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In coalition: How activist networks have shaped a year of campus organizing

While April's encampment was organized by the Brown Divest Coalition, other organizations across campus have contributed to the dramatic uptick in activism over the last year.
While April's encampment was organized by the Brown Divest Coalition, other organizations across campus have contributed to the dramatic uptick in activism over the last year.

As students across campus occupied libraries to prepare for their fall finals last December, Isabella Garo ’24 and 40 other members of the Brown Divest Coalition were occupying University Hall.

Dec. 11 marked the second sit-in calling for the University to divest its endowment from companies affiliated with the Israeli government and weapons manufacturers. The first came in November. Both led to student arrests. Inside University Hall, police processed the arrests of the sit-in participants.

Outside, approximately 400 protesters had gathered in support. But Garo said the activists were in a room with “no windows” that was “basically soundproof.” They had no lines of communication outside the building and didn’t know if others knew of the arrests.

After the first students were processed and left the building, Garo heard cheers from outside as the doors opened. Supporters, including members of BDC, had gathered outside. Other individuals in the crowd were members of groups in the Brown Activist Coalition. And others were unaffiliated with any activist group.

The crowd sang Jewish worship songs and chanted in Arabic, greeting the arrested students with hugs. “Everyone had been so sad because of how alone we felt at that moment,” Garo said. But when the door opened, she "knew we weren’t alone.”

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, campus activism has surged on Brown’s campus and across the country to levels not seen since the COVID-19 pandemic. While both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists have organized on campus, the majority of the demonstrations at
Brown have shown support for Palestine.


Different groups have spearheaded these efforts at Brown. Some, like Students for Justice in Palestine, are recognized by Brown’s Student Activity Office. Others, like Jews for Ceasefire Now and BDC, are informal groups that have formed this academic year.

BAC’s web of officially registered student groups has expressed support for many of these demonstrations — though no demonstrations have occurred under the BAC banner. But the network has brought a sense of solidarity and support to its member activist groups focused on social justice and accountability on campus, Garo said.

An eight-day hunger strike in February with similar demands to the sit-ins saw backing from BAC member groups such as Students for Educational Equity, Sunrise Brown and Housing Opportunity for People Everywhere.

In other instances, such as the December arrests or the April encampment that concluded in the Corporation committing to vote on divestment in October, BDC has spearheaded efforts on its own.

Caroline Sassan ’24, a lead organizer for the BDC, said that support across activist groups showed that “ we can throw
our collective weight behind the specific cause of Palestine and that it matters to all of us.”

“We need to be supporting each other and standing together,” she said. “That’s the only way that we can win these power struggles.”

What is the Brown Activist Coalition?

Niyanta Nepal ’25, lead organizer for BAC and incoming Undergraduate Council for Students president, explained that BAC offers space “for students to find support and learn how to navigate institutional systems and get advice from people who … have been organizing for a longer time.”

Students from different activist groups across campus can brainstorm ideas, pool resources and bring support for mutually backed causes in BAC, Nepal said. The last Brown Activist Coalition conference in September was attended by representatives from the Student Labor Alliance, SJP, Resource Generation @ Brown, End Sexual Violence @ Brown, Students for Educational Equity, Sunrise Brown and the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization, The Herald previously reported.

It’s “a place for us to see that our missions and campaigns are really intertwined,” Nepal added. BAC has also focused on issues such as agreements governing voluntary contributions from the University and three other higher education institutions to Providence known colloquially as PILOT.


Under the agreements, Brown will pay $174.4 million to the city over the next 20 years. The agreements drew criticism from BAC-aligned student activists as insufficient given the number of tax-exempt properties the University holds.

In 2023, SEE, Sunrise Brown and the Student Labor Alliance protested the agreements at demonstrations and testified at City Council hearings. The City Council approved both agreements, The Herald previously reported.

BAC constituent groups also lead their own campaigns. Sunrise Brown separately pushed for Brown to provide a fossil fuel-free retirement fund option, which was created in February, for Brown staff as part of its DIRE campaign. Earlier in May, it released a report outlining the University’s alleged historic role in environmental injustice.

Sunrise had also planned a week of activities to “reclaim Earth Day” and highlight environmental injustice, although they canceled their programming in solidarity with the students in the encampment and “Palestinian liberation” according to an Instagram post.

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‘Concentric circles’: BAC’s structure and relationships with other groups

Nepal cofounded BAC along with Jada Wooten ’24 in spring 2022. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a more informal version of the activist coalition met to discuss their campaigns.

Nepal described it as a “steering committee.” But during the pandemic, many of the activist groups could not sustain themselves. The coalition dissolved with them. When Nepal was a first-year in 2021, she saw an uptick in campus activism. “But there was no way for all of us to share our information on (our) campaigns with one another to work together,” she said.

