Sarah Lawrence College Students Occupy Westlands Administration Building Demanding Racial Justice

Students occupy Westlands in March 2019

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.


Disclaimer: The Re/Visionist fully supports student’s rights to protest. This blog post includes opinions about the protest that belong to the writer of this blog specifically.


In the early hours of Monday, March 11th, 2019, undergraduate students collected at the Westlands Administration Building at Sarah Lawrence College to begin what has now been a 57 hour long occupation of the building (at the time this blog was written). The Diaspora Coalition, an organization created by students of color to speak to and address the injustices they face at the hands of the Sarah Lawrence Administration, organized the occupation.

Loudly chanting the words “Sarah Lawrence, what a shame? 30 years and still the same! Sarah Lawrence, what a shame? 50 years and still the same!” protestors reference the treatment of students of color over the college’s history. The Diaspora Coalition organized, demanding that the institutional and racial issues faced by students of color, which have been generationally ignored, be addressed in a swift and collaborative manner. One organizer explained that some of the current demands were copied from former protest demands, indicating that the protests of 1969 and 1989, among other protests, have not led to the substantial outcomes students have hoped for.

It is the belief of this writer that students of Women’s History, Gender Studies, Queer Studies, and Africana Studies are, by the nature of what we give voice to, inherently activists. Therefore, the Women’s History Blog took time to interview some of the organizers to find out their thoughts on the occupation and related protests around campus, as well as their thoughts on how graduate students fit into the protest. The organizers have requested that we keep their identities out of the blog post and other social media posts for their anonymity. Therefore, the three students we interviewed will be referred to as Organizer One, Organizer Two, and Organizer Three.

“None of us are at a point where we are trying to convince people of the validity of our humanity.” Fiercely and passionately stated, Organizer Two made clear that their intentions were focused on supporting the needs and demands of students of color, many of which are related to intersections of institutional and structural policies that are any combination of racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ageist, and ableist, among others. Demands that vary from more affordable housing and meal plan options, to free access to necessities like laundry detergent and affordable summer storage, to more hiring of faculty and staff of color, their demands were diverse and extensive.

The list of demands is comprehensive, covering a wide variety of issues that students of color experience. Recognizing that despite their best efforts to include the voices of all students of color at Sarah Lawrence, Organizer Three referred to the Talk Back event as an opportunity for students to share feedback on the demands. Understanding that “it was impossible for us to talk to everybody,” Organizer Two made clear that the demands were not meant to be the only demands expressed by students, but a place to open the conversation. Organizer Three added, “The things that we are asking for are things that we believe will benefit the larger Sarah Lawrence Community,” and if people in the community did not feel like their voices were being heard, that it is the job of the organizers to listen to that feedback and address those needs. The Talk Back event is scheduled to be held in Resigner in the PAC on Wednesday evening starting at 5:30 PM.

When talking about how organizers intended to reach the students, faculty, and staff who had turned the other cheek, Organizer One said that they hoped to bring in people who agreed and disagreed with them, faculty and staff, undergraduate and graduate, to talk about the needs of this community. It is hoped that the Talk Back, modeled after the 1989 Talk Back, can be a space for people to come forward with questions and contributions. The format is set up to allow for a rotation of questions and comments from students, faculty, and staff. When asked about the representation of graduate students, the organizers were especially hopeful that graduate students would be able to attend because, as Organizer Two put it, “We have it bad, but [graduate students] have it on another level of bad.”

Concerning their efforts to include the needs of graduate students in the list of demands, organizers stated support for people of color at Sarah Lawrence, “including international students, graduate students, faculty, and staff” in the opening of their demands. As they looked to connect with graduate students, the organizers, many of whom are friends with graduate students, found that their access to graduate students of color was sparse. When they did know graduate students of color, some were concerned that sharing organizing information with too many graduate students, many of whom work at Sarah Lawrence and whether they were students of color or not, might lead to administrators finding out. The possibility that students would be met with backlash, possible harm, or threats of arrest when preparing to enter Westlands was a real concern. As a white, middle class, cis woman, I understand that these are experiences that I am rarely exposed to, and I personally understand and respect their decisions to keep themselves safe in their organizing efforts.

As a graduate student who is involved with the Graduate Student Senate, an organization which is meant to highlight and advocate for the voices of graduate students, I would like to publicly state that some of the major issues facing graduate students are financial. Specifically, two major issues we face include a lack of affordable, on campus housing and a lack of funding for thesis research and fieldwork travel. New York City and surrounding areas are very expensive to live in, and on campus graduate housing is not available to us, making Sarah Lawrence a massive financial burden for many. As it relates to research, fieldwork travel, and other expenses related to intellectual and professional development, our grant funding sources are sparse, causing many graduate students further financial strains. Additionally, due to the high quantity of non-traditional students within graduate programs, I believe that it is imperative to include their needs in the list of demands, such as considerations for educational cost, family housing, and affordable daycare. It is important to note that some of these issues are class specific and affect many students, but are especially important to address when intersections of race are included in one’s identity as a graduate student.

Later, organizers were asked about their efforts to connect with administrators before occupation, one organizer said that through various committees, they had worked to have their voices heard. Another organizer affirmed this, saying that “sometimes the format of those spaces doesn’t really allow for us to say what we need to say.” Again, understanding that my experiences are related to my own privileges, I personally support their actions within a system that is more apt to support someone who looks like me, and I understand that more radical forms of protest are often necessary in securing meaningful change.

