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Within and without the system: student advocacy at Yale
“We out here, we’ve been here, we ain’t leaving, we are loved.” More than 1,000 students chanted in unison as they marched toward Cross Campus last November, holding banners and signs of solidarity to protest racial injustice on Yale’s campus.
Just months earlier, in the same space, 150 Yale students had gathered for a similar cause. The “Unite Yale: Rally for Student Power” last March brought together student organizers from various corners of the University advocating for several causes — a better racial climate, fossil fuel divestment, mental health reform and financial aid policy changes.
For many students, the Unite Yale rally is already a distant memory compared to last fall’s upheaval. But November’s events — which attracted significantly more attention than Unite Yale, sending shockwaves across campus and the nation at the time — may be fading from popular consciousness too. In the weeks following the March of Resilience, national news teams packed up their equipment and were soon gone without a trace. Thanksgiving followed, and when school resumed after break, campus appeared to have returned to a state of tranquility.
(Victor Wang, Contributing Photographer)
Change did come out of the November mass mobilization that student organizers branded “Next Yale”: just five days after students marched to University President Peter Salovey’s house to deliver demands for a more inclusive campus, Salovey sent an email promising a “Better Yale” and outlining policies the University would implement to make it a reality. But while Salovey’s response answered some student demands, more symbolic issues on which students also demanded change, such as the title of residential college master and the naming of Calhoun College, have yet to be addressed.
(Lisa Qian, Production & Design Staff)
Months after the bursts of student activism last semester, student organizers are now confronted with the question of how best to sustain the movement’s momentum. Interviews with Next Yale student organizers, leaders of other student activist and advocacy groups and administrators both current and past show that opinions diverge: To create lasting change, is it better to apply grass-roots pressure from the outside or to work within the established system? Or does the most effective advocacy do both?
PRESSURE FROM THE OUTSIDE
Though the group captured national attention last fall, this spring, Next Yale is no longer a daily presence in the lives of student organizers. The group met once at the beginning of the semester and has not formally assembled since.
Student organizers told the News that Next Yale was never meant to be institutionalized: It has no distinct leadership structure and is not registered as a student organization. Instead, it is a coalition of students who joined together and supported each other under the specific circumstances last fall.
“I would describe Next Yale not as an established organization but very much as a group of students who came together out of necessity,” said Yuni Chang ’18, a member of the Asian American Studies Task Force who was active in Next Yale. “It was a group of people born out of immediacy.”
The group’s structure — or lack thereof — is reflective of its approach to effecting change on campus. Next Yale’s organizers said the movement was successful because it exerted bottom-up pressure on the administration rather than working via slower, more conventional pathways like the Yale College Council or advisory committees.
Chang acknowledged that student activism is not completely independent of the Yale institution and its operating system, but said she and other Next Yale organizers believe the most effective strategies take place on a grass-roots level, within networks of communities that trust each other.
Several student organizers said they saw Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and the cultural center directors as allies of the movement, but they understood the limitations of the administrators’ roles. Haylee Kushi ’18, who was active with Next Yale and serves as treasurer for the Association of Native Americans at Yale, said working from the outside is more effective because administrators are wary of supporting activism publicly, as they may jeopardize their positions if they are too vocal.
Kushi added that while she thinks administrators like Holloway are sympathetic toward many of the demands that Next Yale outlined, Holloway does not have the power to make important institutional changes, such as the renaming of Calhoun College, on his own. Even Salovey, who many students view as the most powerful individual on campus, must answer to the Yale Corporation. It is therefore critical for students to show the Corporation that they are putting pressure on Holloway, Salovey and other administrators, Kushi said.
(Lisa Qian, Production & Design Staff)
Founded in the fall of 2012, Fossil Free Yale — a group of Yalies organizing for climate justice on campus and fighting for Yale to divest its endowment from the fossil free industry — has also employed more activist tactics in the years following its creation.
According to FFY Policy Director Hannah Nesser ’16, who joined the group several months after it was founded, the group initially worked within administrative channels. By the spring of 2013, FFY had developed a report about fossil fuel divestment for the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. Later that fall, FFY compiled a petition with around 1,000 student signatures and conducted a referendum through the YCC, in which 83 percent of respondents voted for divestment. The group was organizing on the grass-roots level at the time, Nesser said, but it was not opposing the administration.
But that approach changed in fall 2014, when Salovey sent a University-wide email explicitly stating that Yale would not divest from fossil fuels. According to FFY Communications Director Chelsea Watson ’17, that was when FFY’s tactics became more confrontational. The group had “done everything the administration asked” but still received a flat “no,” Watson said.
