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Intercultural Center

IC celebrates 25th anniversary, hires new LGBTQ+ fellow

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With a new LGBTQ+ fellow, heritage celebrations such as Pride Month and Latinx Heritage Month, and the approach of its 25th anniversary, the college’s Intercultural Center has a busy year ahead.

For its anniversary, the IC has a program for each month. This month, the center is highlighting 25 facts about the IC, which are posted in various places around campus. For example, Fact #15, found in Wharton AB 1, reads: “At a certain point, Swarthmore’s admissions department began creating admissions brochures for specific populations, such as LGBTQ+, Asian, and Latinx prospective students.”

“Our goals this year are to continue to expand the visibility and reach of the Intercultural Center in order to advocate for identity-based groups to ensure marginalized [and] oppressed voices and perspectives are included in college-wide initiatives and decision making,” said IC director and dean of the sophomore class Jason Rivera in an email.

On Sept. 25, The IC had a kickoff event for Latinx Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Future events for the month include an a “Celebrating La Familia” event, a Moment of Silence and Town Meeting Observing Indigenous People’s Day, and a Breakfast, Latinx Documentary, and Discussion.

This past Monday, the IC had an open house for faculty, students, and staff that featured food from different cultures, music, and a chance to talk to each other and IC staff.

“I’d like to think the IC Open House … was very successful,” said Rivera. “I was especially happy to see so many students from each class year interacting.  Also, at one point, I looked over at the Fragrance Garden, in the IC Courtyard, and saw students, faculty, and staff interacting — some sitting on the grass and benches, some standing and mingling, and others swaying to the sounds of the music as they chatted with each other. It was a beautiful moment — one that I hope we can continue to recreate.”

Next year, Rivera plans to host a joint open house with the Interfaith Center and the Office of International Student Services in their new space in Sproul Hall. Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life, and Jennifer Marks-Gold, director of international student services, were present at the IC Open House.

Dean Rivera said that the IC could also improve on some missions, such as working more closely with student organizations.

“I don’t think we do this poorly now, but I certainly think there is room for improvement,” he said.

Cooper Kidd, the new LGBTQ+ fellow, will be working with organizations like COLORS, a group for queer students of color, and the Swarthmore Queer Union. He majored in sociology with a focus in stratification at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he worked closely with the LGBT Equity Center. During his time there, he helped program a weekly support group for transgender students and one for students who identify as queer and Asian. This work motivated him to join the staff here, and he thinks this background will prove invaluable at the Intercultural Center.

“I feel that I am better able to offer logistical and functional support having had experience doing similar work to what students at Swarthmore do,” said Kidd. “In a similar way I feel that my personal experience also informs my work here as I know what it is like to be a queer person navigating college.”

In addition to working with the LGBTQ+ student organizations, Kidd will be a resource for students and will work with the Pride Month Committee. Pride Month runs from Oct. 20 to Nov. 20. Kidd appreciates that the committee has been intentional about planning intersectional events, such as the Latinx movie screening.

“The foci that I have this academic year are around creating intentional programming that focuses on intersectionality and processes and practices that are more inclusive for trans students,” said Kidd.

Ignacio Rivera’s visit to campus on Sept. 8 provides one example of this intersectional program. Rivera (they/them/theirs) is “a Queer, Trans, Two-Spirit, Black-Boricua Taíno … activist, writer, educator, filmmaker, performance artist, and mother,” as described in the email announcing their visit. Rivera’s events on campus, “The Evolution of the Talk and Sexy Survivor” and “All of Me Poetry Performance,” focused on discussing these identities in the campus community.

One way Kidd hopes to help transgender students on campus is by helping the Self Study Action Committee streamline the name change process.

Kidd also wants to help students access queer-related events both on and off campus. He took students to the Philly Trans Health Conference in early September and to Princeton University on Wednesday, Oct. 4 to see black queer female writer Roxane Gay in conversation.

Just as the college has a new LGBTQ+ fellow, the IC has new interns, including five first-year students. As shown in a pamphlet distributed at the open house on Monday, they bring a diverse set of backgrounds and skills to the job. All the interns have office hours, available online at the IC website.

“I hope that I can not only use those experiences to help other people but that by hearing others’ experiences, they can help me figure out my own,” said Gene Witkowski ’21, one of the interns, referring to his experiences questioning his sexuality and his ethnic identity as a Haitian-American.

“I would love to say that I’ve been able to make somebody’s experience more inclusive, or make Swat feel more like a home to them, or at least make the IC feel more like a home to them,” said Witkowksi.

Dean Rivera echoed Witkowski’s goals, saying that the IC has done well in fostering a caring and supportive community.

“When I arrived at Swarthmore in July 2016, it was clear to me that the IC was in many ways a home base for some students,” said Rivera. “I thought then, and still believe today, that it is incredibly important for students to have a space like the IC because I know how valuable it is to have something to connect to when you are a student — to have a space where you can feel comfortable being yourself.”

The IC has come a long way since 1992, when it was founded “as a result of student activism aimed at securing increased administrative support of, and commitment to, Students of Color and Queer students at Swarthmore College,” according to its website. Back then, it only consisted of three student groups, according to Swarthmore’s website: the Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness, the Swarthmore Asian Organization, and Action Les-B-Gay, which have since evolved into other organizations on campus.

Now, with a much broader array of organizations and a dedicated staff, the IC looks forward to an eventful year.

Mo Lotif and Moving On

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Yesterday afternoon, Parrish Parlors felt whole with heartfelt good luck’s, goodbye’s, and recounting of memories, all as a part of the farewell celebration for Mohammed “Mo” Lotif — (now former? wow) Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center. A Detroit native and Williams graduate, Lotif joined the College in Fall 2014, where he embraced the liberal arts community and larger world of Philadelphia. His influence over the past few years was evident in the sheer mass of students, faculty, and staff from all corners of campus who made their way to the hour-long festivities. We enjoyed dining services’s gracious catering and passed out copies of VISIBILITY Issue 02, the arts publication Mo and I created to highlight marginalized voices on campus.

