The Provost’s Office announced that during the Spring semester of 2017, a series would be held in wake of the November election titled “Across the Great Divide.” The University-wide Council on Inclusiveness and Community (UCIC) hosted an event in this series titled: “What Now?: Advocacy and Activism.” The description for the event reads: “After the election, many are left wondering: what can we now do and say about politics, culture and global events. This forum … will ask in what ways activism and advocacy can shape our responses to the election and its consequences.” The event was hosted in the Casa Loma Hall on the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 15. The panelists included Damara Pratt (Student, CAS), Emma Wade (Student, CAS), Dennis Mclin (Graduate Student, SoE), Hideko Sera (Interim Associate Dean, SoE), and Sheila Lloyd (Associate Professor, English). The following words were presented by Damara Pratt in response to the question of the forum: “What Now?”
As Elana [Rapp] and I discussed our experiences with activism in preparation for this event, so much of what we spoke about circled around the structural obstacles that discourage advocacy and activism in the institution of higher education, and specifically at the University of Redlands. We joined the University-wide Council on Inclusiveness and Community as a way to enact change, and thus chose to dedicate some of our finite time and energy to working within the institutional structure. This work was not without value. It provided a furthered understanding of the bureaucratic system that our university, and all universities, rely on. My experience as co-facilitator of the council also helped me to understand my role as a student activist and the power dynamics inherent within that role.
As a student, I was given passage into a formal system that I was previously unfamiliar with. My activism and advocacy had, until that point, been located on the cushions of the Multicultural Center in CDI, or Campus Diversity and Inclusion, situated in a small circle for meetings for the Middle Eastern Student Association. The first meeting for the University-wide Council for Inclusiveness and Community was in the Redlands Room on the third floor of the library, complete with coffee and pastries, printed name plates, and microphones to speak into. The first few meetings were facilitated by the University President. He is no longer in attendance, and the Council has since retired the name plates and catering. But the UCIC is still listed on his website, with a description of his charge to the council, along with a link to his speeches and press releases.
This begs the question: how is institutional change possible on a council that is overseen and claimed by the University President, the face of the institution? This structural paradox is echoed in other places of the university: Campus Diversity and Inclusion is a major target of budget cuts implemented across the university, is not provided with the resources and budget it needs, and is the most active constituency on campus for activism and advocacy. But it is governed by the administration of the university and seen as the first sector responsible for diversity-related issues on campus. Associated Students of the University of Redlands, or ASUR, is a financially powerful and visible group charged with representing the greater student body, but is fearful of appearing biased. Therefore, during the inauguration of a president who has targeted a large part of the student body, they celebrated with streamers, donuts, and balloons. This ultimately sends a message, diminishes any sense of neutrality, and acts against representation of the larger student body. The student newspaper, The Bulldog, is funded by the very institution on which they are expected to report. Even the title of this series, “Across the Great Divide,” appeals to even discourse between two polarized political parties. The institution focuses its time and resources toward a perceived lack of bias, and therefore prioritizes the perception of equality of opinion.
Because of the paradoxical structure of the institution, I opted after the November 2017 election to work outside of the university structure. A few other students and I arranged a march, days after the election titled the “March Against Hate.” This march had no SLIC approved advertising, no all-school announcement through the university email. It was advertised through social media and face to face contact for a notice of ten hours in total, and three hundred students attended. This was a largely “biased” event, with explicit support for students who have been historically marginalized by the institution, and were overtly marginalized by Trump’s white and heteropatriarchal nationalism. And yet this was clearly an event that students wanted. Instead of meeting with a committee for months to toil over a document that by its completion is so watered down that it loses all substantial meaning, the group of students I worked with produced an event that demonstrated solidarity for and encouraged the expression of targeted groups. But now oppression has worn down the student body, and grassroots momentum has declined.
And still the institution of the university continues. The impossibility of institutional change due to its suppressive and paradoxical nature is a problem that I can’t imagine solved. The institution of higher education was built on the oppression of all who were not wealthy straight white cisgender men. I don’t know how an institution can move forward and away from its very foundation. I don’t know the answer to the title of this forum: “What Now?”
What I do know is that to attempt to be unbiased in today’s political climate is to choose a side. The act of prioritizing an opinion that furthers oppression over an identity, or a body in which one is born, is oppressive in itself. The sooner those in power in our institution understand this, the more likely for unlikely change.