On Monday, November 16, 2020, the Black Affinity Coalition began striking all courses, coursework, and campus jobs with over 450 students, faculty, and alumni who pledged their support. The BAC, a group of Swarthmore students who have chosen to remain anonymous, organized a campus-wide movement, No Longer Minding the Light, to protest college policies that have historically brought institutional harm upon marginalized students. The strike remained in effect until the BAC announced a pause on November 25, 2020. This piece aims to articulate reflections of administration, faculty, and students as anticipation of a potential reinstatement of the strike continues in the Spring 2021 semester.
According to the BAC, the coalition decided to remain anonymous because “organizers in the past who were known by administration to be leading actions often faced penalties,” as stated in an Institutional Memory Catalogue the group compiled.
In their “Open Letter to Faculty and Staff” on November 13, the BAC explained, “Students are protesting Swarthmore’s historical lack of concrete action concerning institutional anti-blackness and the unsustainability of this semester, specifically the unrealistic expectation to continue to operate as if we are not amidst a pandemic and a racial crisis.”
The Phoenix reached out to core members of the BAC via email, text, and the No Longer Minding the Light Instagram page on February 15, 16, and 17 to request an interview. To date, core members of the BAC have not responded to The Phoenix’s request for comment.
Students in support pledged to strike indefinitely until the college provided tangible solutions to the demands. While many chose to forego classes, campus jobs, and all other college-related activities for the duration of the strike, it is unclear how many students later decided to partially participate due to academic pressure or other concerns.
The strike was founded on a list of demands crafted by the BAC, which is run under the Swarthmore Strike Coalition and No Longer Minding the Light Instagram Page. On November 11, 2020, the statement of demands was published in Voices, a campus collective student-run news and media publication advocating for the multiple truths at Swarthmore. The BAC statement, addressed to President Valerie Smith, the Swarthmore Board of Managers, Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Terhune, and Dean of Students Tomoko Sakomura, demanded the administration address and correct unequal treatment of underrepresented students in the college community. Among these underserved groups are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), undocumented, disabled, first-generation and low-income, and LGBTQ+ students. The Institutional Memory document provided by the BAC lists improvements accomplished by past student strikes, ranging from student pressure on board members to allow Black applicants in 1943 to the disbandment of fraternities on campus in 2019.
Many of the demands explicitly targeted the systemic inequities experienced by all marginalized Swarthmore students in addition to Black students. Other key demands included reforming the framework of Public Safety on campus, redirecting funding to hire additional BIPOC campus counselors, and demanding that Swarthmore fully fund workshops on cultural competency and intersectionality that are mandatory for first-year and transfer students.
College President Valerie Smith sent a response to the BAC in an all-campus email on Nov. 16, 2020. Smith acknowledged that the administration and BAC “share the goal of making the College, and society broadly, a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.” She emphasized, however, “the 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.”
In an attempt to rally support for their demands and connect with the Swarthmore student body, the BAC organized an on-campus rally on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 outside Clothier Hall called “Reading the Receipts.” During the socially distanced rally, Mekayla Herndon ’23 read aloud the list of demands and “A Catalogue of Swarthmore’s Bureaucratic Failings and Student-led Successes,” an effort to preserve the institutional memory of marginalization at the college. The event was also livestreamed on Instagram to provide access for students and community members off-campus.
On November 20, 2020, in congruence with email responses from President Smith, a cohort of faculty members at Swarthmore released a statement asking students to end the strike and collaborate with faculty. The statement featured reflection from professors and staff members, claiming there was “no advance[d] warning to engage, discuss, or prepare for the steps expected of us.” The document went on, stating “faculty have been asked to cancel classes, jettison assignments, and hold teach-ins in service of these demands, many of which are based on misinformation or are troublingly at odds with our own values.” Ultimately, the letter asked BAC organizers to end the strike.
On November 25, 2020, ten days after the strike began, the BAC released a statement via the No Longer Minding the Light Instagram page announcing an indefinite suspension of the strike.
“At this time, Black Affinity Coalition has chosen to suspend the strike,” they wrote. “We would like to emphasize that this is indeed a suspension, rather than a conclusion,” the statement read. The BAC reiterated that the tangible implementation of demands they desired was often achieved through student strike. The “institutional memory […] has demonstrate[d] that student concerns and demands were met with structural change largely as a result of student protests/strikes.”
Months later, professors and administrators are reflecting on the events and outcomes of the BAC strike.
From the outset, the administration left the professors’ response to their own discretion. According to a timeline published by Voices during the strike on November 18, the Provost emailed faculty on November 13, three days before the strike officially began, indicating professors should respond however they saw fit. The email also encouraged faculty not to use punitive action against striking students, according to the Voices article.
