By Samuel R. Galloway
Editor’s Note: Samuel R. Galloway, assistant professor of political science, submitted the following Op-Ed to The Phoenix.
The past two weeks have seen our campus roiled by protests initiated by Black students and their allies acting as Black Students Matter. Sparked this semester by the situation confronting Nahiem Paris, racial tensions on campus have been long-simmering. The protests of Oct. 14 and 15 staged by Black Students Matter, while charged, nevertheless prompted the administration to host a “Public Forum” on Oct.19 to address the issues centered by Black Students Matter. However, as is now universally acknowledged, the Zoom webinar, rather than redress concerns among students, only further inflamed them. A second sit-in, staged on the fly in the midst of the webinar, brought students face-to-face with President Peña, who, much to her credit, met with the assembled students and listened to some of their concerns. On Friday, Oct. 22, Black Students Matter again rallied on the Quad, calling for a Black Student Union, greater accountability on campus, and the continuation of their campaign.
But let us step back a moment and track the events that brought us to this moment. By my estimation, the Black Students Matter movement has been very successful thus far in raising the issue of racial justice and equality on our campus. I mean this in two senses. In the particular, they have helped effect an abeyance of Nahiem's suspension so that a proper review process can occur, which is the right thing for the administration to do. And, in the general, they have secured an acknowledgment from administration that there is a need to review and revise the college’s code of conduct, a process which, ideally, will include ample opportunity for student participation. Similarly, I feel the sit-in on the 19th was successful in, at the least, sending the message that the Zoom webinar was insufficient to the moment and that students must be heard on these issues.
All of which brings us to this week and the two in-person town halls that President Peña is hosting with students (including on Wednesday, from 12:30 – 2 p.m. in the Stood).
In the study of protest, we look for a moment in the process called "certification," which is when the party you are protesting and demanding attention from faces you and says, "ok: what do you want?" That question carries with it a number of factors:
1) it "certifies" the protesters as players who must be engaged;
2) it seeks to open space wherein a resolution of the conflict can occur;
3) it likely carries "terms" or expectations for how the process of resolution will occur (these can themselves be sources of disagreement, but lower-grade since the point is to open dialogue; any such disagreement is more like “negotiations" and less like “protests”); and,
4) an at least tacit acknowledgment that some change needs occur.
Upon certification, there ideally occurs a shift in tactics, from demanding the right to be heard (protest), to strategizing the best way to get what you want to say enacted (transformative change). This shift in tactics also tracks a shift in discourse, from exclusively listing grievances, to also presenting proposed solutions that you can enact with the very folks you were just protesting. This transition is fraught and is no mean feat to accomplish; it takes good will on both sides to risk vulnerability and do the work of building bridges of trust.
I see President Peña's town halls as certification. She is turning to the students leading the Black Students Matter campaign and opening space to ask, “What do you want?” However, I will go further: in my estimation, President Peña is not only asking, "What do you want?,” she's also asking, "And how can I help?" I think, in short, that these events offer an unprecedented opportunity for students to put their best selves forward and engage with President Peña in a way that not only locks in their place at the table, but makes the table a transformative space for change.
From what I saw on Monday evening at the first town hall, this process is well-underway. Informed by the need to do things differently than the Zoom webinar, President Peña has worked with Black representatives from the PSGA to hash out the format for the town halls, so there is student participation on the ground floor of these events. Two Black students with PSGA moderated the event and helped lead a successful listening session that was mindful of the emotional, even traumatic nature of these issues. An outside mediator helped keep us all on track.
What I heard from the vast majority of those mostly Black students who spoke was heartening; students are rich with ideas as to how to redress the circumstances they document, and, rather than nihilistic rejections of Purchase as beyond repair, they often center their solutions around increased student participation and engagement in the governance of the college to help it be, in the words of one young Black woman who spoke, “not just good, [but] great.” Even the most skeptical among them still could not suppress their attachment to the college, and their desire for it to better live up to its own ambitions to be its best for us all. While sometimes the rhetoric was, admittedly, incendiary, there was never a call to burn it all down; just the opposite, in fact.
Perhaps this assessment is naive on my part; the crisis of racial justice in our country did not pass over our campus, leaving us unscathed. These issues run deep and they will not be resolved simply through a few town hall listening sessions. No one indulges that conceit. But, I anticipate that these events will similarly elicit the best among us all because they appear to not only me to be unique opportunities to begin the process of transformative change with a new president - a Latina scholar of social movements and spiritual practice, no less, a child of Hell's Kitchen, someone who knows struggle, cares about good ideas, civic engagement, and who respects the difficult labor of treating "hot" issues with a “cool” head.
The town halls are a testament to the power of students who act in concerted solidarity to open up meaningful institutional spaces where they can not only be heard, but can meaningfully participate in enacting the change they seek. Yet, these spaces did not simply open as if from a void. At every step, students benefited from having a president dexterous enough to listen and respond to the messages that were being sent, and similarly committed to principles of social justice. My sense is that what students bring into these town halls will help shape the next steps in the process as one that, at its best, will be collaborative and paradigm-defining. To say the least, I caution against any prejudicial attitude that dismisses these events as "just talk" from someone who "doesn't listen."
Speaking as both faculty and alum, I look forward to where these town halls take us next, confident in our ability as a community to bring out what is best in us all in the process.
Samuel R. Galloway, PhD
Assistant Professor, Political Science