As a dear friend and mentor, Lotif has played an important role in my time here as a student intern working at the IC, along with countless other community members. Now he is travelling back out West, where he’s accepted a position at the University of Denver working in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. He’s also got a pretty badass apartment lined up, with views of colorful mountains and an endearing city skyline. He might even get a dog. He has no complaints.

Former IC intern, Vivek Ramanan ’18, is currently abroad, but chimed in from seas away to talk about Lotif’s impact.

“Since I met him, Mo has been beyond inspiring in his dedication to his work and the students that work with him,” Vivek explained.

“[He] has supported events that have ranged from seeming simple to completely impossible, allowing students to make their thoughts and plans a reality through the IC.”

Lotif did what many other staff members of the college instinctively hesitate to do: trust students. He established student team structures that emphasized individualized skills and passions, while focusing on our productivity as a collective.

He could be heard reassuring his team “I got y’all” and encouraging each and every member to be creative in their visions and shoot high with ambition. Student workers were allowed agency in decision-making, and his thoughtful leadership style meant that he served as a supporter rather than an assigner.

“Mo really knows how to bring out the best in people he interacts with,” added Zain Talukdar ’19, a current IC intern.

“He’s lifted me up when I was down just through the way he talks to you. He really makes you dig deep into the philosophies behind your motives and actions, and he empowers you through his love for the arts and his love for beautiful existence,” Talukdar said.“Mo has made my Swarthmore experience as formative and introspective as it’s been for me.”

If you’ve ever walked into Lotif’s office, you’ve seen his manic whiteboard walls covered in ideas, his desktop computer open to tabs of Trello event plans, and books of revolutionaries, like his mentor Grace Lee Boggs, stacked up high and proud. There would also often be students hanging out on his welcoming couches, doing work or making big plans for their student groups.

When you ask students about their favorite moments with him, you get a range of answers.
“It’s hard to pick out one moment with Mo that really sticks out,” Ramanan admitted. “I’ll never forget the stressful moments, where several hours would pass with the team working and his Spotify playlists would play in the background.”

“Every time I would go into his office and he would just play whatever music spoke to him at the moment,” Talukdar agreed. “Among the many memories I will have of Mo, I’ll always remember the magic he’s pulled on my Apple Music playlists for real. He really knows how to connect music with the spirit and I’ll always remember his energy whenever I would sit in his office and just absorb whatever new music he added to his playlist.”

Migos, and A Tribe Called Red, and Bangladeshi Baul folk rhythms are just a few of the space-filling sounds that can be identified on said Spotify playlists.

There were also lazy moments of genuine time spent.

“…none of us would move from the couch and keep chatting about random things,” Ramanan continued. “But I think the moment with Mo that I never forget is walking into his office, stressed about planning an event, and hearing him say ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.’ I’ll always appreciate that I’ve gotten to know Mo as both a leader and a friend, as someone who can be inspiring, reliable, and relatable at the same time.”

Hana Lehmann, Civic Engagement & Education Fellow from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, added from a fellow staff perspective.

“I love working with Mo! He brought unbelievable energy and creativity to the table whenever we would collaborate on events and workshops.” Lehmann said.

Lehman’s favorite (and my favorite!) cross-community project was the recent theatre and social action workshop with “artivist” Kayhan Irani that Mo, Hana, and I planned together. I had the dream of bringing Irani, an Emmy-award winning artist and White House Champion of Change Recipient, to Swarthmore. Not only did Lotif make it happen, but it happened flawlessly and surpassed our expectations of a powerful community-run event.

“The planning leading up to the workshop day was great, but the day of was a blast! We were able to co-create a space for empathy, imagination, and powerful storytelling,” explained Lehmann.

As the Intercultural Center, we’ll undoubtedly be going through a lot of change with Lotif’s leave.

“I will forever be appreciative of Mo for helping me to acclimate to Swarthmore College and for the valuable contributions he made to and through the Intercultural Center,”  Director Jason Rivera explained in a message to the community. “It is no surprise that many students, faculty, and staff hold Mo in high regard and speak of him with gratitude, admiration, and respect”

There are big shoes to fill. But replacement doesn’t feel like the right word when you are working with someone as unique as Lotif.  However, students and community members have a clear idea of the non-negotiables resulting from Lotif setting the Assistant Director bar.

“In terms of the new IC Assistant Director, I believe that the aspect of Mo that made him so effective was that he was incredibly in touch with the students of the IC,” Ramanan explained. “He made an effort to connect with us constantly, and I hope that the next IC assistant director will do this as well.”

“My hopes for the next IC director are that they can maintain the level of energy that Mo channeled through all of his interactions with the IC collective,” added Talukdar.

“Mo also respected each person’s struggles and stresses when talking to them, and knew how to successfully balance his roles as a stellar boss and a trustworthy friend, and I hope the next assistant director can do the same.”

Lehman summed up Lotif’s determination to thrive and inspire others to live into their deepest possibility: “simply ‘existing’ is not in his vocabulary.”

Inspiring and unfaulting co-workers are hard to come by, and it particularly sucks to see a good boss leave. But there’s also something invigorating in witnessing someone you look up to start the next chapter of their journey and advance in their career.

Lotif had never imagined he would end up in Denver prior to the opportunity appearing. As we as students plan our futures, we must come to terms with the fact that we don’t know what the future holds for each of us.

However, one thing we all know — and probably have known — is for sure.

The University of Denver is one lucky bastard.

Malcolm Lazin of Equality Forum visits campus, highlights queer issues today

in Around Campus/News/Regional News by

On Thursday, April 6th, the Executive Director of Equality Forum Malcolm Lazin visited the Intercultural Center for “Get Your History Straight,” a talk centered on the establishment of the modern, high-profile movement for queer rights in the U.S. The event is a part of Swarthmore’s Pride Month celebration, which was advertised through the Intercultural Center. Pride Month, typically held in October, included events on queer art, history, networking, and more.