Since then, FFY has held rallies, orchestrated a sit-in in Woodbridge Hall and, most recently, protested during United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s speech at a University colloquium. That same day, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer David Swensen announced that two separate fund managers had divested a total of $10 million from the fossil fuel industry, although he cited financial, not ethical, reasons for the decision.
“It’s only when we risk the prestige of Yale and the ability of the administration to maintain this ivory tower that [administrators] feel compelled to take action,” Nesser said. “Student activism has the potential to change how the University functions.”
Lex Barlowe ’17, a Next Yale student organizer who was also active in Fossil Free Yale, said both members of Next Yale and FFY understand that because of the way Yale’s decision-making structure works, it is necessary to put pressure on the system from the outside. Last November was about displaying student power and challenging the Yale institution, Barlowe added.
Rather than working with the administration, both Next Yale and FFY student organizers said they have focused on coalition-building amongst themselves.
Watson emphasized that building friendships, not just working relationships, in FFY is critical to maintaining the group’s spirit. Activism is exhausting and requires hard work, Watson said, and students infrequently receive the results they seek.
“It’s very easy to get burned out, so one of the important elements of sustaining activism is having moments when we rest, reflect and bond with each other,” Watson said.
Similarly, by bringing together students from all four cultural centers and advocates for causes from different corners of the University, Next Yale student organizer Nat Aramayo ’17 said, Next Yale ultimately built a sense of trust among organizers. Barlowe also emphasized that community building and connecting people both within and across communities are important for sustaining the momentum from last fall.
Sebi Medina-Tayac ’16, a Next Yale student organizer and peer liaison for the Native American Cultural Center who is also a staff reporter for the News, said there has been and always will be sustained student advocacy for change on Yale’s campus. Next Yale’s lack of action this semester should not be seen as a failure, he said; rather, the spirit and tools of activism will be passed between students, from one generation to the next, via the relationships they build.
For example, the Association of Native Americans at Yale, the Asian American Studies Task Force, the Black Student Association at Yale and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán all collaborated to host the first-ever intercultural colloquium at the Asian American Cultural Center last Friday, during which students presented their academic work in ethnic studies. Such a dialogue had previously been unheard of, Kushi said.
Chang also said Next Yale has provided a solid foundation for future collaboration and activism.
“If you build relationships with other student organizers, and those relationships are based on a deep love for a more just world, then those relationships will sustain you as well as a community of people who care and want to do something to change the status quo,” Chang said.
ADVOCACY FROM WITHIN
But not all student activist and advocacy groups on campus eschew established structures as the primary vehicles for change. Many see raising awareness through semester-long and sometimes yearlong educational programming as the first step to improving the campus climate. They recommend working alongside administrators — or at least not in opposition to them — as the best strategy for making a long-lasting impact.
Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, founded by Helen Price ’18 and Anthony D’Ambrosio ’18 at the beginning of this school year, aims to promote a healthier sexual environment on campus. Several women of color who were active members of Next Yale last semester sit on USAY’s board.
“While the Next Yale focused on specific racial issues, it also paved the way for broader conversations about improving Yale’s safety and inclusivity,” Price said, adding that sexual violence affects women of color at a disproportionate rate. “We’ve been lucky to benefit from the work of Next Yale.”
Unlike Next Yale, however, USAY is structured: Price and D’Ambrosio co-direct a board of 10 people, hold regular meetings and work toward a long-term vision for the organization. Several USAY members are also student representatives on the Undergraduate Title IX Advisory Committee. The group has partnered with Communication and Consent Educators and other organizations to plan events that have attracted the support of University administrators such as University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd.
USAY is still in its first year of existence, but D’Ambrosio, who also serves as Dwight Hall’s co-coordinator, said USAY has plans to join Dwight Hall in the future and tap into the resources of Yale’s larger, more institutionalized community of service.
“Our goal for the next 20 years is to bring the conversation to everyone at Yale. We want to create a space where people can discuss what’s going on [with Yale’s sexual culture],” D’Ambrosio said.
Both D’Ambrosio and Price said they are confident USAY’s values will live on, regardless of particular events or even the specific climate at the moment.
(Courtesy of Alex Zhang)
Mind Matters is another student-led advocacy group that works within established channels to engage members of the Yale community. Mind Matters Co-President Eli Feldman ’16 said the organization is not an activist group, because policy change has not been a central part of its mission. Instead, through speaker events, forums and other programming, Mind Matters hopes to educate students about mental health issues on campus and serve as a liaison between individual students and the mental health community. Feldman himself sits on Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling Advisory Committee for Yale College and has worked closely with administrators to discuss policy changes regarding mental health on campus.
