytics. In his free time, you can find him making spreadsheets at Dave’s Coffee.

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