“Get Your History Straight” extended past Swarthmore to Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College as students from across the Tri-College were in attendance, and Professor of history at Haverford Paul Farber, invited by Lazin, moderated the discussion.

The talk began with a screening of the PBS documentary “Gay Pioneers,” of which Lazin was executive producer. Equality Forum, the nonprofit that coordinates LGBT History Month and that Lazin heads, defines the film as “the story of the first organized annual ‘homosexual’ civil rights demonstrations held in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, DC from 1965-69. When few would publicly identify themselves as gay, these brave pioneers challenged pervasive homophobia,” on a website it owns dedicated to the documentary. The film detailed the origins of the modern U.S. movement for queer rights in the 1960s at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The film largely argues that, without these initial demonstrations that helped dispel stereotypes of queer people, the Stonewall riots would not have happened or have been as successful.

Following the screening, a discussion of the film and Q&A occurred with Lazin, Farber, and the attendees. Lazin opened the discussion with a disclaimer.

“For those that think that Stonewall was the start of this movement, I would say they’re misinformed,” Lazin said. “We don’t remember [the demonstrations before Stonewall] because people didn’t take time to remember.”

Farber guided the initial conversation, walking through issues of the conceivability of a queer identity, the pace of social change, and political tactics in the early actions compared to today’s larger movement. Lazin responded, recognizing legal and institutional restrictions on queer life like the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; noting that there are legislative, judicial, and public facets to social change; and that movements often grow to accommodate more voices, images, and people over time.

The conversation moved to the audience, and Swarthmore was introduced into the conversation. Students’ questions focused on issues of moving forward after the establishment of marriage equality in the U.S. as well as how to negotiate multiple ideals within queer and trans movements and how to make those movements not only national ones but more specific and intentional in communities like Swarthmore.

Lazin referred to the expectations of the first demonstrators for queer rights in Philadelphia for the inclusion of multiple ideas. He recalled a quote from Lilli Vincenz:

“Just to show that we were good patriots, we respected the flag. We were first-class American citizens, and we had, that was a message we had wanted to tell everyone from the beginning,” Vincenz said.

Lazin said it was important to introduce the idea of queer identity into the political consciousness then as is important today.

Farber also brought focus to the issues of campus politics and constructing meaningful relationships and coalitions.

“Understanding the roots of intersectionality will provide a pathway to understanding and possibilities. These issues are … bigger than you, so respect complexity and commonality,” Farber said.

He then argued that undergraduates should not be fooled into thinking college is separate from reality.

Following the talk, Robert Conner ’20, an organizer of the event, touched on the importance of Lazin’s work generally and at Swarthmore.

“Malcolm Lazin’s work is multifaceted and intersectional in the sense that it currently pertains to LGBTQ activism, but it touches on racial and socioeconomic equalities as well,” he said. “The multifaceted and intersectional nature and approach of Malcolm Lazin’s work and career is very relevant to the Swarthmore community.”

Conner went on to discuss how Swarthmore’s engagement with activism at different levels of community reflects why Lazin’s work is relevant to campus.

“In the Swarthmore community, we constantly deal with and carry out activism pertaining to issues at local and national levels,” he said. “It was productive and engaging to see the Swarthmore community and Malcolm Lazin interact and exchange ideas.”

Sydnie Schwarz ’20 reflected on her friendship to Conner and relationship with Philadelphia as to why she first joined Lazin in the IC.

“Robert Connor is one of my good friends, and he has told me about Malcolm Lazin throughout the school year from a point of admiration, both for his work and for him as a person,” Schwarz said. “Not only did I want to hear from the person who is a role model to one of my close friends, but I knew that this speaker is integral to various developments in Philadelphia, old and new. I have been making a conscious effort to access and engage with Philadelphia, and Mr. Lazin not only offered a historical and lived narrative of the origins of the Annual Reminder in Philadelphia that became Gay Pride but also insight of particular Philadelphian historical sites, current climate and organizations to visit and research.”

Schwarz continued, noting how Swarthmore should engage more intently with Philadelphia as a resource but as a point where intersectionality can be found purposefully.

“You know, my immediate reaction upon hearing Malcolm talk about the public resources offered by the Equality Forum was why didn’t I find this during high school when I was leading an Allies? Simple resources like a queer icon per day during LGBT+ History Month or the historical films would have created productive dialogue,” Schwarz said. “However, I am admittedly unfamiliar with current campus initiatives to uplift queer and trans people, and I do not know how I would visualize a sweeping energy of Equality Forum coming to Swarthmore. Nevertheless, I generally feel that Swarthmore needs to systematically engage more with Philadelphia. There is a richness of activism and history to the city that is very accessible to us. Especially in consideration of how uncommon this urban access is for a small liberal arts school like Swarthmore, I feel that we do not engage with it except for on an individual basis.”

Schwarz went on to describe how Lazin highlighted issues in civil movements and how they have changed since their inception.

“Malcolm made a purposeful effort to talk about issues of intersectionality in Philadelphia movements. He pointed out how many queer women initiated the Annual Reminder, yet the movement did not seem to see them as the visible founders of Gay Pride Instead, white cisgender gay men took on the face of progress for the community. He also talked about how protestors in the sixties came to the march trying to look ‘professional’ and like ‘ first class citizens,’ basically by making their socio-economic status prominent as if that made them deserve rights more than unemployed or unprofessionally dressed people,” Schwarz said. “However, he noted that organizations in Philadelphia are currently investing much focus into trans women of color, and remarked that the new leader of a major local organization is the first black queer women to hold such a position in Philadelphia. This contrasts with the resistance he saw many organizations put up about even including transgender people in the community not long ago. I feel that awareness to this hierarchy within marginalized groups and new breakthroughs concerning intersectionality offers insight about how to uplift less systematically enabled persons into the conversation and pay attention to what faces are popularized in leadership.”