Throughout his time at Yale, Feldman said he has seen many students react “like fireworks” to emotional events but then “simmer down very quickly.” Despite what happened last fall, Feldman said campus has already decreased its engagement with topics of race this semester. The issue with activism at Yale, he added, is that too often it is fueled by emotion but not substantiated with goals, foresight and effective planning.
“Protesting and getting [the administration’s] attention to an issue is valid,” Feldman told the News. “But eventually people stop being angry because they can only do that for so long. Collaborating and working with the administration is a smarter approach. It’s more likely to get what you want.”
According to Holloway, student organizers face the challenge of navigating the various spheres of the University that operate on different time frames: undergraduates work within a four-year window, while administrators usually think in blocks of five to 10 years. Additionally, the Yale Corporation makes decisions by taking 40- to 60-year blocks into consideration, and tenured faculty members also tend to think in much longer time frames.
To have long-lasting change, Holloway emphasized, student organizers should focus on working with administrators.
“Let’s say I am really sympathetic to everything the activists were calling for in the fall. If they’re not able to secure a structural change with my help within the next three years or so, there will be a different dean, and that person will certainly have different values. Things will be of different importance to him or her,” he said. “If there’s no structural change by which that dean has to abide, the change may as well not have happened.”
FINDING A MIDDLE GROUND?
When the YCC was established in 1972, student representatives wanted to ensure that undergraduates had “a legitimate voice in Yale’s governance,” according to the body’s website. But recent campus activism has tested whether the council can truly bridge the gap between students rallying outside and administrators working inside.
One of the YCC’s usual approaches is to solicit student input and write reports that it then presents to the administration. The council did this with its 2015 report on financial aid policy, which detailed dissatisfaction with the student income contribution and other aspects in need of reform.
The report, along with calls for change from student activist groups like Next Yale and Students Unite Now, led to a YCC town hall last December at which Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan announced that the student summer income contribution will drop starting next school year.
(Lisa Qian, Production & Design Staff)
YCC President Joe English ’17, who has made financial aid reform a top priority of his tenure, said this change was a product of a combination of student efforts. Next Yale and Students Unite Now, the latter of which focuses primarily on eliminating the student effort, played important roles in putting pressure on the administration and bringing financial aid issues to the forefront, English explained. The YCC’s responsibility is then to work on proposals for concrete policy changes, he said, although the council also contributed to advocacy efforts and took actions to reform the existing system.
“In my view and in the view of a number of administrators and other students, activism is a catalyst. It gets the ball rolling,” English told the News. “But what keeps the ball rolling are action items, policy conversations and concrete, tangible solutions. That’s what sustains [the momentum].”
English added that most administrators, students and student groups are on the same side and want to make Yale a more inclusive environment. In order to “move the needle,” English said he believes that it is in everyone’s best interest to collaborate. The YCC offers both institutional memory and access to administrators, English said, and the YCC wants to help translate activism into advocacy and concrete steps.
Nevertheless, Next Yale student organizers did not elect to work with the YCC in the fall. A small group of Next Yale student leaders did meet with Holloway and University President Peter Salovey, but Next Yale operated independently of the YCC and other established mechanisms.
“From what we’ve seen of the YCC, ultimately they are under the thumb of the administration in a way that independent student organizers are not. If we were to collaborate with the YCC, they would encourage us to take a more traditional route of negotiating with the administration, trying various bureaucratic channels to reach and reason with them,” Chang said. “Historically, reasoning never worked in this relationship. If that had worked, they would have given us what we wanted a long time ago.”
Aramayo emphasized that working within the system often takes too long and is unproductive. With a one-year deadline, Aramayo said, it is difficult for elected YCC student representatives to enact any substantial reforms.
Additionally, Aramayo expressed doubts about the YCC’s efficacy.
“[There’s] the sense the YCC doesn’t actually have any power or any sort of say in what the administration does,” Aramayo said.
Still, Holloway urged students to consider the YCC as an accessible avenue for action.
“I’m doing all that I can to affirm the YCC as the pathway to talk to me,” Holloway told the News, noting that he meets with the YCC president and vice president every three weeks or so, which is more than his predecessors did. “I really hope that people will get invested in the YCC and that future officers of the YCC will continue to be collaborative in their approach to the administration.”
And despite the student organizers’ decision not to work through YCC channels last semester, some acknowledged that they are seeing positive changes within the YCC. This year, Kushi said, three out of the five candidates for YCC president approached ANAAY and attended a meeting to better understand the group’s position. That has never happened before and would not have happened without last semester’s momentum, Kushi said.
A CENTER OF COLLABORATION
The new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration is an example of how external pressure and internal cooperation, rather than being mutually exclusive, can go hand in hand to achieve the same goal.
