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.