Conner noted the collaborative efforts between Lazin and Farber in the discussion section of the evening, commenting on their knowledge of regional resources and historical connections from the beginnings of the movement to now.

“In addition, both Professor Farber and Malcolm elucidated the little-known facts that the modern LGBT movement began well before the Stonewall riots, and a lot of it took place in Philadelphia,” Conner said. “Professor Farber and Malcolm pointed out that there is a lot of activism and internships that can be done in Philadelphia, and that students ought to take advantage of the city’s wide-ranging resources.”

Schwarz discussed how Farber provided some context to the liberal arts campus that Lazin complemented through his more regional and national efforts.

“I honestly missed the fact that Professor Farber was also coming, but I am so glad he was there! The dynamic worked well because Professor Farber well understood the Swarthmore student and their environment — an insight Malcolm Lazin did not necessarily share,” Schwarz commented. “While Malcolm Lazin answered questions and spoke about his network and experiences in Philadelphia, Professor Farber relayed his points back to the Tri-Co education and its sexuality and gender studies, and both offered perspectives on moving forward with the general agenda and individual efforts concerning LGBT+ rights. … He is teaching a course in the fall on public art in Philadelphia that I want to take and found out about because of this talk that transformed into a general reflection on local activism of all sorts.”

Conner concluded by hammering the idea that the discussion portion was most meaningful for students as the engagement with a national figure like Lazin could provide a large amount of information and experience to student activism and understanding of history.

“The students who attended Malcolm’s event particularly benefited from getting to ask him in-depth questions about career approaches towards enacting change,” Conner said.

Schwarz said the campus could gain lessons in empathy and relationships by participating in more talks like Lazin’s beyond just the implications of activism and civic engagement.

“I was disappointed that the room was not full, but I appreciated all of the questions and answers put forth. I almost could not make it because of practice, and I know there were a lot of conflicting events and a general increase in workload as classes are coming to a close, which was too bad,” Schwarz noted. “More talks like this would increase student interest in the local social environment beyond Swarthmore, an effect that would inherently increase skill set of being sensitive and observant to all forms of learning, particularly those that are immediate and visceral. I think students can also learn a lot from the realizations Malcolm Lazin has had throughout his lifetime about recognizing certain local leaders or sites as needing to be documented as a part of the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and his personal actions (creating films, interviewing, submitting historical marker proposals) to execute those ideas.”

Lazin’s coming to campus, Farber’s direction, and student inquiry allowed for an important discussion of where queer and trans movements in the U.S. started to gain traction. The talk initiated reflections on where the movements came from, and students now see the possibilities for deeper intersectional engagement and empathy as long as discussions like these are consistent within and beyond the classroom on campus.

Swat MSA gathers community, celebrates Eid, and reflects

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Creating an event on campus isn’t easy. At a small school like ours where students are constantly steeped in work, turnout for events are typically low, especially at dry spaces. Despite these setbacks, the Muslim Student Association (MSA), with the help of other student organizations and the Intercultural Center, was able to throw a hugely successful dinner for this year’s Eid Al-Adha on Friday, Sept. 23rd, in Upper Tarble.

Eid Al-Adha is a Muslim celebration, one of two ‘Eids’ (the Arabic word meaning holiday) during the year. This Eid honors Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son after God’s command. It’s a significant holiday for Muslims around the world, but one that can get lost in a place like Swarthmore for the small, but growing, Muslim population here. Thanks to the efforts of numerous people and organizations on campus, the significance of this holiday was felt on campus and celebrated by a diverse student body far beyond the Muslim student population.

The MSA executive board — President Yousaf Razvi ’18, Asma Noray (Auntie Asma) ’17, Nader Helmy ’17, Hanan Ahmed ’19, Zain Talukdar ’19, Ramish Azadzoi ’19, Mohammed Boozarjomehri ’19, and Mohammed Bappe ’19 — planned and met weekly for about a month before the event to iron out details and delegate the work involved. With the help of Mo Lotif, Associate Director of the Intercultural Center, the MSA was able to stay focused and on schedule. The group used Trello to help streamline the work and to collaborate with the Intercultural Center. As the vision for the event grew, more folks were recruited to join the team in a special capacity. Special recognition goes to Gursimran Pannu ’20, who created a Snapchat filter that was used throughout the night, and to Dorcas Tang ’19, who works on the Intercultural Createch team, for putting together a beautiful poster. A thank you is owed to Kyungchan Min ’18 for creating a video of the night, and to Hao-Tong Yan ’19 for his beautiful pictures capturing all the joy and festivities. Talukdar spearheaded the advertising for the event, as it was crucial to reach out to different pockets of students across campus. Razvi, Noray, Bappe, and Talukdar all bought the supplies from multiple stores, and Ahmed organized all the volunteers needed to setup and breakdown the event. Azadzoi worked closely with Mo to assist us in allocating money for all of the different expenses and make the overall budget for the event. Christine Lee ’18 assisted with the creation of the program, and speakers included Boozarjomehri, Noray, and Helmy alongside the MSA Student Advisor Umar Abdul Rahman.

The night started before any guests arrived. Lotif and the MSA began to set up the event several hours before it commenced. With music in the background, they danced and prepped for the the event. Christmas lights were strung all across the sides of Upper Tarble, and a photo backdrop  with Polaroids and a table of props were available for guests to use. White tablecloths and assorted candies covered tables, and LED candles in wine glasses sprinkled with glitter served  as centerpieces. MSA served close to 200 people including Swat students, Trico students, and  faculty. “We wanted the event to be interactive, but before we could start the night off, an organic sense of community was already being created as people mingled with music in the background,” said one member. Razvi opened the floor with a discussion on  the idea of community.

