Faced with another remote semester, some students have found themselves confronting issues hands-on at home that would have otherwise been left up for theoretical debate and discussion in their classes.
In the time between University President Lee Bollinger sending thousands of students home in March and canceling undergraduate housing in August, students have been met with an election year, ongoing discussions of the Black Lives Matter protests, and a pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly one million people around the world.
In a typical school year, much of Columbia’s visible student activism is organized through clubs on campus. While some of these groups are still tied to nationally relevant movements, their activism often centers around improving conditions for students on campus, including initiatives for student space, mental health, and funding.
The Black Lives Matter protests that have been ongoing since late May have inspired some students to address anti-Blackness within their identity-based communities. Julián Pérez, CC ʼ23, and a group of friends created The Tonantzín Initiative, a collective born out of concerns that many fail to address anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity in the Latinx community. The collective aims to uplift Black and Indigenous Latinx voices and will soon start fundraising for mutual funds for trans and nonbinary Black and Indigenous Latinx people.
Pérez, who is of Indigenous descent, said that time away from campus has allowed members of The Tonantzín Initiative to reflect on their own experiences and contribute to their communities in a more meaningful way than if they were seated in a classroom discussing justice and other issues abstractly.
“Even though school is really important, the practicality of what we do as individuals is also important,” said Pérez. “This time just gave us all a platform to finally be like ‘you know what, I’m done and I want to do something about it.”’
When Joy Dumas, CC ʼ22, returned to her hometown of Yakima, Washington, she found herself seeking a way to directly contribute to the issues ailing her community, like houseless populations without access to food or resources to maintain personal hygiene.
What resulted was the Yakima Community Aid fund, a group of college and high school-aged students striving toward the “liberation of all people” through demonstrations, educational programming, and a mutual aid fund. According to Dumas, the money to start Yakima Community Aid came from the housing and dining refund that she received from Columbia in March, combined with the refunds that co-organizers had received from their respective universities.
“It is institutional money that got things started,” Dumas said. The fund continues to be primarily youth-led and youth-funded.
The coalition was just gaining solid footing when the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-policing protests erupted in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Dumas and her co-organizers responded by changing their own agenda to incorporate support for the movements for Black lives—leading de-escalation trainings, meeting with their school board to advocate for the removal of police from schools, and bearing witness to what they’ve seen during their homeless outreach—cops who “like to terrorize homeless folks.”
Dumas said the unique circumstance of spending more time at home has transformed her view of community engagement from something that can bolster her résumé to a way to give back to the community that “gave [her] all the resources and all of the abilities to come to [Columbia].”
“This is really the first time that I’ve put in consistent effort without expecting anything in return into helping out members of my community,” Dumas said. “It’s refreshing to know that I’m in a better place now and to also know the capacity that I have to serve my community. I don’t think I fully understood that till this year.”
Myesha Choudhury, BC ʼ23, used her proximity to the University and connection to Columbia student organizations as a way to raise money to cover basic expenses for garment workers in Bangladesh.
This past summer, Choudhury, who is president of Club Bangla, Columbia’s Bengali student association, organized a fundraiser alongside Foysal Uddin Bejoy and the rest of the Club Bangla board in partnership with Bachar Lorai and Bangladesh Emergency Action Against COVID-19, known as BEACON. Together they were able to raise $1,495 to buy food and other necessities for Bangladeshi garment workers who have lost pay during the pandemic.
Over the summer, a number of University students rallied their preexisting student organizations to fundraise for and make statements on the Black Lives Matter movement. Choudhury attributed the commitment that clubs across campus have had to various fundraising efforts to the lack of a “proper ending” that the last school year had.
“I feel like since school ended so abruptly we all felt like we were all still a part of those clubs and still had responsibilities towards those clubs,” she said.
While many students used campus connections to support communities beyond the University, most Columbia students live lives far removed from the communities that have suffered most this year—Pérez noted how this disconnect appears in their classes.
During the peak of Black Lives Matter protests, police were “rampant” in Pérez’s neighborhood and community members became accustomed to hearing “what sounded like bombs” throughout the day. Living this reality in the East Bay, Pérez expressed frustration with discussions that take place within Columbia’s classrooms when students from wealthier backgrounds come together to abstractly discuss social justice, inequality, and other ideas that are a part of Pérez’s and other students' lived experiences.
“I will not invalidate [other students'] struggles, but a lot of them have not gone through the worry of having to pay rent when you don’t have money to pay rent, or trying to get food on the table when you don’t have money for food on the table,” Pérez said. “My [sustainable development] classes are riddled with people with superiority complexes, where we’ll be talking about a poor country and people don’t really conceive what that poverty is.”
Pérez expected a level of “dissonance” in their perspective compared to that of their more privileged peers when they first came to Columbia—attending classes remotely has only augmented this awareness.
“Being here at home in the place where I’ve had to go through so much is a constant reminder to why I’m doing what I’m doing with this project,” they said.
While Dumas' classes as a Spanish and Human Rights major have been a “revolutionizing and radicalizing experience,” Choudhury said many science, technology, engineering, and math classes do not necessarily require students to critically engage with issues of race and class.
Given this lack of engagement with ideas of social justice and community service in STEM classes, Choudhury, who recently started Columbia’s first Doctors Without Borders chapter, cited a lack of racial sensitivity and intersection between social justice and healthcare in her pre-med classes.
“I feel like a lot of people in the STEM field see humanities and all of that as separate from biology and chemistry,” Choudhury said. “They have them in two different realms of their minds. They’re not as engaged in conversations about race because they feel like their primary focus is towards healthcare and STEM.”
According to Pérez, a balance needs to be reached between how students take up and make space in the classroom, especially when the ideas that are up for participation points are also real issues that students are facing in their day-to-day lives.
“People need to know when to stay quiet and when to speak up. [The Tonantzín Initiative] is only part of the movement and Black Lives Matter and all of the voices to be heard are not a phase. Just because you can retire back into your mansion on a hill after you’ve posted a black square on Instagram doesn’t mean that other people can do that.”