On Wednesday, November 11, the Black Affinity Coalition published a statement and list of demands in Voices, a student-run news and media publication at Swarthmore. In this document, the BAC demands the college to allocate more resources towards the equitable treatment and inclusion of students with marginalized identities, namely BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), disabled, first-generation and low-income, undocumented, and LGBTQ+ students. Core members of the BAC have chosen to remain anonymous. In an open letter to faculty and staff from Nov. 13, the BAC committed to striking indefinitely until the demands are fully met. The BAC and students in solidarity began their strike from most college-related activities today, Nov. 16. In the statement prefacing the BAC’s list of demands, the BAC explained that they are no longer waiting for Swarthmore to allocate resources to Black students.
“Like the Black Swarthmore students of the ‘60s, whose anger at the lack of support for Black students on campus led to the establishment of the BCC and the Black Studies Program, we are no longer waiting for Swarthmore to decide whether it will give us the resources we need,” the BAC wrote. “We are organizing to demand them for ourselves.”
The movement’s name, derived from Swarthmore’s motto and common Quaker saying, “Mind the Light,” is “No Longer Minding the Light.” This original Quaker motto has become increasingly visible to students since March — throughout the duration of the pandemic, the college has been regularly sending emails to students titled, “Minding the Light: A regular dose of lightness to brighten your inbox.”
The Phoenix reached out to the BAC on November 13 and 14 to request an interview. The BAC declined an interview with The Phoenix via email on November 14, citing a lack of time and capacity to do interviews at that time.
The BAC’s statement and demands cited an email from President Val Smith to students, faculty, and staff from October 29, titled, “Our system is broken.” In the email, Smith wrote about the murder of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man with a history of mental health issues whom two Philadelphia police officers shot to death in front of his mother on October 26, 2020.
“From George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Atatiana Jefferson to Trayvon Martin and so many others, each of these tragic deaths carries its own particular set of circumstances,” Smith wrote. “They are unique stories linked by a common theme: our system is broken.”
In response to Smith’s email, the BAC wrote, “The system is not broken; it was founded on the exploitation of Black people and the genocide and erasure of Indigenous people. Without a fundamental understanding of the beginnings of our country, it is no surprise that Swarthmore has continued to be complicit in violence against Black and Indigenous people. Swarthmore College acknowledges racial violence, but operates as if this violence exists in a vacuum by not committing to tangible anti-racist plans of action.”
Four of the BAC’s demands, listed in order of their inclusion in the BAC’s statement and demands, are: for the college to implement policies to support neurodivergent and disabled students; for the college to extend hazard pay to all staff members until the end of the pandemic; for Swarthmore faculty to incorporate and center the work of Black, indigenous, disabled, and LGBT figures in their curricula; and for the college to create a Black studies department with a Black department chair by the 2021-2022 academic year. As of now, there is only a Black Studies program, which does not have a standard academic program and requires majoring students to design their own special majors.
The BAC also demands that the college lay out a concrete plan of action to meet every one of the Swarthmore Indigenous Student Association’s demands from 2017. The opening of the statement acknowledges that the college sits on stolen Lenni Lenape land and calls for the college to “give tangible, specific measures of autonomy for how the institution’s land and capital is delegated in accordance to the needs of Indigenous communities whose unceded land the college resides on.”
In an open letter to faculty and staff in Voices on Friday, Nov. 13, the BAC stated that in solidarity with striking Bryn Mawr students and BIPOC students at Swarthmore, the BAC would begin a strike on Monday, Nov. 16. While striking, students affiliated with the BAC and the Swarthmore Strike Coalition (the collection of BAC members and students who are striking in solidarity with the BAC) will not be completing assignments, attending classes, participating in extracurriculars, or going to campus jobs. A post from the Swarthmore Strike Coalition’s Instagram page also indicated that striking students would not participate in upcoming course registration for the Spring 2021 semester. The Instagram page also encouraged students who are unable to strike from classes to change their Zoom usernames to “No Longer Minding the Light,” refrain from participating, and navigate class conversations back to student striking whenever possible. The Swarthmore Strike Coalition’s Instagram page also urged students, including students taking leaves of absence, to sign up for the strike on a Google spreadsheet.
Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton wrote in an email to faculty that it is within faculty members’ purview to decide how to grade students who are striking and do not participate in class or complete assignments.
According to a Swarthmore Strike Coalition Instagram post, the BAC is not requesting for international students to refrain from registering for classes, since failing to register could jeopardize their visa status and potentially serious immigration consequences. The BAC, however, is asking international students to participate in the strike in other capacities. The BAC is also not asking students to strike from hiring committees or to stop eating at on-campus food providers.