 

“Community is something you have to work for,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t feel like there is much of a community here at Swarthmore, but times like this make me feel like the community here is vibrant and full of energy. Being a community is a process, and we all have to do our part in making it work.” Razvi’s words rang true throughout the night. Multiple student organizations and other interfaith groups, including members of DESHI, Kehilah, Islamic Studies Dept, Newman Club, SPC, Interfaith Center, and the Intercultural Center, which co-sponsored the event, were present for the dinner.

Many of the best moments occurred later in the night. The vibe of the room shifted as dozens of people lined up to take polaroid photos with their friends and strangers. Many lined up for Mehndi (Special shoutout to DESHI for the Henna). Many who were not even part of MSA stayed back to help clean up and break down the event while dancing to the music still playing in the background. It was a happy place, and words can’t express how thankful and blessed the entire MSA board felt that the event came together so beautifully. As they still marvel at how great the event turned out, they would like to thank everyone that assisted them in the process and to send love to all the cosponsors of the event. Creating a consciousness of community is not an easy task, and the board feels confident that, when we all come together to make beautiful events like the Eid Dinner possible, our community’s potential to strive is boundless.

Racial vandalism leaves community confused about next steps

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The past few months have seen what is arguably a historic rise in the visibility of racial tensions on American college campuses. Students of color at universities around the country are drawing attention to the myriad ways in which they experience discrimination and hostility from institutions meant to be their place of learning. Though Swarthmore has not been at the center of this increased national attention as have institutions like Yale or the University of Missouri, the college has had its own experiences with instances of institutional and individual racism. Last November, Public Safety officials responded to a call that the photographs of several students of color — part of a poster belonging to the French department — had been vandalized. The students’ faces had been torn out of the poster while the photographs of their white peers had been left untouched, leading many to believe that the act was racially motivated and prompting serious concerns about the safety of students of color on campus.

Within three days of the discovery of the defaced poster, President Valerie Smith addressed the student body via email. In the email, President Smith situated the incident in the context of similar episodes of racial prejudice at colleges across the country, and stressed that Swarthmore is not immune to such displays of racism.

In keeping with the college’s Quaker tradition, the email also publicized a campus-wide collection to be held the following Monday, at which students, faculty, and staff would have the the opportunity to voice their concerns and thoughts regarding the disturbing event.

Just one day later, on Thursday, November 26, Dean of Students Liz Braun also issued an email to the student body on behalf of the college’s newly formed Bias Response Group, which, in Dean Braun’s own words, seeks “to investigate, and to ensure that the College [sic] responds swiftly, strongly, and appropriately to any cases of bias, harassment, or hate crimes on our campus.” The email condemned the incident, encouraged students who may have been affected to seek out resources on campus, and urged anyone with knowledge of the incident to step forward. Dean Braun also referenced the collection as a time to “dialogue about racism, inequality, and justice”.

Niyah Dantzler ’18 attended the Monday night collection, and while she emphasized that the contributions from students and faculty were both cathartic and productive, she admitted confusion about the lack of input from the administration at the collection.

“It definitely only felt like the first step”, Dantzler said. “I feel like a lot of people came out of it thinking ‘why was something not done sooner and why weren’t we notified sooner?’ And no one really got an answer to that.”

Louis Lainé ’16, who was also in attendance Monday night, questioned whether the collection format was the most effectual response to incidents such as this. For Lainé, the problem lay in who was absent from the collection on Monday.

“I think this campus needs to have conversations that invite people who are not usually in them. Because people who don’t care about these things won’t come [to these collections] when big issues happen.”

Lainé went on to say that he felt as though collections fail to compel those unaffected by racial bias to be part of a conversation about racism on campus.

“From my conversations with others, we do want more acknowledgement of the everyday issues that we go through without having to feel like we’re put on a stage to perform that for people. The onus should be on people who are perpetuating these cultures to find it within themselves to support us and not have us always be the ones to facilitate and teach others.”

Speaking as the co-president of the Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS), A’Dorian Murray-Thomas reiterated this point, suggesting that such discussions are most productive when all members of the community participate.

“I do think people appreciated the collection, but also question the extent to which it is always an effective response to acts of hate/bias like this one when not done in conjunction with measures that are mandatory and formally institutionalize having these critical dialogues.”

Murray-Thomas also spoke on SASS’s role in the aftermath of the incident, pointing out that several of the victims of the vandalism were SASS alumni.

“Mostly, we focused on healing and creating a safe space to vent with each other rather than concentrating on having some formal ‘action’. That feeling that we always have to publicly ‘respond’ to instances of hate like these can come at the expense of community healing and self-care.”

Both Dantzler and Lainé expressed the timely nature of the collection, with the results of the Campus Climate Survey  — meant to assess “the access for, inclusion of, and level of respect for individual and group needs, abilities, and potential,” according to the college’s website — having been released just several weeks earlier. However, neither student was aware of actions being undertaken by the administration to facilitate further dialogue on the vandalism incident in particular.

In a statement sent via email, student and administrative representatives of the Intercultural Center echoed this sentiment: “The collection enabled us as a community to acknowledge the vandalism, and it created a reflective space where we could hear, and see, the pain, frustrations, and concerns of all those affected by the incident. Yet, concrete next-steps were not broached during the gathering.”

Following the Climate Survey, the Self Study Action Committee, a group composed of students, faculty, and administrators, was created for the purposes of generating action based on the survey’s findings. Since its formation in Fall 2015, the Committee has initiated a series of opportunities for community input on the issue of on-campus prejudice or bias, including community roundtable discussions to be held on March 18 and anonymous “idea” boxes located at strategic points around campus.

Dean Braun emphasized that contributions from students, faculty, and staff are integral to formulating steps for increased awareness around campus racism.

“The Climate Action Committee has called on the campus to take advantage of a variety of opportunities to join in a broader dialogue and generation of specific action items to improve our campus climate overall.  I look forward to seeing what types of ideas are generated by the community and for us to engage in the action planning collectively — students, staff, and faculty.”