That led to the reformation of BAC. Now, the coalition hosts meetings every two weeks. There, member organizations “talk about what they’re doing and anything we might want to get going together,” Garo said. Other organizations and individuals are welcome to attend. Garo said BAC is
a fairly open space: “We’re not trying to be mean or kick anyone out,” she said.

Wooten described BAC’s structure as “concentric circles.” A group of formal member organizations, including SEE, HOPE, SJP and Sunrise, makes up the core of the coalition. An outer circle of peripheral groups also participates, but might not attend every meeting. Those organizations include labor and affinity groups like the Black Student Union and the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization, Wooten said.

Organizations interested in joining BAC must attend a meeting. Member clubs then vote on whether to accept them. Garo noted that BAC groups hold “anti-white supremacist, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial” values. Incoming groups are expected to share these beliefs.

Nepal added that BAC also holds foundational values of people power, accountability, solidarity and care. “Knowledge sharing is super important,” said Gabi Venegas-Ramirez ’26, outreach chair for SJP and founder of Brown’s chapter of Food Not Bombs.

Some of that “institutional knowledge” lives in resources like the Burn Brown Book, a 2020 project that is now shared across groups in BAC.

Because every BAC member group is registered with SAO, they have access to Student Activities Office and Undergraduate Finance Board funding. Last fall, when SJP ran low on funding, BAC organizations helped “crowdsource a lot of their materials,” Garo said. Sunrise Brown also receives money from Sunrise’s national organization. “Not every group has access to that sort of national or even international funding,” she added. This means Sunrise can often buy more materials to support organizing efforts.

BDC is not part of BAC. Instead, it is a coalition of individuals, not organizations, committed to divestment. And each member of BDC does not participate in each action the coalition takes.

BDC does have members who are also members of BAC-affiliated groups and BAC’s leadership itself, like Nepal. And BAC groups have nearly overlapped into BDC actions.

For the Dec. 11 sit-in, BDC initially planned for members from each organization that signed an SJP statement following Oct. 7 to participate, Wooten said. Many of those groups are BAC-affiliated, and BAC itself signed the statement. That plan fell through, but some participants in the sit-in were members of BAC-affiliated groups.

Carla Humphris ’24, a lead organizer with the BDC and an active member of Sunrise Brown, said it wouldn’t make sense to register BAC or BDC with SAO: “A coalition is not a formalized group,” she said.

Navigating disagreements

While BAC is united by values, the groups aren’t a monolith. “Theories of change vary,” Humphris said. “There are times when initiatives or ideas have not gone through.”

Before many BAC-aligned groups began expressing support for pro-Palestine activism, Sunrise did not initially sign on to SJP’s statement following Oct. 7. The statement held “the Israeli regime and its allies unequivocally responsible for all suffering and loss of life, Palestinian or Israeli.”

Garo initially voted against Sunrise signing onto the statement. She said she later regretted voting against it. But at the time, she was aiming to avoid doxxing that had occurred at other universities, as well as “remain as respectful as possible of those who lost loved ones on Oct. 7.”

Garo added she initially thought that if the statement’s language was different, signers could avoid having their beliefs misunderstood.

“In hindsight … if you chose to even criticize Israel or the Israeli occupation, no matter how gentle your language, how considerate you are, how kind you are, whether or not you’re Jewish, it does not matter,” she added, noting that blowback will come regardless. Sunrise eventually signed on
to the statement after a few weeks of offering private support.

HOPE’s decision to sign on came earlier but still involved “hours and hours of conversations,” said Hanna Aboueid ’24, one of HOPE’s leadership coordinators. After signing the statement, she reached out to members to let them know “we’re committing to having whatever conversation is needed to get people to feel okay with this moving forward.”

HOPE later held a meeting to discuss the choice. Aboueid said conversations included “critically thinking” about HOPE’s ideals. “Are we going to put our beliefs into action or are we going to take a step back?” she asked. At the meeting, members discussed Palestinian history.

There was “a lot of unlearning” that had to occur, she said.

Wooten emphasized the importance of supporting members emotionally and creating a culture of care within BAC.

“I was really intentional about developing things like capacity check-ins and accountability partners,” she said.

As president of the Black Student Union, Wooten was also conscious of positionality in certain advocacy. She said she took issue with BDC’s initial plan for each group that had signed the SJP statement to send members into the December sit-in.

“Not all the organizations have the same level of commitment, and not all of them have the positionality to put themselves on the line,” Wooten said. In the end, the sit-in was purely voluntary with no “quotas” for the different organizations.

