How campus activists are fighting to keep race protests alive

Organizers from New England schools are forming alliances to make sure the movement steams ahead

Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a cross-campus demonstration Nov. 16. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

Amid a national storm of college protests over racism, Harvard University released a “diversity report’’ that called for sweeping administrative changes on campus. That very same day, someone put tape over the faces of black professors in their law school portraits.

The act was a disheartening reminder that protesters still have a lot of work to do.

In recent weeks, more than 120 schools across the U.S. have held anti-racism demonstrations in the form of marches, rallies and sit-ins, rocketed forward by a watershed protest at the University of Missouri that led to resignations of the school’s president and chancellor. At least 65 colleges have released extensive lists of demands for administrators.

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The movement is gaining momentum, and the nation is listening. But now activists are trying to figure out what comes next.

“These issues tend to lose steam and are popular and trendy for a minute,’’ said Simone Alyse, a Berklee College of Music student who led the largest cross-campus demonstration in Boston. “But this isn’t something that’s trendy. This is our lives.’’

In New England, activists are forming alliances across campus borders by using social media to share tips about successful demonstrations, organize joint protests and commiserate over shared battles with authority. But even if they stand united, some obstacles remain out of students’ control, including a lack of funding to implement changes and administrators who are unwilling to cooperate.

Then there’s the problem of society itself, which isn’t so easy to fix with a simple list of demands or a march. Just ask the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that tried and failed to eradicate income inequality.

To enact lasting change, experts say activists must win leadership positions at their respective schools and take the fight to state legislatures.

Event organizers Simone Alyse, far right, and Sarah Alli, second from right, during the march Monday, Nov. 16. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

A lack of diversity extends beyond the world of higher education, but administrators can take steps to make their campuses more inclusive. Racism is an institutional issue that must be addressed by looking at underlying economic and social forces, said Meg Mott, a professor of political theory at Marlboro College in Vermont.

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“It gets to be a question of what do we want to have happen to make it a more racially and socioeconomically diverse group,’’ Mott said. “For a lot of administrators, the goal at the beginning is to hear the legitimate complaints of people who are marginalized, so the demonstrations are a great initial step.’’

Students from public schools can appeal to state legislatures for some of their demands, such as implementing state-mandated requirements for faculty diversity training or for multi-cultural courses in their curriculums. Students from privately funded schools, however, can’t appeal to the government.

In this way, the alliance across the public-private schools doesn’t necessarily benefit all students equally. But the bond does highlight the root of what they’re fighting for.

Rinne-Julie Fruster, an organizer from Lasell College, in Newton, Mass., said there’s a misconception in higher education that students of color shouldn’t complain because they’re privileged to even be getting a degree.

“It’s good to hear from students at many different schools who feel that way, that they’ve been silenced by the privilege we’re seeing as having,’’ she said, “and who can speak out against it.’’

Students pose after a demonstration at Boston College Nov. 12. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

This isn’t the first time students have appealed to their governing bodies for sweeping change. During campus protests in the ’60s and ’70s, when African American studies departments were being established, students often demanded to be included on boards of trustees or university governments so they could be part of the hiring process, said Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York.

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But the power students earned in the past has gradually been eroded over time, Johnston said. Students need to win it back by making demands like the one recently launched by Boston College activists, who want students represented on the hiring committee for the school’s new executive director of the Office of Institutional Diversity.

“When students want more power in the universe, they have to fight not only to get it, but also to keep it,’’ he said. “So that’s something they’ll have to consider to not repeat what happened in the past.’’

If students are able to secure positions on university governmental boards, they can better ensure that the movement doesn’t languish, Johnston said. And they’ll earn important input into continued growth and change at their universities.

Yet some students at Boston College feel like their demands have been met with silence at best and contempt at worst, said Sriya Bhattacharyya, a leader of the activist group Eradicate Boston College Racism.

Protesters want the school to increase diversity among faculty members, which they say doesn’t reflect the number of minority undergraduates. Activists also clashed with administrators in early November over a campus poster they designed, which was ultimately never displayed after pressure from a high-ranking dean. The university hasn’t responded to their list of demands.

Administrators did issue a letter saying they created a committee on race this year and are committed to “ongoing discussion, reflection, and action in the hopes of making BC the best university it can be.’’

Jack Dunn, a spokesperson for Boston College, said the administration met with the undergraduate student government to offer requests regarding issues of diversity and inclusion and will continue to work with the group in the months to come.

Despite the relative silence she feels from the university, Bhattacharyya is encouraged by students at other schools who have reached out for advice about starting their own groups to eliminate racism. The requests for help were so high, Eradicate BC Racism made a toolkit that includes advice about finding a community, using social media and creating specific demands.

“At Boston College we hope for a public response and plan for the demands,’’ she said. “And the second part, of course, is executing those demands. But right now we run into enough obstacles distributing our message.’’

Kevin Ferreira and Gloria McGillen of Eradicate BC Racism. —Olivia Spinale/Boston.com

Inspired by the efforts of students at other Boston schools, Alyse is compiling a database of student activists across the country. Organizers hope the collaboration might help them develop a list of recommendations for the state’s joint committee on higher education, including diversity training for new faculty hires.

If the state were to adopt such a mandate, students at private schools hope their own administrations might consider one, too.

Activist Stephanie Houten said her college, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, doesn’t necessarily have the budget to hire more diverse faculty members. In the meantime, MassART organizers have adjusted their expectations to ask for required faculty diversity training.

“I suspect if you have students from public and private universities coming together with a set of joint demands, and supporting each other, that is going to be something that galvanizes a ton of attention,’’ Johnston said.

Some colleges have received positive attention for their response to race-based incidents. At Harvard, most students feel administrators are taking the lack of diversity on campus seriously. The defacement of the law school portraits is being investigated as a hate crime, and the university is considering changing the law school seal, which is the crest of a former slave holding family.

Black tape defaces the portrait of Kenneth Mack, a professor at Harvard University, on Nov. 19. —Elizabeth Tuttle/NYT

Robert Rush, a Harvard sophomore who helped organize a joint demonstration with Tufts a few weeks ago said students plan to keep meeting and organizing — potentially for a collective action across all of Harvard’s colleges — to keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds.

Organizers also want to remind each other that they aren’t alone. Having a support network that extends across schools helps students feel encouraged to keep speaking out.

“We need to make sure that our action signifies that we want to see this work be continued,’’ he said. “And that we want to be taken seriously, that this is not just fanfare.’’

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