Many Next Yale student organizers interviewed agreed that the RITM center, which was announced in Salovey’s Nov. 17 email, is one of Next Yale’s greatest victories. The center, which will have an annual budget of $600,000 and support summer fellowships, will facilitate scholarship on ethnic studies; the intersection of race, gender and sexuality; and Native and diasporic communities — programming that students have demanded for decades.
“I do think we won with the creation of the new center in collaboration with faculty of color who have worked in these cross-disciplinary areas,” Chang said. “The center is a very substantive result of the movement last semester.”
But University administrators have been proposing and planning such a center for years. The movement may have elevated the center on the administration’s list of priorities, but the decision to establish an academic center on race and ethnicity was not made overnight.
“A core group of dedicated students, faculty and staff are working on the logistics of how you make change happen. A moment of protest and activism might be the catalyst for conversation, but where the actual change happens is during the quiet periods,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said. “You can’t change campus climate overnight. It takes a gradual process of education, awareness, resource allocation and management.”
Although student organizers and administrators employ different methods, their mutual work toward similar objectives is a recurring theme in Yale’s history.
According to Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, who served as special assistant to former University President Kingman Brewster between 1963 and 1972 and secretary of the Yale Corporation from 1973 to 1982, when Yale began to increase the number of minority students at the University during the 1960s and 1970s, the administration also wanted to work with these students to “establish them here at Yale.”
Senior administrators, including Chauncey himself, were assigned to work with Black students on a number of issues. Then-Provost Charles Taylor partnered with a group of five Black students and faculty members to create the African American Studies department in 1969. That was the same year the University established the Black Cultural Center, the predecessor of today’s Afro-American Cultural Center. Chauncey said he also encouraged Black students to take on a more active role in bringing more minority students to Yale, and these students were “a tremendous help” in recruiting and admissions.
(Courtesy of Sam Chauncey)
During all of this, Chauncey said, the Black student leadership never let the administration forget its goals and did exert pressure, though the ultimate objective from both sides was to work together.
“I think we had wonderful working arrangement with the Black students which resulted in a wonderful major, a first-rate cultural center and the students being involved in taking a major role in the recruitment of new students,” Chauncey said.
David Wilk ’72, an alumnus who witnessed the period of change Chauncey described, said Brewster’s administration was “brilliant at co-opting the middle,” and collaboration led to real changes in Yale’s climate.
Aramayo said many Next Yale student organizers today are “always willing to work with the administration” but added that students often face the question of access. Students had to demand administrators’ time in order to speak with them, Aramayo said.
Barlowe also emphasized that by demonstrating student power first and then approaching the administration, student organizers can put forth a more compelling agenda.
“If you build a lot of power behind [your cause] through organizing, and then you go to the negotiating table with the administration, then you’re going to be more persuasive and powerful,” she said.
The process of change is “a marathon, not a sprint,” in the words of Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, a Next Yale student organizer and head peer liaison for the Native American Cultural Center.
And student organizers acknowledged that it is impossible for them to work completely apart from the Yale institution. Their very identity as Yale students make them part of the system, some students said.
“Participation in the cultural centers, and their many advocacy-based organizations like MEChA, ANAAY and BSAY, is itself working with the administration to make changes, as the cultural centers are a function of the dean’s office,” Medina-Tayac said. “Obviously, we have a more direct line of communication with our [cultural center] deans, who this year especially have been firm advocates for student needs … [The rest of the administration] needs more pressure from students and the media to act in a meaningful way.”
Afro-American Cultural Center Director Risë Nelson said she sees herself as an active advocate for students both at the Af-Am House and across campus who seek positive change through “institutionalized policies and procedures.”
To sustain activism, Nelson said it is important to have discussions at every level of the institution and encourage collaboration between students, faculty members, administrators and alumni.
“We all must actively work toward that goal [of a better campus climate that supports all students] because we are all members of this community,” Nelson said. “I think the University has had to revisit some tough existential questions — what is the Yale experience? What does Yale stand for? — especially as we seek to be leaders in creating equity in our world class education, teaching and research.”
Barlowe said putting pressure on the system is not necessarily a rejection of the system. The act of demanding change at Yale, Barlowe added, is a show of faith in the institution’s ability to reform and become more attentive to the needs of traditionally marginalized communities.
And so, Medina-Tayac added, students of color on this campus will continue to work both within and outside of University-sanctioned venues to achieve their goals.
In sustaining the momentum of activism and making productive changes on this campus, perhaps neither just external pressure nor internal deliberation is enough. Administrators and student organizers alike recognize that they need a combination of approaches.
“Historically, change only happens when both student activism and taking time to work inside the system exist, and the same applies to Yale,” said Alex Zhang ’18, co-chair of the Asian American Studies Task Force. “You can be defiant while working with administrators.”