It remains to be seen whether measures taken in response to the Climate Survey will include spaces designated for reflection on and mobilization around the kind of incidents that took place last November, or the kinds of microaggressions that Lainé has observed.

However, as multiple student and administration-led groups on campus work towards a more inclusive environment, the need expressed by students of color for transparency and leadership from the college on issues of campus racism is clear, a view shared by representatives of the IC.

“The labour … is a collective one, and the IC is just one space, among others, where we can work together to improve our shared experiences at Swarthmore. With patience, empathy, and by holding ourselves accountable to each other, we can realize the ideals that we aspire towards as a community.”

For Dantzler and Murray-Thomas, regardless of what happens next, the events of last November and the ensuing conversations are a salient reminder that Swarthmore is not immune to racism on an individual or an institutional level.

“Racism exists everywhere but I never thought that someone here would ever be so bold as to do that,” Dantzler said.

Murray Thomas agreed, saying “We as black students and POCs more broadly (since there were also Asians and Latinos defaced if I can recall) are never far removed from being a direct subject of hate or some form of violence (because the physical act of specifically targeting POCs and ripping their pictures from the wall is actually pretty violent), even in our own community. The Swat ‘bubble’ we’d like to believe exists couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Students in wheelchairs face access issues

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Almost a decade after a compliance review by the Department of Justice led to a settlement under which the college was required to make campus more accessible, students who use wheelchairs continue to face barriers.

Wheelchair user Elliot Nguyen ’17, for example, takes courses in the Lang Music building, and can spend up to ten minutes taking a circuitous route through the Lang Performing Arts Center in order to get to his classes — a journey which would take him 30 seconds if he could go down the stairs on foot.

The music building is not the only one on campus that presents difficulties for Nguyen, though. Many “accessible entrance” markers on campus, Nguyen said, are incredibly confusing, and he must therefore circle each building simply to find a door he can use. He also cannot enter McCabe to work his ITS shift without help, as the accessibility button for the door is broken.

“It’s hard when the college says, ‘We’ll do everything to accommodate you,’ and they can’t even fix the button outside of the biggest library on campus,” Nguyen said.

In general, Nguyen feels the college has placed the burden upon wheelchair users to notify the school of accessibility issues.

“There’s a lot of responsibility on us to tell them what the issue is, when really they should just … do things that are going to make the buildings accessible to lots of people, rather than doing it case by case,” Nguyen said. “Case by case sounds nice and Swarthmore, but it really means they will do as few modifications as possible and not until we tell them.”

Jesus Hernandez ’19, another wheelchair user, has had a similar experience.

“I feel like I’ve been the one telling them, ‘This needs to be fixed, this isn’t what I expected, we need to change this and this and this,’” Hernandez said.

Overall, it seems to Nguyen as though the college has been reactive in terms of accessibility, rather than anticipating challenges and addressing them.

“You don’t want to go around auditing buildings, emailing the college about all of the doors you can’t open … at this small school, where we’ve been told we’ll be supported, they should be more proactive rather than waiting for us to complain,” Nguyen said. “My day shouldn’t be ruined before I have to go tell someone to fix something … I feel like the onus should not be on the wheelchair user on campus to struggle.”

Hernandez agreed.

“My expectations coming in were not that everything would be perfect, but that someone would be thinking along the lines of, ‘Oh, we might need to do this before he encounters this problem’,” he said.

Hernandez’ issues with campus accessibility have pertained mostly to extracurricular programming and student life. All of the clubs Hernandez would like to participate in are located in the Intercultural Center, which is not accessible. Hernandez said he would have liked to know that one of the college’s central locations for extracurriculars was inaccessible before he committed to attending Swarthmore.

“I would’ve liked transparency and recognition of the issues, not me having to point them out,” he said. “The IC … is supposed to be the most inclusive area, where everyone can get together, and the fact that it’s not accessible is kind of mind-blowing.”

Hernandez said he told the college about this problem and that they had scheduled a meeting in order to discuss solutions and his future options. This meeting, which included deans and other administrators involved with the IC and accessibility issues, was promising, Hernandez said. The college has plans, Hernandez added, for installing something similar to an escalator for wheelchairs. If all goes well, he recounts, the IC may be accessible by next semester.

Hernandez has also run into certain issues with shuttle transportation, which have made it difficult for him to take full advantage of the college’s services.

Hernandez said that he had spoken to Public Safety and that the college had told him they would provide an accessible shuttle to run alongside each regular shuttle as an option in case he wanted to leave campus. Most of the time, though, Hernandez said, he has had to wait between 20 and 30 minutes for the accessible shuttle to arrive.

“I think of the reverse — someone not in a wheelchair wouldn’t have to call and wait for 20 to 30 minutes, you’d just get on and go,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is unsure of how he will handle campus paths in his wheelchair during the winter. The college has told him, he said, that he will be able to call Public Safety if he cannot get to Sharples or to his classes due to ice on the paths, and that they could drive him.

“I wouldn’t want that to be my first choice,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know what you can do with ice…but it just seems like for me that calling Public Safety would be the last option. I would want to be able to move by myself.”

Nguyen feels that campus should be similarly accessible to students in wheelchairs as it is for able-bodied students.

“I shouldn’t have to go to all of this extra effort and take all of this extra time to get to class just because I’m in a wheelchair,” he said.

According to Susan Smythe, the Americans with Disabilities Act program coordinator at the college, there have only been two other students in wheelchairs at Swarthmore in recent memory. One was a Haverford student who used a motorized wheelchair, and the other was a quadriplegic student with a full-time assistant.

“This year is a testing ground for us, because we’re finding out if the things that we think work really do, and we have been finding some deficiencies in terms of trying to rectify those issues as soon as possible,” Smythe said.

The small size of the college, Smythe explained, presents unique challenges.

“One of the advantages is that we are small enough to be able to treat people with quite a bit of individual attention and spend some resources doing that,” Smythe said. “The disadvantage may be that we have a smaller population and at a larger school you would have a constant influx of people, constantly have users testing the system, and we really haven’t had that.”

