By Barbara Kay
College administrators hosted an in-person forum to allow students to air grievances about perceived racism and police hostility on campus – but said nothing as student after student voiced complaints.
“If you’re not going to listen, we’re going to yell,” said student moderator Jade Watts, of the Purchase Student Government Association (PSGA). “This is the first step, a baby step even.”
The forum was planned in response to last week’s Zoom webinar, which was marred by trolls and prevented students from voicing their complaints.
The administration employed a moderator from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Dr. Jennifer Lewis, to establish what she called “ground rules.” The YWCA is an organization dedicated to the “elimination of racism and the empowerment of women” according to its website.
Lewis began the forum by stating that this was exclusively a “listening session,” meaning the SUNY Purchase administration would not be speaking or answering questions. She also implemented a two to three-minute window for any volunteers to speak, and regularly cut students off if they went over that time limit. The only response that was asked to be given was snapping fingers if audience members agreed with the person speaking.
“Many colleges I have been to and attended have not had many conversations like this,” Lewis said. “These are really hard conversations to have, so I commend you for doing this, I commend you for being here, and I commend your administration for doing this.”
“These constant forums, where we share our emotional labor is counterintuitive and not productive because we’re not being provided with any solutions or answers,” said a senior student audience member. “That being said, I find [this forum] patronizing.”
Students maintained that the reinstatement of the Black Student Union (BSU) is a necessary addition to campus.
“A lot of people are interested in a BSU, [students can] literally just email the chairman of the PSGA and she will set that up,” said junior Ajonea Ridgeway. “We can go to the PSGA and request it. All we need are nine official members and an advisor, and it’ll become a club.”
“I don’t want the BSU to be a club, I’m asking for a building; I’m asking for a safe space for Black students to go to when they’re tired of the colonization,” said Navah Little, a junior anthropology major.
Lewis responded by promising that “action planning” would soon be underway. She did not specify what these “actions” would be.
Sophomore Daniel Karpf stood on the pink stairs in the Stood and made a statement that went over his two- to three-minute window concerning last week’s forum.
Referring to President Milly Peña’s Oct. 18 campus-wide email in which she noted student protesters had “hurled racist and sexist slurs at me and other colleagues,” Karpf added,
“You were very quick to send out that email about how you felt victimized, so I don’t know why you [didn’t] write that we were victimized too,” he said.
Earlier in the day on Oct. 26, Peña wrote another campus-wide email that read, “For those who were and those who were not witnesses, last week’s Zoom environment allowed unidentified individuals to make racial slurs and epithets that were targeted at Black students. While CTS worked to remove these trolls, they reappeared over and over, causing harm and trauma for students, and others, during an already difficult conversation.”
Members of the audience, including about two dozen students and a few faculty, asked the administration to look at the matters at hand from where students stood.
“I urge the [administration] to look at these protests from a different perspective,” said Ridgeway. Addressing the president, she added, “I know you’re new to this administration, and you’re seeing this as an attack on you, specifically, but I urge you took at this as the students you’re creating. You are creating Black students that can come together and fight for what they need and I think that’s an accomplishment. If you’re mad at what you’re getting, it’s what you’re creating.”
A professor in the audience agreed, and stated, “Perhaps one of the things worth underscoring is that the students would like to hear answers back, so I encourage the folks who brought this together to hold another event where they can respond and hold dialogue.”
PSGA President Nick Astor concluded the 90-minute session, which not only started late but went 13 minutes over.
“I think that in the attempt to make this just a listening session we risked making the same mistakes,” he said. “If there is a message we can all take away from all this it’s the students want change and they’re willing to risk anything to do it.”