After the interview took place, I chose to spend a few hours with the protestors in Westlands in solidarity. Reflecting on my experience while there, my own job on campus as a graduate assistant, and on feedback I have heard from other graduate students, I firmly stand with and support the Diaspora Coalition in their efforts to affect structural and institutional change at Sarah Lawrence. I believe that, to those with frustrations about the protest, it is important to note that no protest is perfect. Even the Women’s March in 2017, though attended by thousands of women across the country and world, was not fully inclusive of women and nonbinary people of color, both at the planning table and in working to support those people in in attending the gathering. Similarly, this protest has some places for improvement. It is my belief that the Diaspora Coalition efforts to reach graduate students since the protest began have been genuine and helpful in reaching the goal of greater inclusion.

Wrapping up the interview, the sentiment was that many of those protesting are exhausted both physically and emotionally. The students are asking for your support. Anyone can support in a variety of ways, including visiting their Facebook page, or by looking for them on instagram or twitter under @slc50sitin. You can also view their demands here. Another way that people can participate is by calling using the scripts provided in on the Facebook page, linked above. Please consider supporting the students however you see fit.

A Graduate Student’s Response to the Occupy Westlands Sit-In

Sarah Lawrence students occupy Westlands in 1989

 

By Katherine Swartwood

Katie is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College.


Disclaimer: While this post provides some critiques of the Occupy Westlands protest, it in no means serves as statement of opposition. The author supports Sarah Lawrence College’s students of color and their mission to increase diversity and inclusion on campus.


The protest occurring in Westlands is indeed a noble endeavor to end discrimination on Sarah Lawrence’s campus, increase opportunities for minority students, provide a diverse faculty, and more. However, it is important to highlight those students who the Diaspora Coalition overlooked – graduate students. When Re/Visionist editors interviewed protestors and organizers, they expressed their desire to include graduate students at Sarah Lawrence, but found it difficult to get in contact with us. One organizer explained, “When it came to graduate students, we felt like we hit a wall” when attempting to reach out to graduate students of color. It was proposed by some Coalition organizers that the organizers may have feared graduate students working in administrative offices would have spoiled the protest by telling their bosses. I disagree with both reasonings for this exclusion.

Firstly, graduate students share several spaces with undergraduate students: The Pub, Bates, the Library, classes, campus committees, some graduate students even work directly with undergraduates in their campus positions. Therefore, there was opportunity to include graduate students of color, LGBTQIA+ graduate students, low income graduate students, and first generation graduate students. Secondly, I disagree with the assessment that graduate students working in administrative offices would reveal the plans, ruining the element of surprise and causing physical harm to protestors. While a fear of violence is not irrational, it may be unfair to assume graduate students would be the instigator of such violence by reporting the Coalition’s plans and allowing administrators to contact police and/or security. As graduate students we would never wish harm upon any member of the Sarah Lawrence community. As activists, we would never perpetuate the systemic and institutional racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc. of the ivory tower of academia. Could graduate students of color not be passionate enough about inequality on campus to join the occupation and not side with administration. Are we not social activists as well? Do we not reject institutional racism and discrimination? Would we not also risk our campus jobs along with the undergraduates in order to support such an important cause?

Precisely, it’s these graduate students working on campus and those serving in leadership roles with GSS or on campus committees who could have constituted an important resource to the Coalition. Without sharing confidential information, we could have provided a unique look into Administration operations, the conversations occurring in committees and Board of Trustee meetings, especially those regarding diversity, education, faculty, and health that undergraduates may not have been privy to through their previous efforts to engage with these governing bodies. Furthermore, graduate students could have provided insight into both the similar and special issues they face as minority students within the Masters’ programs.  

The Coalition has created a necessary set of demands, but almost none included the issues graduate students experience. Some can be interpreted to include graduate students of color, but clearly defining how these demands could include graduate students is important. We too have international students, students of color, low income students, first generation students, and LGBTQIA+ students who lack resources and programs that lack diversity. For instance, Sarah Lawrence offers no graduate on campus housing options (besides limited positions as Graduate Housing Directors.) Students can only work a maximum of 20 hours a week with pay as little as $12 an hour. Some jobs do not even provide the fully allotted 20 hours of work. How, then, does Sarah Lawrence assume low income, international students, students of color, etc. are meant to pay tuition, eat, and afford rent in one of the most expensive counties in the country? With some departments offering little funding, some students are forced to rely on the “Graduate Student Scholarship,” (which provides for some students $6000 or less before you petition, but not nearly enough to make tuition affordable), Graduate Loans, and the PLUS Loan, adding to their already massive undergraduate student loan debt, to simply survive. Other students, like Human Genetics, are forced to pay out of pocket for required clinical rotations, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars in the hope that the small Graduate Student Senate reimbursement grant reserve for thesis research, internship travel, conferences, etc., (funded by graduate student activity fees) can cover the entire cost (it can’t). These issues like those listed in the Coalition’s demands, result from intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class status, etc.

The Diaspora Coalition has now invited graduate students to speak at their Talk Back event on Wednesday 3/13, at 5:30 PM in the Miller Lecture Hall, which I encourage any and all graduate students to participate in. However, it does not negate the fact that they, along with administration, donors, and Trustees, have neglected to consider how these unequal practices have affected minority graduate students. Even when graduate students speak up in meetings, we are overlooked in favor of undergraduates. We do not doubt that their issues matter, but we simply ask to have graduate students’ treated with respect by the administration.

Therefore, while it is promising that the Diaspora Coalition asked us to participate, they should have considered us from the start and included us more directly and clearing within their demands. We can only hope the administration takes these demands seriously and incorporates graduate students within these changes moving forward.

Since this post has been written, undergraduate and graduate students have reached an agreement to collaborate on a list of demands that are inclusive of both groups. Further developments will be posted as the protest continues. Stay resilient. -Blog Staff