In 2005, the Office of Civil Rights, the division of the Department of Justice which administers the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act, came to campus and began initial auditing. The OCR’s presence on campus was not complaint-based, Smythe said — its focus on Swarthmore was part of a wave of its attempt to highlight accessibility at colleges and universities across the country.

“I think, frankly, they chose schools that showed geographic representation and schools who they thought had the money to make the changes,” Smythe said. Along with Swarthmore, the OCR selected Mills College in Oakland, California as well as Colorado College and the University of Chicago as schools to audit. Swarthmore is thus frequently cited as an example in terms of best practices for compliance with the ADA, Smythe said, and she is contacted often by other schools looking for advice on these practices.

Under the 2007 Department of Justice settlement which followed the OCR’s audit, the college was given one year to assess its accessibility and then four years address any issues. Swarthmore hired Kessler McGuinness & Associates, a Boston-based firm that specializes in accessibility planning, to audit campus. The firm, which Smythe said received somewhere around $300,000 from the college, examined each building on campus and created detailed reports over the course of the year.

Smythe said that the college has had to prioritize in terms of addressing the issues which the firm identified.

“In trying to craft how we were going to do this, we made priorities across the campus — academic areas were the highest, then residence halls, then student life,” Smythe said.

Smythe said that the aim of the college’s changes to campus infrastructure was to make the program of the college as well as its physical spaces accessible to students. After the firm’s audit, the college underwent a number of changes, from major pathway reconstruction to building ramps to replacing doorknobs with lever handles.

“It’s fair to say we have touched every building on campus.” However, the college needed to balance its resources.

“We were trying to do the projects that we felt would benefit the most people or the biggest section of campus,” she explained.

Some buildings were changed less than others, Smythe said, due to strategic and master plans which have developed in the period since the OCR and firm audit. For instance, in spaces set to be demolished in the course of other building construction, such as Papazian, full compliance was not as much of a concern. Smythe said the college did ensure there were basic functions in buildings like these, such as an accessible entrance and a bathroom.

In newer spaces, however, such as the Science Center, Kohlberg Hall, and Trotter Hall, the college sought to immediately correct all issues. These buildings, Smythe noted, were constructed after the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and should thus have been compliant in the first place.

In total, Smythe said, the college spent somewhere around a “millions of dollars number” addressing the issues found by Kessler McGuinness.

Despite these massive changes in infrastructure, Nguyen believes there are challenges to understanding accessibility which the college cannot fully address.

“People who are trying to be helpful just don’t have that hands-on experience,” he said. “Dealing with the practicalities of accessibility is a lot harder unless you’ve spent a long time in a wheelchair. It’s not just about one ramp, it’s about making campus accessible in terms of being able to go to all of its places without a ridiculous amount of effort.”

Smythe said that the accessibility goal for the college is to enable students to operate as independently as possible. She also noted that the ADA program on campus addresses issues not limited to wheelchair use. Sight issues, for instance, present a different set of challenges, as do the learning or processing disabilities which most of the seventy students registered with Disability Services at the college have. These do not necessarily require physical adjustments, Smythe noted, but program adjustments, software purchases, and classroom setup are all directed towards this end.

Smythe’s role at the college has shifted from the nuts and bolts of addressing the OCR’s audit and changing campus in line with the firm’s recommendation to taking a big-picture look at campus accessibility, she said. New building projects in particular receive a great deal of her scrutiny — such as the Danawell connector, which Smythe considers an accessibility project — as well as renovation processes and an ongoing focus on where the OCR is taking the ADA and what the college should do in response.

“I look at how the college is doing in an overall capacity, and try to make the best use of the college’s obviously limited resources,” Smythe said.

Students to revive Queer Straight Alliance

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Queer Straight Alliance is being revived by Anthony Chiarenza ’18, Kate Musen ’18 and Kate Collins ’18.

In the last two years, QSA has had no presence on campus and only more exclusive groups (i.e. Swarthmore Queer Union, Picante, PersuAsian, Colors, QTC, and Ace of Clubs) have functioned effectively. To attend meetings run by most of these groups, students need to identify with a particular gender, sexual orientation or race.

In the last few semesters, the leaders of QSA have either studied abroad or graduated, leaving the group without a leader.

“The seniors have said that QSA is taking a nap and our goal is to wake [it] up and restart it,” Musen explained.

The goal of the new QSA is not to replace the other similarly-interested groups on campus. According to Musen – who is also a board member of SQU – these groups fill a vital role at Swarthmore by allowing LGBT students to have a safe space to talk, and to address their needs.

Chiarenza hopes to bring a new activism-focused QSA group on campus.

“Right now, we don’t have a group that is focused on activism and that’s open to all students,” he said. “Having an open group on campus where anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity can join and be active with queer issues where they can go out and make change is very important.”

Collins felt similarly, citing the groups separate legacy from existing organizations, “[SQU and others] have a history of being closed within the IC, [Intercultural Center] and this one will historically be open. To me it’s a space where people don’t have to focus on their identity, but can act and help others and make a change.”

For some, the most appealing aspect of QSA is that it is open to all students. This holds for national organization as well. QSA’s website reads, “QSA is the main vehicle for queer activism on campus, and is open to all students. QSA also sponsors open social events, such as movie nights, and seeks to promote discussion and awareness of queer issues on campus.”

For Jay Wu ‘15, a board member of SQU who graduated last spring, the renewal of the QSA is a good sign for the college’s queer community. “During my first year at Swarthmore, it was the main site for advocacy and activism – like getting more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus and raising money for a trans and queer youth center that was damaged in Hurricane Sandy,” they said. “Unfortunately, many of the people involved in QSA that year either graduated or became more involved in other campus organizations, so QSA effectively ceased to exist after the fall of 2012. I’m really happy that there’s enough energy within trans, queer, and allied communities now to breathe new life into it.”

