Brockport Student Activism Has Strong Roots
Students are rekindling activism not seen on campus since the Vietnam War Era.
In December 2014, a group of College at Brockport students decided to make their voices heard.
Angered by the deaths of African-Americans Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers in Staten Island, NY, and Ferguson, Mo., these students chose to emulate the hundreds of protests taking place at colleges, universities and cities across the United States with one of their own. The group, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” marched throughout campus.
They met resistance along the way. Those involved, primarily African-American students, reported experiencing racial taunts and attacks both verbally and via social media — particularly on the anonymous mobile application known as Yik Yak.
They were not deterred, however. That protest marked the beginnings of a rebirth of student activism on the Brockport campus that the College hasn’t seen since the Vietnam War/Civil Rights era.
“Our goal is to end systemic racism on our campus,” said Jordin Paige, a senior English major who serves as a spokesperson for The Movement, a student activist group that emerged following those 2014 protests.
“We want all students to have a voice, especially students of color,” said Sidnee McDonald, a senior African and African-American studies and political science double major and a co-founder of The Movement. “We want there to be a direct line of communication between students, administration, faculty and any person hired at SUNY Brockport.”
Since its founding, The Movement has protested racism taking place at the University of Missouri, joined a protest that voiced anger over the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and teamed with the Muslim Student Association to organize a protest against Trump’s executive order on immigration. The group has also teamed with College administration to organize a series of “Community Conversations” that are designed to open the lines of communication between all members of the Brockport community around topics such as race.
But the group’s biggest accomplishment, Paige and McDonald say, came in spring 2015 when the College formally adopted an anti-racism resolution that was signed by then-Brockport President John R. Halstead and the leaders of the College Senate and Brockport Student Government. The resolution has since been reaffirmed by current Brockport President Heidi Macpherson.
“I was very close with the founders [of The Movement], and [the anti-racism resolution] was so important to them because racism hadn’t formally been addressed before,” Paige said. “Everyone knew racism was wrong, but there had never been an official stand taken by the College. But because this stand was made, this was built into the College’s way of life. That’s what we’re trying to achieve — a systemic accountability for racism.”
Renewed student activism sweeping the nation
While the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn the most national headlines, race isn’t the only topic that has been protested on college campuses across the country.
In fall 2014, Florida State University students protested having Republican state politician John Thrasher as their school’s president. University of Michigan students protested when its football team’s quarterback wasn’t removed from a game after suffering a significant head injury that was later diagnosed as a concussion.
Angus Johnston, a history professor at Hostos Community College in the City University of New York system who specializes in American student activism, reports on his blog that more than 160 student protests took place at college campuses across the country during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Over the course of the last year at Brockport, there have been protests in opposition to, and in support of, Trump’s election. There was the protest referenced above, called a “Solidarity Walk,” that aimed to show support for international students in the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration. Last March, Brockport Student Government organized a walkout of classes to protest a proposed plan for increasing tuition at SUNY’s four-year colleges. And each fall, students rally to “Take Back the Night” and end all forms of sexual violence.
Meredith Roman, a Brockport associate professor of history who specializes in comparative Soviet and African-American history, says she has seen a change in her students today compared to when she first began teaching 10 years ago.
“Back then there was massive disillusionment. There was this feeling among students that mass change just can’t occur,” Roman said. “Today, more students are willing to question. There is a bit more willingness to contemplate the notion that the world can change in fundamental and better ways.”
A history of activism on campus
Student activism isn’t new to college campuses, but there was a period of time when it was largely dormant.
“The end of the Vietnam War and the end of the military draft really played a role in normalizing situations on college campuses,” Roman said. “Many immediate needs were met.”
In the years leading up to that, however, life on the Brockport campus couldn’t possibly be described as normal or uneventful. The College itself underwent a major transformation in 1965 when it shifted from offering only teacher education and began offering a liberal arts education. The Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement were in full swing, and a larger number of minority students were enrolling at the College for the first time.
“There were about 35 students of color when I arrived here as a freshman in 1968,” said Gary Owens ’72/’73, who currently serves as the director of Brockport’s Educational Opportunity Program. “The College was not really used to having a large number of students of color, and there wasn’t much support for us.”
Owens and others organized the Black Student Liberation Front, known today as the Organization for Students of African Descent (OSAD), as a vehicle to advocate for themselves and others. The group began to build its identity, develop an agenda, and make themselves heard.
In 1971, Rev. Lewis Stewart ’72 became the first African-American president of Brockport Student Government. As president-elect, he helped organize the largest protest in College history — a takeover of Hartwell Hall, which at that time served as the College’s administration building.
“We were protesting the war in Vietnam,” said Stewart, who today serves as President of the United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York, after retiring from being a chaplain in the New York State Department of Corrections. “Students marched through the center of downtown Brockport. Then we marched in and took over Hartwell Hall. We staged a sit-in and stayed there all night.”
Simultaneously, Owens and members of the Black Student Liberation Front staged a takeover of the Seymour College Union. Stewart says messengers passed notes back and forth between the two protests so that they could coordinate. Ultimately, then-Brockport President Al Brown convinced Owens and his fellow protestors to leave the Union and join the protest in Hartwell, where they could discuss their concerns with Brown.
Both Stewart and Owens believe that Brown’s decision not to send in the police to break up the protest, and to instead engage in dialogue with the protestors, was a pivotal moment in the College’s history.
“[Brown] became a college president who was willing to listen,” Owens said.
Stewart and Owens said the protest resulted in an increased willingness on the part of College administration to hire more minority faculty and staff members and recruit more minority students, and it eventually led to the creation of the Department of African and African-American Studies. A series of “teach-ins” was also implemented, which discussed a number of topics related to world affairs.
“When you get to my age you start to reflect on your life and ask, ‘what good did I do?’ I think we did a little good back then,” Stewart said. “We were the impetus to get the College to move forward and recruit more minorities to the College, hire more black teachers, start African-American Studies, and there was our stance against the war and against racism.”
Stewart, who continues to be an activist in the City of Rochester, says he hasn’t kept up-to-date with the activism taking place on campus today — but he’s pleased that it’s happening. And he has a message for those hoping to make a difference.
“You have to have a list of demands, the entire group needs to agree with them, and then you have to pursue your goals non-violently,” he says. “Any mass movement has to take the high moral ground and pitch your tent there. If you take the low road, nobody is going to listen to you. You’re just going to be seen as someone who rabble-roused, and you’ll undermine your cause.”