5o years later, students at sarah lawrence college still fight for change

March 15, 2019
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In the early morning of March 11th, students at Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college in Yonkers, NY, marched through campus and stormed the central administration building, Westlands in protest. They had developed a list of demands, including resources and funding for low-income and first generation students, more tenured faculty of color, need for halal and kosher kitchens and a food pantry. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Vietnam War-era protests at Sarah Lawrence, and many of the current demands made by students date back to those sit-ins. Students were, again, calling for equity, respect, and a progressive anti-racist learning environment. After 72 hours, students — myself, included — remain in Westlands: chanting, sharing food and support, strategizing, and disrupting faculty meetings so that our discomfort with the institution may be felt.

Photo Credits: Diaspora Coalition, Ella Hartley & Allies

In 2016, I transferred to Sarah Lawrence as a sophomore. I’d been preparing for this day for months, scanning the course catalog in anticipation, ready to restart my college experience at the school that had always deeply resonated with me and best fit my learning style. Almost immediately upon my arrival, I was adopted by the Black community on campus. Part of my social orientation included learning what it truly meant to be at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution). That October, myself and fellow students received an email from the College’s Public Safety & Security Office reporting that a student’s car had been vandalized in a racially-motivated act, while xenophobic drawings were written at student dorm. That same day, students of color on campus called for a community check-in at Common Ground, the College’s designated safe space for students of color. We discussed and drafted a letter about how we would like the college to move forward in case of these events, to ensure the safety of targeted students and the larger community.

In the spring of that same academic year, a group of us protested and demanded the hiring of additional Black professors in order to take weight off a single tenured professor who at the time was tasked with single-handedly teaching all Diasporic disciplines within Black Literature. We sent emails to gather support, stormed the offices of the administration, and urged for compromises to be made in favor of the professor and his students. At the end of the semester, our professor made the decision to leave the college, with little effort made by the administration to keep him.

During my junior year I spent time in multiple rooms with several members of the administration who kept promising changes and solutions to demands that both we and Sarah Lawrence alumni have been asking for at least since 1969. Students of color once again met with our new president in Common Ground, repeating our needs, and while promises were made, progress was intangible. There has seldom been a time that my peers or I have left one of these meetings feeling as if we were going to see timely and substantial changes made. I became disenchanted with the idea of participating in any activist work at Sarah Lawrence and instead applied to a domestic exchange program to take a break from the disappointment of the school’s living and learning environment.

Photo Credits: Diaspora Coalition, Ella Hartley & Allies

This time, I arrived at Westlands on Day Two of the sit-in. The energy of the space felt like deja vu as I readied myself to stand with my community despite the lack of safety and care that we have experienced from this institution in the past. A handful of seniors and an abundance of underclassmen referred to as the Diaspora Coalition have lead over one hundred people in this protest. Multiple meetings have been held with the administration within the last few days; our President and Dean of Studies agreed to join the coalition and its allies at a town hall meeting on Thursday (14th) night to discuss specific demands, as well as answer questions that any students, faculty and staff had. We all sat on a stage and faced the wider Sarah Lawrence community as they asked questions, shared relatable experiences, and offered support to our movement.

Sarah Lawrence students have a deep sense of what is fair and equitable. Protecting the needs of low-income students, students of color and other marginalized groups on campus has become our fight since we arrived. As a senior, I see the freshmen, underclassmen and transfer students who are leading the current movement and I feel immense pride and honor to be able to protest alongside them, supporting them as they take a page out of the school’s history book, while writing their own.

Photo Credits: Diaspora Coalition, Ella Hartley & Allies

We plan to continue to occupy Westlands until an agreement is made with — and signed by — senior members of the Sarah Lawrence administration. The movement’s twitter (@TheDiaCoalition) and instagram (@thediasporacoalition) pages are being updated frequently. Donations for food and resources can be made on venmo to @diasporacoalition.