Last year, first-year orientation began only three weeks after Mike Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, just as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and began to command attention from mainstream media outlets. Over this past summer, the Black Lives Matter network continued to grow and evolve, recently beginning to engage with the electoral politics by showing up at campaign events for Democratic presidential candidates and continually demanding that racial justice be at the top of the mainstream political agenda. Amid all of this action, Swarthmore students again return to campus and settle back in for another year in the proverbial “bubble.”
Since the protests in Ferguson began, police murder and racial injustice have filled the headlines with growing frequency. For some students, including Kara Bledsoe ’16, the campus community’s reaction to those headlines was disappointing. Bledsoe said, “I always thought of Swarthmore as a place where those types of discussions happen and where people were open to having them, but the majority of the responses that I came across were like ‘That’s not really relevant to my life’ or ‘I don’t really wanna talk about that.’”
Kemi Oladipo ’18, the Social Coordinator for the Swarthmore African American Student Society, saw a similar trend, particularly among non-black students. “I don’t think I was talking about what was happening with Black Lives Matter with people outside the Black community,” she said.
Joelle Bueno ’18 also noticed a lack of campus-wide conversation. Arriving at Swarthmore last year as a first year, Bueno didn’t immediately see the political activism she had expected based on the college’s reputation. She noticed that while many students are doing activist work, much of it is off-campus. Bueno joined Race to Action last fall because of its potential to fill that void for on-campus action and discussion.
“Race to Action seemed to be one of the only groups having these big events, campus-wide events, that were trying to make a statement and also include everyone on campus,” she said. Bueno said this was what motivated her to attend their meetings.
A student group that started last fall, Race to Action says on its Facebook page that it seeks to “provide creative pathways to effectively bring intercultural issues to light and to motivate people to act.” The group’s programming began last September with a well-attended march and vigil, which
Arjun Raghuraman ’15, one of the group’s leaders, said was supposed to be a one-off event, until the response of the campus inspired the event organizers to do more. The group met and held a few more events, including a Halloween photo campaign against racial appropriation.
However, as the group sought to expand their scope and unite over a range of causes, Louis Lainé ’15, another group leader, said that the attempt to meet everyone’s differing interests led to confusion. The group does not have plans to continue meeting this year.
Bueno said that the group’s difficulty in carrying the energy forward into more productive actions speaks more to a common problem among Swarthmore student clubs, rather than to a lack of need or of good intentions.
While it may have been difficult to conduct productive conversations around Black Lives Matter that included all of Swarthmore’s community, students individually turned to friends and informal gatherings in order to process grief, anger, and frustration about the news.
For Bledsoe, it was important to have spaces to process the news as well as racial microaggressions that occur on campus. “I really sought out the company of other Black people on campus, and that was something that was new for me and something that was really wonderful,” she commented.
Allison Alcéna ’17, a former member of the SASS executive board, said that coming together with friends was especially helpful, and that being able to talk about anger and hurt without the expectation of being constructive made these small talks different from SASS meetings or class discussions. But Alcéna also found value in more formal spaces to engage with news about Black Lives Matter, she said. Particularly in her Introduction to Black Studies class last fall, Alcéna found that relevant coursework gave her the tools to historicize news about police brutality, and the knowledge to back up her opinions on the matter.
Bledsoe similarly appreciated that a Swarthmore education gives students the language needed to discuss the root of the problems addressed by Black Lives Matter, and was happy to engage in such discussions with the Black community on campus.
Charlie Aprile ’18 has a similar appreciation for the discussions among Black students and for their campus activism at Swarthmore and elsewhere, though he hopes that on-campus conversation will broaden in scope. “We tend to focus on the individual level of our oppression rather than talking about the general connection of issues that are raised by Black Lives Matter to the exploitation of Black people and non-whites in general, in an economic sense,” he said.
Though many students have clear ideas about what they would like to see happening on campus, finding the most effective ways to initiate such discussion and action is less clear. Some do not believe it is the responsibility of faculty or administration to facilitate campus-wide discussions or activism around Black Lives Matter. Alcéna noted that historically, on college campuses, students are the ones to effect institutional change. “Institutions should cater to students’ needs … students need to be explicit with what their demands are and what they want to see the college do,” she said.
While Oladipo agreed that student-led initiatives would be more successful, because of students’ abilities to draw people in through connected social circles, she feels that the administration is also obligated to be involved, given that the violence that Black people experience in this country is a risk for Swarthmore students as well.
The students interviewed for this piece shared a concern that whatever conversations happen on campus about Black Lives Matter, students who are not already involved or interested in the issues can easily avoid talking or thinking about it. Raghuraman said that as a member of multiple campus groups, including Phi Psi, he is especially aware of this phenomenon. “There are certain places you can expect to have these conversations [and] some places where you will never hear it,” he said.
Maria Castaneda ’18, one of the student leaders for the Tri-College Summer Multicultural Institute this year, suggested a problem with thinking of Swarthmore as a bubble. “That makes it easier for us to act like our campus is a utopia where we don’t encounter racism, when we know that’s not the case,” she said. While some students were adamant about not wanting to force others to care about any particular cause, there was a general desire for more widespread conversation and solidarity.
Bueno, who is an Intercultural Center intern this year, believes that the Intercultural Center holds a lot of potential for fostering a sense of community that will be both nurturing and productive. She said the administrators she has spoken to, especially Assistant Director of the IC Mo Lotif, are aware of this need and committed to meeting it. Bueno said the IC hopes to build community this year. “I think that’s having fun events, that’s celebrating our cultures, but I think that’s also addressing needs and filling holes and giving spaces for people to talk or have their voices heard,” she said.
Dean Dion Lewis, Director of the Black Cultural Center and interim Director of the IC, would like to continue discussions about Black Lives Matter, and other issues that pertain to populations of Swarthmore students. “It is my desire to continue these dialogues in an environment that is respectful, yields learning outcomes, and reminds us of what it means to be human,” he said. He hopes that students with suggestions for IC or BCC programming will approach him as the new year begins.
Bledsoe suggested a simple step to be taken by non-black students, urging people to attend events and parties hosted by SASS, the BCC, or other Black student groups. Non-black attendance at these events in the past has been low, she believes, because of discomfort and nervousness on the part of non-black students. As a “good faith gesture” on the part of non-black students, Bledsoe hopes to see higher and more diverse attendance at these types of events.