Assistant Professor of Statistics Suzanne Thornton decided to give her students the option to freeze their grades, considering the semester was nearing completion and had been exceptionally difficult.
“In academia, it’s a very common feeling to feel this pressure to perform at optimal performance level, regardless of what’s going on around you. And I just didn’t feel that that [pressure] was appropriate for me to … reinforce in my class on my students,” she said.
Beyond its effects on students’ learning, the COVID-19 pandemic also changed the nature of the strike and rendered its demands more salient. Not only has the pandemic coincided with historic reckonings with racism in the United States, but it has also put systemic inequities in sharp relief as people of color suffer the worst of the virus’ effects.
In a Feb. 23 email to The Phoenix, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch acknowledged the role broader societal problems may have played in the protest.
“I realize I can’t come close to appreciating the deep and genuine pain that some of the students behind the strike have experienced, particularly during the past few years amid the heightened racial violence, hatred, and xenophobia that’s gripped our society, which has only been made worse by the pandemic,” he wrote. Notwithstanding the strike’s backdrop of social and political turmoil, however, Hirsch recognized the need for change at Swarthmore College. “We need to work together to build a better, more inclusive, equitable, and just place for our students, faculty, and staff,” he wrote.
Even as they acknowledged some of the adversity and inequity that led students to strike, professors found themselves making difficult choices as to how they could lend their support without compromising other learning objectives. The BAC called on professors to cancel classes and host teach-ins, but computer science Professor Zachary Palmer wrote in an email to The Phoenix that course staff teaching CPSC 035 decided they could not halt education or even freeze striking students’ grades as other professors had chosen to do.
“It was impossible to both (1) accommodate students who stopped interacting with the course entirely and (2) ensure that those students would not be critically disadvantaged in future Computer Science courses,” Palmer wrote.
The continued use of standard academic penalties for striking students convinced some strikers to end or rein in their participation in the strike for fear of permanent damage to their academic records.
While few professors canceled classes, several hosted teach-ins to educate community members about the ongoing histories of discrimination and marginalization in their respective fields. Assistant Professor of Statistics Suzanne Thornton helped organize and host a teach-in to discuss mathematics and social justice.
“Racism has played a significant role in the development of modern statistical thought,” Thornton explained.
Thorton and two other professors in the Math and Statistics Department, Professors Lorman and Van Meter, hosted one of the three faculty-led teach-ins held on November 20, 2020. The professors spoke on the subjects of bias in the judicial system, gerrymandering, and eugenics, and how these subjects lie at the intersection of mathematics and systemic racism.
“I think it’s important that statistics students and statistical practitioners and especially statistics educators are informed about this history ourselves … and that we teach our students about this so that we can think more creatively about challenging the status quo,” Thornton said.
Department Chair and Professor of Economics Stephen O’Connell also held a teach-in on November 19, co-hosted by Professor Syon Bhanot and with guidance from Professor Amanda Bayer. The discussion centered around issues of diversity and inclusion in the field of economics. Despite having held a teach-in, O’Connell had reservations about the strike’s specific requests.
“The feelings of marginalization and the reality of non-inclusion is really important,” O’Connell emphasized. “[However], I found myself not in sympathy with a fair amount of the detailed demands.”
While he did not elaborate on exactly which of the BAC’s demands went too far in his view, O’Connell expressed his belief that the demands were too substantial, rapid, and multidimensional for the strike to succeed.
For these reasons, Professor O’Connell joined almost 130 other members of the faculty in signing the Nov. 20 letter sent on behalf of the faculty urging students to end the strike. While an overwhelming number of signatories, including several anonymous faculty, seemed to feel the letter reflected their views, not every professor chose to sign on.
“I didn’t have a say in creating it, and I also didn’t agree with all of the sentiments expressed in the letter,” said Professor Thornton. “But there are people who I know and respect and trust who signed that letter, who signed for a different … [and] an equally valid reason,” she added.
By nature, the issues surrounding the strike also gave rise to tensions between students and administration. Provost and Dean of Faculty Willie-LeBreton expressed empathy for both students and faculty in an email to The Phoenix on February 23. As an administrator, however, her view of the protest was complicated.
“I’ll admit that it was hard to read a list of demands when no students reached out to me about their concerns. At the same time, I realize that we have a need for better communication — many students and even some faculty don’t know how hard faculty, staff, administrators, and students have worked over the years — often together — to grow more inclusive and diverse curricula, as well as more diverse student, faculty and staff bodies. I’m interested in finding more ways to share information,” she wrote.
One way she hopes to offer transparency is by hosting an interactive online seminar on the evening of March 17 called “Curriculum 101,” where students can learn about the changes that have been and continue to be made to center marginalized experiences in curricula at Swarthmore, one of the demands made by the BAC.
