Snapshots of Brown: What’s Activism Really Like on Campus?

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Welcome to Snapshots of Brown, your destination for pics of Brown all year long! I’m Celina Stewart, and I’ll be bringing you little photo insights into my third year on Brown’s campus. What’s up this week? Let’s take a look… 

This week, I’m showing you a photo that I think is important. I didn’t take a snapshot,  knowing that many of you, watching the news both in the United States and abroad, are wondering: what are students doing in light of protests across the United States? Young people are clearly involved, but how is that reflected at Brown?

This post will recall some experiences I’ve had with activism at Brown; my goal here is not to share my own opinions or judgements about the causes, but rather to give you insight into what students care about on campus, and how that care is transformed into activism.

Likely, you’ve seen news coverage on the protests and unrest regarding the decisions related to judicial proceedings following Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year. You may have also seen information about sexual assault allegations at many colleges across the United States, which has propelled investigation on campuses. If you follow Brown’s news closely, you may recall upset regarding former New York City’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s speech last year. All of these events, though incredibly different in nature, have sparked campus-wide protest, discussion, and debate. So, how have students acted as activists?

First and foremost, students unite. Brown students unite with each other, with the Providence community, and with the global community through the internet. Students try to spread the word, gather support, and bring information to those with the power to enable change. In some cases, students have had success. In others, the success has been in rallying support and spreading information.

Teach-Ins are a common form of activism. When I was on the board for Amnesty International, we organized a teach-in on the conflict in Syria, bringing in professors and local speakers who had academic and personal knowledge of the situation. The same has happened for a huge variety of causes.

The second form of activism that I’ve seen most often are physical acts to remind those on campus of a cause and its importance. Several weeks ago, Brown students joined in “Carrying That Weight,” allying with a Columbia student who pledged to carry her mattress with her until the man who assaulted her was brought to justice. It was incredibly powerful seeing peers and friends carrying mattresses across campus, often times struggling until strangers helped them to balance the weight. The photo for this week is of a die-in that students held, protesting the loss of Mike Brown and innumerable other people of color. The site of students lying across Main Green provokes a visceral, emotional response. These forms of activism are powerful; often, they bring up uncomfortable feelings or questions, which leads to discussion.

However, in cases where debate and discussion can help, rather than incite additional harm, Brown students will use speech and writing as a form of activism. When the Ray Kelly incident happened, discussions broke out on Facebook, Twitter, Brown Confessional posts online, and the administration responded by holding a forum for discussion as well. The Divest Coal group, an environmental group on campus, has had many rallies and discussions, both with students and administration members. These are just a few examples; students are incredibly passionate about a variety of causes.

Do you have to be an activist to go to Brown? 

The short answer is no; however, it’s hard to miss. Personally, I don’t publicly align with many political causes, for a variety of personal reasons. Many students do; I, and many other students who abstain from voicing our opinions, respect those who actively strive to make change. If you’re like me, you can show support in small ways- help a friend carry the mattress when you’re walking together, involve yourself in discussion, work behind the scenes as an organizer, rather than a speaker. If you’re uncomfortable with showing support in those ways, even speaking with friends and learning from reading and following the discussion can still help.

If you want to be actively involved in activism, you can. Protests need protestors, discussion panels need commenters, and gatherings need organizers. Being an activist is not necessarily polarizing. One of the best parts of Brown has been the respect extended to both sides of any discussion. Yes, sometimes it gets uncomfortable. Either you learn and grow, or you miss out on a huge opportunity to do so.

Brown is a community of allies, of friends, of advocates. When the administration lets us down, we pick each other up. We regroup, we push through. At Brown, you will learn the meaning of privilege and how to check yours, no matter where you come from (you attend an Ivy League school, for a start). At Brown, you will learn about diversity and the many failings that still prevent tolerance and acceptance from being achieved worldwide. At Brown, your beliefs will be challenged, and you will have to learn in order to keep up.

I, for one, am thankful for the activists on campus who have opened my eyes to issues I did not know existed before arriving to Brown. I am thankful for the students I’m merely friends with on Facebook, who have posted articles and material that have helped me to teach myself when I felt embarrassed to ask the questions they knew I needed answered. I am thankful that we are being seen and heard, even if progress is slow. I am a Brown student, and I am thankful that we are together in this.

Have questions or comments? Want more details? Send an email to celina_stewart@brown.edu and I’ll get back ASAP!

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