I could start this story in 2014, or really in any semester leading up to this one. But I am not the Daily Orange, the Syracuse University student newspaper that should win this year’s college equivalent of the Pulitzer for journalism for its amazing reporting. Let me jump into the middle of things–a “townhall” in the campus chapel last night, convened by SU administrators. The idea was to listen to student demands and provide a controlled forum for responding to them. The following is a small expansion of a series of Tweets I sent out this morning.
The students demanded to be treated as equal partners in this parlay. The meeting was delayed as they reached a compromise. The administration would facilitate the discussion and respond to questions, but the students would be allowed to open the meeting and read their demands (listed in a petition that had been circulating on social media for most of the day).
Here are the incoming Student Body President and President-elect. This, dear readers, is the comportment of leadership. The savvy and poise and mutual regard shown by these students signal the power of a new, national youth movement that is angry, passionate, and impatient for the historical patterns of structural oppression to change.
Ms. Johnson read through the petition, which she crafted out of multiple conversations with students, faculty, and staff. All members of society are encouraged to sign this petition, which can be found here.
The students continued to frame the meeting by having representatives stand silently with signs. Here they are:
Stop asking what we want when we’ve told you concretely, with a timeline.
They kept the focus off the personal and on the need for structural change. Emotions ran high, and the students insisted that this emotional expression not be suppressed and not be interpreted as mere personal experience. Anecdotes are refractions of ingrained patterns of the structural hate, bias, disdain, and disregard that gets condensed in the too-familiar terms of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colonialism.
Students resisted the neoliberal, corporate tactic of endless energy and time-sapping committees and “talks.” You know what we want, they said. Now is the time to act and to provide regular, transparent updates on your actions.
I am impressed and I stand in solidarity.
At 55, I sense constraints on the administrators of SU that the students, perhaps, have no reason to know or to acknowledge right now. This movement is not about business-like compromise, however. Leave that to the Trustees. These students are angling to dam the global tide of what Patricia Clough calls “prefascist populism.” They are proving the worth of their Humanities classes, pointing to the ways in which the history of white supremacy and ableism anchors down in policies, building plans, police profiling, syllabus exclusions, and, yes, jokes. They are hungry for justice, not in a violent vicious sense but in that human way that we all feel and that pushes us to reach out for meaningful friendships, for collegial/peer relations built on deep listening and mutual regard, for the intimacy of shared purpose, for compassion, and for love. The last student who spoke, Ray, pleaded with the administration to treat students as persons, as intellectuals, as people who want to leave Syracuse University and be the collective force of change for the good. His voice was not angry or full of pathos. Honestly, what moved me so deeply was that his voice was full of that yearning lack that we recognize from Dickens’s writing about orphans, or from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Depression-era poor: he was speaking a desire he cannot not feel into a context that probably cannot satisfy it.