“We have far too many survivors in our community of sexual and racial violence, and we have had far too many survivors for far too long,” said Professor of Women’s Studies and member of the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) team Barbara Olsen. She delivered these opening remarks at the protest for sexual and racial justice, as well as increased provisions for mental health services on campus, on Dec. 5 outside of Main Building.
With more than 400 students, faculty, administrators and staff present, protesters carrying signs and yelling chants circled Main Building and occupied administrative offices to assert their discontent with administrative actions and general campus climate. Despite the active participation of a significant number of Vassar community members, given the demographics of the rally, many observing and participating questioned the protesters’ equal commitment to each of the three core issues of the event.
The return from Thanksgiving Break marked the convergence of three significant issues—mental health care through the Change.org petition for increasing the staff at Metcalf, sexual violence and assault through the release of a testimonial on Boilerplate, and racial profiling in the form of the Margolis Healy report and co-founder Steven Healy’s forum with campus—the march sought to unify the community by both discussing the intersectionality of these problems and arguing that they exemplify perceived administrative failings.
Student organizer of the event Anveshi Guha ’15 said, “Vassar College has a problem of victimizing its students, and then not helping them heal from the trauma it inflicted. Anti-blackness and negligence of sexual violence is evident at every level of this institution, from administrators to faculty to staff to students, and when black and brown bodies on this campus are racially-profiled, dehumanized, made to feel unwelcome and inferior, the institution turns around and expects them to report and educate the racists. There is no allowance for healing.”
They continued, “But the most absurd part is, they don’t actually listen to what we tell them. This event brings together people who have had victimizing, dehumanizing experiences at Vassar and people who are outraged about such experiences occurring.”
After these opening remarks, Olsen and Guha opened the microphone to students to discuss their experiences. Several students gave personal testimonials related to the College’s inaction in responding to instances of sexual violence and racism. The crowd then circled Main Building as they yelled such call-and-response chants as “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.” and “Vassar College ruins lives. We will not be victimized.” The walk culminated in an occupation of first the College Center and then administrative offices on the second floor of Main.
The majority of students’ signs called for justice for survivors of sexual assault and violence from the Administration. Another student organizer Sara Cooley ’15 said, “It’s time that Vassar started giving a shit about survivors on this campus. It’s time Vassar College did more than just the bare minimum to stay off the Department of Justice’s list of shame. It’s time Vassar College proves that it cares about survivors not just as statistics, but as actual individuals. And it’s way past time Vassar College took real steps to eliminate rape and sexual violence on this campus.”
Guha, as quoted above, discussed the pressure that has been placed on students to define and report instances of profiling to the College as well as serve as educators of Administrators on methods of improving racial policies. In regards to mental health, two individuals from the Vassar College Mental Health Initiative discussed the shortcomings of the administration and noted the intersectionality of mental health with racism and sexual violence. They said, “Vassar must allocate more funds to Metcalf, not only to hire more counselors but also to provide comprehensive training pertaining to issues of sexual assault, eating disorders, race, gender, class and sexuality.”
They continued, “Sending students off-campus is an excuse. It is just another way for the Administration to duck blame and ignore this problem. They are actively denying basic support services to the student body and perpetuating the psychological suffering of those who have already suffered terrible acts of discrimination and dehumanization both on and off this campus. Right now the Administration of Vassar College does not care about students’ mental health.”
While the rally sought to unite three currently climaxing issues at Vassar, the effectiveness of this endeavor was received with mixed reviews. Madison Wetzel ’15 said, “I think that for a lot of people it would be hard to separate [these topics]…I think it would be weird to separate those issues since they all exist in single people and are of equal importance to single people.”
Associate Dean of Student Life and Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa commented, “I think one of the students might have said something about ‘solidarity is important’ and I think there’s something that brings [together] our community, even if it means students, faculty and some administrators. I think that there’s power in that.”
Inoa also noted the unification of these three issues can be naturally tied back to the methods through which the problems should be solved by the College. He said, “I think they are structural, systemic issues that as we think about addressing one of them it may help with others. You have got to think about resources, so all three of them have to do with resources maybe it’s budgetary resources, organizational or structural changes that have to occur to address one or all three of those things.”
However, others felt that despite the potential benefits of an equal platform for all three issues, discussions of sexual violence became the focus of the rally, as the majority of signs and many of the chants dealt with the topic. Priya Nair ’15 observed, “I think it was a protest for one cause that leaped on to the momentum of other movements.”
Meanwhile, Yanee Ferrari ’15 noted, “I think the intention was [for all three to be central] but it seemed like a lot of people had the issue of sexual assault more on the forefront. I feel like the issue of racism and racial profiling did take the backburner or was trickled a little bit in there.”
Some speculated that the cause of this focus on sexual violence could be partially attributed to the fact that the majority of protesters in attendance were white. Ferrari explained, “I think it’s partially [just] the shape that it took and I feel like it’s what’s on the campus’ mind, more at the forefront, especially when you look at the demographics. It’s a lot of mostly white students that I don’t see at the type of events or social justice events that are about other issues of identity, such as race.”
Inoa recalled, “Historically, as these protests have happened, at least when we are talking about racial profiling, white students don’t show up and it’s ‘Where is the rest of the community to support us in this endeavor?’”
He continued, “It’s hard to tell what the white students were showing up for, and hopefully they were showing up for all three of those things. There is a need to interrogate what it means to be here for all three of those things.”
Organizer Guha shared an alternative perspective on the issue. They wrote in a subsequent emailed statement, “I don’t think the white majority was an inherent detriment to the rally because our stated goal was solidarity; however, it is interesting to me that white students show up to this rally (the easiest form of demonstrating support) that includes issues they can see affecting them, but they are significantly less present at race-centered events and more serious campus discussions. Be consistent in your ‘allyship’!”
While the campus climate has focused largely on criticizing the Administrative responses to these issues, the inclusion of national protesting slogans such as “black lives matter” at the rally and other discussions of racial profiling on campus has also prompted participants to consider Vassar’s place within a larger narrative. Inoa said, “Given our national context—I have been thinking about Mike Brown or Eric Garner—it’s just difficult for me, even as messed up as we are right now or as much work as we have to do, given what else is going on else in the world. We are still in such a privileged place.”
He went on to explain, “That’s not to minimize the hurt of those experiences. Any time that a student is hurting, any time an administrator or faculty member is hurting, I want to listen and try to figure out what it means to be better. What does it mean to be in such a privileged space and to still not want but need so much more[?]”
Although some students talked about protesting directly outside of President Hill’s house and protesters’ chanting temporarily halted administrative work on the second floor of Main, the rally concluded with an announcement encouraging future actions as the only hope of inspiring institutional change. “It feels like there’s enough perceived inertia, resistance to change, to possess the will to change right now. That is what is different now than previous years,” Inoa noted. “I want to look back and say that 2014-15 was the year that there was a commitment to significant structural, curricular and systemic change for a better, more inclusive, safe and empathic Vassar.”
It is this hope for improved quality of life for students in years to come, which inspired several seniors to attend. Guha declared, “We will keep speaking truth to power, until they listen, until they devise concrete action plans to make structural change.” Meanwhile, Yami Vizcaino ’15 said, “The fact that we are here is a little more for years to come than it is for us…For me, this is something that I am doing out of love for the good parts of Vassar.”