From Los Angeles to New York: Student Activism and the Fight for Justice

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

On March 11, 2019, student activists at Sarah Lawrence College swarmed Westlands – the administrative building – at seven in the morning. They called for the college and the administrators to listen to their detailed list of demands which ranged from access to housing opportunities to assistance with international visas. The students announced that they would occupy Westlands until the demands were met; thus began the approximately ninety-hour long occupation. Their chants reverberated throughout the crowded halls, their sleeping bags and textbooks lined the floors, and their courage could be felt across campus and in every single classroom.

Undoubtedly, these students are some of the most determined, inspiring, and emotionally-generous individuals on campus. While I sat in Westlands in support, I began to think of the student activists throughout history and across the nation who have demanded and occupied just as those that surrounded me. The students demanded that administrators better the environment of the institution, which is not an isolated occurrence in any capacity. For instance, at Sarah Lawrence College alone, students have demanded that the college adjust their policies and provide better opportunities and access for students of color since the 1950s with sit-ins occurring in 1969, 1989, and now in 2019.

As I pondered on the idea of writing a piece on the history of student activism, I began to think about the demands made by student activists that came to fruition. Every activist hopes that positive change is realized, but more often than not, feelings of being disheartened and exhausted come from these tireless and courageous efforts. In the hopes of inspiring students to continue making necessary demands, I put the spotlight on the February Sisters of the University of Kansas and the years of activism by students that caused UCLA to create a Chicano/a Studies department.

On February 4th, 1972 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, the February Sisters – consisting of twenty women and four children – occupied the East Asian Studies department on campus. They called on the institution to provide free daycare that the University would finance, that women fill open positions in the administration, to develop an affirmative action program directed by women, and establish a Women’s Studies department. Directly following the protest, administrators began to meet the demands. The Hilltop Daycare Center was founded in 1972, the Women’s Studies department and Major were developed in 1972, Student Health services began to provide reproductive health options, and Marilyn Stokstad was hired as the associate dean.

The February Sisters’ tireless efforts to have their demands met should not slide under the radar, nor should those of the Chicano/a high school students of Los Angeles. In March of 1968, approximately 20,000 students walked out of their classrooms to protest the racism and the complete disregard of Mexican-American heritage by public school administrators and teachers. Students recognized their power in hitting them where it hurt; money. If the students did not attend their classes, the school lost funding. At this moment, UCLA noticed what they could do to benefit themselves and the Chicano/a community. They started offering Chicano/a Studies courses, and developed the department in the early 90s. As a result, the university marked an increase in enrollment. Without Chicano/a students recognizing their power as students in the cog of the institution, perhaps the department would not have been founded.

The unwavering courage and activism of students makes actual change. From the West Coast, to the Midwest, and all the way to Sarah Lawrence College on the East Coast, students have the power to enact change and cause unjust institutions to reevaluate the entire system. The students that occupied Westlands on March of 2019 will change the landscape of social, political, and cultural conversations at the college forever. They are calling on students, faculty, staff, and administration to recognize systematic racism, how it is perpetuated, and the lack of humanity that can exist in an ivory tower of academia. Just as the February Sisters of the University of Kansas did not rest until their demands were met, and the high school students of Los Angeles witnessed the development of a Chicano/a studies department, these dedicated and passionate student activists will push forward and make necessary demands until the change that needs to occur, does.

  1. “A Statement of Action,” KU Libraries Exhibits, accessed March 28, 2019, https://exhibits.lib.ku.edu/items/show/6835.
  2. “Women’s Rights Activism and Deans of Women at the University of Kansas.” Omeka RSS, exhibits.lib.ku.edu/exhibits/show/deans-of-women/the-february-sisters.

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.

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.