With the Spring 2021 semester underway, students also continue to process last semester’s strike as well as anticipate what may follow. Blaine Thomas ’24 reflected upon the timing of last semester’s strike.
“It was towards finals, so maybe people who wanted to participate couldn’t. But that is something that wasn’t [the BAC organizers’] fault,” said Thomas.
The timing made the decision for Thomas to strike more complicated. However, she ultimately decided that it was the best decision she could have made to be a catalyst for positive change at the college.
Some students were more uncertain about aspects of the demands and protest. Martin Rakowszczyk ’22 commented on the strike and the way in which his decision not to strike evolved.
“When the No Longer Minding the Light Instagram page came out, I followed, and I was really interested […] I agreed with 80% of the demands, but there was one demand that particularly annoyed me,” said Rakowszczyk.
This contentious demand called for a committee of LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and disabled students to look over the revised syllabi of Swarthmore faculty. He had a few concerns regarding the extent of the students’ power on the committee.
Rakowszczyk chose to attend a Zoom town hall hosted by BAC organizers prior to the strike’s beginning to seek clarification on this demand. According to Rakowszczyk, BAC members stated that the town hall wasn’t a place to have questions answered on the validity of the demands. Without much new information, he decided not to strike. Regardless, “a lot of the demands are very reasonable first steps to remedy and prevent future harm that the school can do to students,” Rakowszczyk said.
Hannah Li ’24 believed participating in the strike was a necessary and positive way to make a difference as a first-year student at Swarthmore. Li fully participated in the strike and did not attend any classes, turn in any assignments, or participate in a campus job throughout the strike’s duration.
“Swat was treating a lot of its Indigenous and students of color unfairly, especially with the little Indigenous students that [Swarthmore] already ha[s], not to mention its treatment of international students,” Li said. “[Striking] was probably the only way to contribute to helping those students, and I kind of just had to do it.”
Some students’ personal connection to the demands became meaningful components to their decision of whether or not to strike.
As a member of the Cherokee Nation and Swarthmore’s Indigenous Student Association, Shay Downey ’22 expressed that, although the demands aimed to uplift indigenous students with her shared identity, she decided not to participate because of the strike’s organizational structure. Downey emphasized that BAC organizers did not reach out to SISA prior to integrating key advocacy positions of the affinity group into the demands of the strike.
“The intent might have been to uplift Indigenous voices, but it seemed counterproductive and invalidating of the BAC to do so without the consent and input from the smallest affinity population on campus,” said Downey.
As reported on the college’s “Facts & Figures” webpage, American Indian/Native Alaskan students comprise less than 1% of Swarthmore’s current student population. This group’s statistic is mirrored by the Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander population, also reported as less than 1%.
In the time subsequent to her decision to not participate, Downey reflected upon the environment generated around those who made the same judgment.
“I felt like it was seen as a judge of character or morality and if you chose not to strike you were immediately labeled [as] close-minded, uninclusive, or selfish. There was little room for conversation or negotiation,” she said.
Given the strike’s abrupt postponement and unclear future, students also questioned and reflected upon its success.
“It definitely drew attention to the racial problems and the [history of Swarthmore],” Thomas said. Prior to the strike’s announcement, several of the demands were not major topics of discussion on campus, and the BAC brought those issues to the forefront.
Over three months past the strike’s suspension, the BAC has made no public announcements regarding a reinstatement of the strike in the Spring 2021 semester.
When students were asked if their decision to strike or not to strike would differ from the Fall 2020 semester, Thomas, Rakowszczyk, Li, and Downey said their choices would remain the same. That is, if components such as the demands and organizational structure were not revised or altered.
Regardless of each student’s individual perspective, a collective goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse Swarthmore persists. In accordance with this goal, students continue to feel passionate about the strike and many of the issues it sought to address.
“[Striking] now may be more effective, since juniors and seniors are on campus, so I think it would be better this semester,” Thomas speculated.
Following last semester’s heated conclusion, professors are also asking themselves what they plan to do if the BAC strike were to resurface.
Economics Professor Syon Bhanot was among those who signed the faculty letter advocating an end to the strike.
“It’s hard for me to envision not having a similar reaction if [the strike] were to crop up again,” he said in a March 3 interview with The Phoenix.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the strike served to benefit the Swarthmore community in some ways.
“It’s not as if we in the [economics] department … have solved all these problems internally or within the profession … We have problems within the department … that we’re working on and that we’re committed to working on. But I do think that the teach-in gave folks an opportunity [to see the department’s efforts toward inclusion]. A lot of the students who attended, I think, weren’t aware of the extent to which … we’ve been trying to do this work for several years.”
For these reasons, Bhanot perceived the strike as having left a mixed legacy.
“[The strike] could have been and could potentially still be a really damaging type of event. But in the end,” Bhanot said, “I think if anything, it was a net positive.”