Amidst the troubled relationship between students and the College’s current leadership surrounding issues of diversity and inclusivity, Professor of English, writer and social activist Kiese Laymon hosted an event in Rockefeller Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 17. The gathering was meant to serve as an open conversation between activist voices on campus and students about intersectional justice on campus and the Administration’s failure to make observable progress towards solving such problems.
The conversation began with short speeches from the speakers on the panel, which included Laymon, student Storm Vonhundley ’17, alumna Rachel Gilmer ’10 and Professor of Political Science and Co-Founder of the African American Policy Forum Luke Harris. Although he was unable to attend the event in person due to inclement weather, Adjunct Instructor in Africana Studies Darnell Moore uploaded a video to YouTube which was played to commence the event and set a general tone for the conversation.
In the video, Moore remarked, “There is no need for a university, or any institution, for that matter, to hold a talk, a dialogue, a conversation, teaching that is centered on Ferguson or the notion of “Black Lives Matter” unless it itself is up for the challenge of examining the extent to which it itself is Ferguson.”
He continued, “Why are you going to hold a conversation on Ferguson in an institution that is itself Ferguson? Institutions like Vassar have to do the work, which I’m assuming it’s doing right now, of looking at its own policies, its institutional practices, its structures.”
One of the main concerns the panelists, particularly Laymon, voiced was about the Administration’s recent movement to show commitment to change through such admission of past failures and the launch of the “Strengthening Vassar” website, which lists the College’s goals on the issues of diversity and inclusion and allows students to monitor progress towards them. Many feel as though the institution is attempting to craft a narrative of proactive change in which future Vassar students may not know the real efforts made by former students and faculty members.
“We have to recognize the tactic they’re using and respond to it,” Gilmer commented. “They’re not crediting you all in the work that they’re doing. They’re not saying, ‘This [progress] is because faculty and students have been asking for this for the past ten years.’ They’re just saying, ‘Well, we just decided to do it because we’re good people.’”
Laymon echoed, “[T]he institution is taking credit for what a lot of folks in this room have been working for for the past three years, what alums have been working for for the past 50 years, and there’s no running website that says, ‘We came to this because you all shamed the fuck out of us. We came to this conclusion after 50, 60, 70 years of people fighting and strategizing and organizing.’”
He went on to say, “[President Catherine Hill] is fighting the fight for access, and the truth is, she is fighting the fight for access. She is fighting against some very right-wing people of color and white folk who believe that our presence here weakens this college. What [Hill] has done is she’s let that make her believe she is morally right, and [she’s] not doing shit on this campus to stop institutional terror.”
The speakers also encouraged students to reject the College’s pressures to weigh the negative aspects of Vassar with some of the more positive elements, and applauded those who have done so. “You said to the world,” Kiese remarked, “‘I’m in this institution because I fought to get in this institution. There’s other people who fought to get in this institution who don’t get a pat on the back for giving me some shit I deserve.’”
The panelists sought to address not only the issues students and community members have had with the College and the Administration, but problems within Vassar’s activist community as well. Vonhundley commented, “Vassar’s activism often troubles me. From the classes I’ve taken, the retreats I participate in, I get a hard look at what social justice really looks like on Vassar’s campus, and it often looks just like this room. We are an introduction, a conversation. People get inspired, people get ideas, and then they don’t follow through, and then we have another conversation.”
She continued, “Vassar’s activism is a large performance where people learn their lines, such as ‘prison industrial complex,’ ‘intersectionality’ and ‘structural inequality.’ Their stage is in the classroom. People in my classes can perform in class discussions, regurgitate the reading and have the same great thought reiterated five times by five different people because nobody is listening to anyone.”
During the open conversation portion of the event that followed, the panel and the audience agreed on the importance of acknowledging institutional practices and structures as changeable, warning that failure to do so threatens future progress and invalidates past successes. “One of the things that I think institutions do is they feed all of us with these ideas that these superstructures cannot be punctured. ‘It’s structural.’ Why don’t we ever try to fight anything that’s structural?” said Laymon. “We’re here because structures have been punctured, and we’re here because we need to puncture more structures.”
He went on to say, “The structure never intended for my black ass to be here. If anything, my black ass being here is not a congratulations to Vassar. My black ass being here is a congratulations to my grandmomma, to the social justice workers who worked hard to get us here.”