Dominic Sankowsky ‘18, a current member of PersuAsian, noted that the QSA would create space for students who are less public about their gender and sexuality to be a part of the queer community on campus. “I’d say the most important reason for QSA to exist is for people who aren’t out and are also uncomfortable being in a closed space like SQU,” he said. “It gives them an opportunity to be involved with queer life at Swat and be around other queer and trans* people without having to fear that they’re making a statement about their identity to others.”

In general, QSA would like to work on micro and macro levels around campus. “The idea is that we would be having people work on different projects but having everyone within the organization of QSA support each other toward a more common goal of increasing rights and access and facilitation of discussion,” said Musen.

In addition, a long-term goal of QSA is to combine with similar groups in the Tri-co and other colleges, however, as Musen explained, the group’s immediate focus is to determine what is attainable for this year. For the time being, the group will continue to hold open meetings on Sundays at 3:30 in the Intercultural Center in order to get a sense of campus needs and ways to affect change.

Native American Heritage Month celebrated, students hope to create lasting awareness

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Students gather for Native Heritage Month luncheon in the Intercultural Center. Photo by Angela Abitino
Students gather for Native Heritage Month luncheon in the Intercultural Center.
Photo by Angela Abitino

November is Native American Heritage Month and this year, for the first time in college history, it was officially celebrated on campus. The students involved in the college’s Native American Student Association hope that this will raise awareness about Native American presence in the college and the problems Native American students continue to face.

Six major events were prepared in hopes of raising awareness of what the organizers felt was ignorance on campus about Native Americans. Events included a lecture by Co-Director for the Two Spirit Society of Denver Crisosto Apache on being an indigenous queer, a talk by famous storyteller and activist Ed Edmo and a panel discussion with administrators about Native representation in higher education. NASA President Daniel Orr ’16 thought the panel was especially ambitious in scope, but was pleased at its reception nonetheless.

“We were really pushing that [panel] because clearly that was the idea behind the entire month was to bring up this idea that natives aren’t represented here at Swarthmore in so many aspects — in not only student populations, but the faculty, the staff, the curriculum itself, and our opportunities here,” Orr said. Although the panel couldn’t address the full breadth of topics, Orr appreciated the genuine dialogue that the audience created with their questions.

Other events included a lecture by Bryn Mawr professor Ignacio Gallup-Diaz on the underlying complexities associated with the original Thanksgiving event, a film screening and a lunch with author and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Orr expects more events like food nights and movie nights in the spring will continue to promote NASA’s visibility on campus.

With only a handful of students who identify themselves as Native Americans, NASA has historically struggled to find participants to sustain its existence. Despite its status as one of the identity groups that helped found the Intercultural Center in 1992, NASA has been dissolved and re-chartered as a student group several times. Brent Stanfield ’14 was the founder of the current NASA, which was chartered last year.

“One of the biggest issues as a Native American group is just staying around in terms of having numbers to keep the group going,” Stanfield said. “That’s the personal history of NASA… every couple of years it would die out, and then it would get restarted.”

The idea of revitalizing the group came during a friendly dinner between Orr and other Native American students in the spring of 2013. Stanfield found that Native American students often lacked voice and agency because they didn’t have the necessary organized platform through which to sound their concerns.

“Swarthmore is always talking about its diversity and about how it’s always making space for people of different backgrounds … [but] I didn’t see anything addressing Native American people,” Stanfield said.  “It’s difficult for needs of individuals and voices of individual people to be recognized  by administration … because it’s the issue of numbers. Having an actual organization that can be the stage and the figurehead for Native American students on campus that can address their needs. That was really important.”

Stanfield hopes that NASA will continue to build strong relationships with the administration and push for action that would increase the number of Native students on campus. They acknowledged that this process of instigating change was difficult, especially when most of the work would need to be done by NASA members themselves.

“At Swarthmore there’s this idea that students can do anything; that sort of everything happens here because of the students … There’s too much burden on them with such a small population,” Stanfield said.

Orr echoed a similar sentiment. He believes that the problem is compounded by the fact that there are no Native American faculty or staff members to whom to look for support.

“The burden to push for change is left on those students. There’s also this question like ‘Why is it by this year, these things aren’t already being talked about? Why [it] is that we are the one who need to push this forward now in this day and age?” said Orr. “There’s no Native American faculty or administrator. Let’s say you want some authority figure to validate what you’re feeling. It’s not necessarily that other people won’t understand. It’s more like you have to go to them and you have to explain why these things are affecting you this way.”

Orr recalled a time when a Native American prospective student visited Swarthmore and was put off by the small Native student community and inadequate support for Native identity. Julia Wakeford ’18, a member of NASA, believes that Native Americans should seek places where their perspectives are appreciated and needs are addressed.

“It’s not necessarily helping them. They have experienced the mainstream conversations. [They] have the obscure ideas to bring to the conversation. It’s not always fit for all minorities to come to a larger place that isn’t accepting of their ideas because they’re not going to get anything,” she said.

In addition to administrative changes, members of NASA are hoping that there will be changes made in the curriculum, including the creation of a Native American ethnic studies program, as well as classes in all relevant departments that would acknowledge the Native American perspective and culture. Wakeford believes that spreading knowledge about the problems that Native Americans face today to those on campus is a way to influence the future by reaching tomorrow’s leaders at Swarthmore.

“When there are so many movers and shakers on Swarthmore’s campus — the people that will go for it and be senators or work in non-profit organizations, I think it’s beneficial for them to realize that native people have a lot of struggles and a lot of also beautiful things to add to the world,” Wakeford said.

For Wakeford, NASA is not just a means of improving her current lot, but also about advancing the future of Native Americans — both in Swarthmore and out.

“All of our ancestors and our parents and our family members made us who we are,” Wakeford said. “We have the same obligations to our future generations, to help them along, to make sure that our children have cultural awareness, are able to keep with their culture but also don’t have to have the same struggles that we’ve had.”

 

 

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