President Smith sent an email to the Swarthmore community at 7:15 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 16 regarding the end of the semester and the strike. She also shared the email that she sent directly to the BAC, which indicated that no BAC members had spoken with Swarthmore administration about BAC demands before launching the No Longer Minding the Light movement on Monday, Nov. 9.
“I was surprised to suddenly receive a list of demands from an anonymous source since no one from this group had spoken with me, Vice President Terhune, Dean Sakomura, Provost Willie-LeBreton or, to my knowledge, any member of the administration, beforehand,” Smith wrote.
Smith also wrote that two initiatives of several the college is undertaking that align with some of the BAC’s demands, namely building a break into the Spring semester and funding eight courses to improve the lives of Black and brown people through the President’s Fund for Racial Justice.
In an email to The Phoenix on Nov. 19, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch stated that the college is also undertaking several initiatives that align with the BAC’s demands, which the college is currently finalizing and plans to share with the community soon. Hirsch did not disclose what the initiatives are, stating that it would be premature for him to elaborate on the initiatives until they are finalized.
Smith, however, also expressed skepticism about the ability of anonymous demands and ultimatums to enact change.
She wrote, “Our journey toward a better, more just Swarthmore will be reached not through anonymous demands and ultimatums that fail to recognize the contributions, commitment, and passion so many of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others have dedicated to these issues, but through creative and critical thinking, collaboration, and empathy.”
The planned strike at Swarthmore follows strikes at Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College, the two other colleges in the Tri-Co Consortium, though the BAC’s demands are independent of the Bi-Co demands. On October 29, students at Haverford began striking after Haverford President Wendy Raymond emailed students regarding protests in Philadelphia after two police officers murdered Walter Wallace Jr.
Raymond’s email strongly discouraged students from protesting, claiming that joining protests off campus “would not bring Walter Wallace back,” and “could play into the hands of those who might seek to sow division and conflict especially in vulnerable communities.” In its statement and demands, the BAC characterized Raymond’s email as “egregious.”
On November 3, students from Bryn Mawr college also began to strike in solidarity with Haverford. Haverford students ended their thirteen-day strike on Wednesday, Nov. 11, after Haverford’s administration met many of the strikers’ demands. Bryn Mawr students are still striking.
In addition to striking, the BAC also started a mutual aid fund. A mutual aid fund consists of donations dedicated to helping people in need in a reciprocal way that departs from traditional ideas of charities and nonprofits. Mutual aid can also take non-monetary forms. The BAC has encouraged Swarthmore donors to redirect their funds from the college to the mutual aid fund. A publicly available transparency sheet from the organizers of the BAC’s mutual aid fund indicated that as of noon on Monday, Nov. 16, the fund had received over $3,700 in donations.
In preparation for the strike, the BAC held virtual office hours five times on Saturday and Sunday and created a web page for resources related to the strike and the BAC’s demands. The movement is also holding teach-ins to center relevant work by BIPOC scholars.
In an Instagram post, an anonymous member of the BAC core explained that the goal of the strike is not to stop learning at Swarthmore.
“Our intention is not to disrupt learning at Swarthmore,” the anonymous member wrote. “Our goal is to disrupt the regular programming of the institution. This is why we are organizing teach-ins centering relevant coursework authored by BIPOC scholars.”
Several organizations and student collectives, including Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization, Swarthmore Jewish Voices for Peace, Swarthmore Drama Board, ENLACE, Organizing to Redefine Asian Activism, and residential assistants have voiced their support for the BAC and strike. In an email to The Phoenix, the BAC stated that several student organizations supporting the strike and coalition would publish letters of support in Voices in the coming days.
In an email to Swarthmore students, SGO collectively wrote, “It is essential to SGO’s mission that we continue to support students who are organizing and striving towards improving the collective experience of our student body, especially Black and Indigenous folks whose requests and demands have historically been ignored by the College. Stay educated on the work being done by your peers.”
As of 12:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 16, 420 students, roughly a quarter of Swarthmore’s student body, have committed via Google spreadsheet to striking indefinitely until demands are met. In an email to The Phoenix, the BAC stated that the coalition will release further escalation tactics if the strike continues beyond finals.
Nicolas Urick and Best Chantanapongvanij contributed reporting.
Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore Strike Coalition’s official Facebook Page No Longer Mindingthelight
11/16/2020, 7:25 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Monday, Nov. 16 as Monday, Nov. 15.
11/19/2020, 3:40 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that President Valerie Smith wrote that the college is taking two initiatives that align with the BAC’s demands. This correction clarifies that the demands President Smith wrote about are two of several, although the other forthcoming initiatives remain unknown to students.