Humphris said that during discussions with students about participating in the sit-in, BDC was aware that the “majority of students who sat in were people of color.” That meant those students faced unique risks “coming in contact with the justice system.”

Wooten, now a graduating senior, is no longer particularly active in BAC. “Member diversity and care was probably part of the reason why I left,” Wooten said.

“For the coalition to be sustainable, I felt like I didn’t need to be as involved in facilitating as a senior,” she added.

“At times, white ignorance was frustrating for me,” Wooten said.

Around January 2023, in BAC's earlier days, she said there were tensions about “care and centering white voices” within BAC groups like Sunrise Brown.

“Sunrise Brown was only about a semester old. We were still finding our footing. And one issue we knew we would need to face head-on was the long history of white-washed and exclusionary environmentalism,” Garo wrote in an email to The Herald. “As a person of color and a Sunrise Brown
co-founder, this problem was very personal to me.”

“We had to do the hard work of educating people who maybe didn’t know what it meant to center justice in environmentalism, or who were from very privileged (i.e. white, male, wealthy) backgrounds and took up too much space,” Garo wrote. She thinks the group has improved since.

“I am proud of the work we have done to make the group as inclusive and justice-oriented as possible,” she added.

Other failures to recognize positionality have posed challenges, Wooten said. In PILOT-related organizing, she noted that some white BAC members called for Brown to pay the full amount it would owe to Providence if it were taxed as a for-profit institution — despite the fact that community
organizing partners had indicated that activists should instead advocate for a lower amount.

“Diversity is an issue within activist spaces on campus and one we are trying to work through,” Nepal wrote in a message to The Herald. She did not specifically respond to questions regarding disagreements surrounding PILOT.

“Positionality hugely impacts activism and is also something individuals must be aware of as they engage with activist spaces,” Nepal wrote.

She added that she believes BAC’s membership includes a diverse group of students, highlighting the coalition's caucus for students of color. Still, she said “room for growth” remains.

Over time, Wooten said she’s been inspired by changes in BAC’s composition and approach to care. “This new generation of leadership that’s coming in — it’s diverse,” she said.

Efficacy, the future of activism at Brown

Following the April encampment, the Corporation has committed to vote on divestment in its October meeting.

As a result of previous activism, Paxson had previously offered to fast-track a divestment proposal to the Advisory Committee on University Resource Management. But she had not indicated if she would advance it to the Corporation. The future of divestment remains uncertain. University
Spokesperson Brian Clark previously stated in an email to The Herald that Brown is “not directly invested in any defense stocks or large munitions manufacturers.”

The University has also cast doubt on its ability to divest given that private asset managers independently oversee 96% of the endowment, The Herald previously reported. Past divestment movements occurred when the endowment was more directly controlled by the University itself, rather than third-party asset managers.

Nepal said one of BAC’s biggest successes is increasing student engagement.

“Student activism acts as a way for students to hold university systems accountable, but also to learn about what it means to be an organizer, what it means to be an advocate and test that out while (they are) at university,” she said.

“Students are capable of using our voices and our bodies to create some sort of change or shift public discourse,” said Venegas-Ramirez. Garo referenced the impact student activism had during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

“Can you say for sure that SNCC created … massive particular policy changes? No. But their ability to mobilize and educate members of the organization resulted in a lot of extremely important civil rights activists,” she said.

Aboueid said the “renewed sense of boldness” and “righteous anger” that has spread across college campuses over the past few months has inspired her.

On college campuses across the country, activists staged encampments calling for divestment from companies affiliated with the Israeli government and weapons manufacturers.

“Brown loves to promote its legacy of student activism and walkouts,” Venegas-Ramirez said. “We know that legacy. We’re like ‘okay, we’re going to put it to use.’”

Nepal, the UCS president-elect, added that she aims to bridge the gap between UCS and activist voices on campus. She aims to hold more open general body meetings and bring in more voting representatives. After running on a pro-divestment platform, she hopes to facilitate more conversations between student activists and University administrators.

“Having a foot on both sides (is) crucial to be able to properly represent what’s going on,” she said.

Nepal anticipates that future BAC endeavors will focus on ending legacy admissions after Brown delayed a final decision on them this spring, removing the University’s recently reinstated standardized testing requirements, continued pro-Palestine activism and working toward
environmental justice.

Avani Ghosh

Avani Ghosh is a Metro Editor covering politics & justice and community & activism. She is a sophomore from Ohio studying Health & Human Biology and International & Public Affairs. She is an avid earl grey enthusiast and can be found making tea in her free time.

Ciara Meyer

Ciara Meyer is a Senior Staff Writer covering the Beyond Brown beat. She is from Saratoga Springs, New York and plans on concentrating in Statistics and English nonfiction. In her free time, she loves scrapbooking and building lego flowers.


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