In honor of Black History Month, Spectator is publishing a series on notable Black alumni, scholars, activists, leaders, students, and more whose stories we wish to honor.
In 1968, Black students protested against Columbia’s creation of a gym in West Harlem, which successfully halted its construction and ultimately led to more diverse student admissions and faculty hiring. In 1985, Black students led a 21-day protest against Columbia’s investment in apartheid-era South Africa—a movement that pushed Columbia to become the first major American university to fully divest from the South African government. Now, in the wake of last summer’s protests for racial justice and amid an ongoing pandemic, students are demanding that Columbia dismantle institutional racism across the University.
As these broader developments have taken place, Columbia students have continued organizing to address issues of racial injustice and discrimination on the University’s campus and in its community. From making demands to the Columbia administration to creating student council initiatives Black students and student groups are continuing a long legacy of organizing against structural issues across the University.
In response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more Black individuals, national Black Lives Matter protests erupted last summer. These protests sparked national conversations around police brutality, mass incarceration, and abolition—conversations that have followed the United States into 2021. Alongside the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the ongoing pandemic has revealed the structural inequalities in the healthcare system that have contributed to Black Americans being almost three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans, and almost four times more likely to be hospitalized.
In an effort to address racial inequity, Columbia announced several initiatives for the 2020-2021 school year, beginning with the Commitment to Anti-Racism announced in July, and including establishing new funds for faculty and student racial justice research projects, creating an “Inclusion and Belonging” section for the student Community Citizenship Initiative, and promising to accelerate diverse faculty recruitments.
In August, Columbia’s Mobilized African Diaspora issued a list of demands to the University administration, most of which have yet to be fulfilled. The demands request that the University defund Public Safety and invest in community safety, end inquiries about criminal history on all applications, and improve the academic community and environment for Black students. In addition, these demands extended beyond campus, calling for the University to end its support for the New York Police Department, and “fulfill its responsibilities” to the people of West Harlem.
According to a mid-year report published by the Office of University Life in December, progress on the University’s Commitment to Anti-Racism has included issuing racial justice mini-grants for student projects, acceleration of programs focusing on the recruitment of underrepresented faculty, and a University-wide Working Group on Inclusive Public Safety. The report does not include a specific number for the number of underrepresented faculty that have been or plan to be recruited.
A spokesperson for MAD expressed discontent with the University’s initiatives to address racial injustice, including the Commitment to Anti-Racism: “It’s a very Columbia response in that they have their couple flagship actions that are really public, like the cluster hiring and possible reconsideration of different campus monuments, and the rest of it is super vague and doesn’t say anything specific.”
MAD’s demands have been incorporated into the organizing of other movements on campus—including Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America’s tuition strike, in which MAD is one of its sponsors.
This semester, the group is focusing on recruitment. MAD’s spokesperson said that it is being “pretty vigilant trying to get incoming freshmen in” to ensure the group’s longevity past the 2020-2021 academic year.
Adrys Turbi Hidalgo, CC ’23, created a different kind of coalition for the advancement of racial justice in August, called Black Unchained, a currently virtual platform for college-aged Black students to discuss and bring awareness to intersectional issues. She purposely opened the coalition to students beyond Columbia because, as she put it, advocating for racial justice means activating a larger network.
“All these issues are happening in all these schools, and there’s Black people everywhere,” Turbi Hidalgo said. “We should connect to as many people as we can. If we’re aiming for something, like fixing a law or whatever we want to aim for countrywide, we cannot just make it Columbia. We need to talk to other people, with other perspectives, from other universities, who have seen different things that we haven’t seen, and build from there.”
Social distancing measures have forced activists to move beyond conventional forms of protests, like in-person marches; as a result, social media has become an even more important forum for activism. Although the virtual platform allows her to reach more people, Turbi Hidalgo said, social media makes it difficult to accurately judge her organization’s impact; for example, the sharing of Black Unchained’s Instagram post does not necessarily indicate demonstrated involvement in the racial justice movement and can be misleading.
As long as racism persists and issues of racial justice remain unresolved, whether at Columbia or elsewhereanywhere else, Turbi Hidalgo said that she will fight it.
“There are some moments where you’re like, ‘What’s the point?’ But if we let ourselves be stuck in that mentality, then nothing’s ever going to get done; then justice is never going to be served; and there’s never going to be a time where we’re able to dismantle systemic racism and prejudice,” Turbi Hidalgo said. “It’s a process that’s going to take decades. It might take centuries. It might take whatever, but it’s something that we have to do. And if we don’t, then it’s just all going to stay the same. And why would I want this to stay the same? I don’t ever want this to stay the same.”
In addition to promises made in the Commitment to Anti-Racism, the University has made efforts to diversify the academic experience. “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine, SoA ’93, was added to the Literature Humanities curriculum, and Rankine spoke to the Columbia community about the book last fall. Other preeminent Black authors have given virtual talks, such as Ibram X. Kendi and Roxane Gay.
Elizabeth Burton, BC ’21, said that inviting Black thinkers does not compensate for the University’s role in propagating racism. Burton is writing her senior thesis about the Black student experience at Barnard, as seen through institutional trends that started with then-student Zora Neale Hurston, BC ’28, Barnard’s first Black graduate.
“Having those people come in and talk about racism is a really good way to shift the accountability away from Barnard because Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, and all these people—absolutely brilliant, have tons of insightful stuff to say about racism—have nothing to say about racism at Barnard because they don’t work here,” Burton said.
Burton has been interviewing Black students and alumnae for her thesis and is the author of the column “when the diversity council is not enuf.” She considers her writing a form of activism.
“I had this moment where I was like, ‘This school really is just not going to change at all,’” Burton said. “I really don’t think it is. I would rather try to write something that I think is going to be able to speak to students, to at least shift people’s perspectives or get a conversation going, that maybe the people who really do believe the school can change can use.”
Other students have found ways to organize despite spending much of the last year in a remote campus environment. Nisa Rashid, CC ’22, spent the summer working remotely with NAACP, making calls and organizing resources for protests in Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd. At Columbia, Rashid serves on the boards of the Caribbean Students’ Association and the Women of Color Pre-Law Society, and was the previous secretary for the Black Students’ Organization.
She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a historically Black sorority. With her sorority, Rashid is organizing a sanitary product drive for Black women living in Harlem’s shelters.
“I think that student organizations have been doing a really amazing job of continuing to have events and provide resources to students,” Rashid said. “I think clubs have been doing amazing work, and I know students have, too. On an institutional level, I’m not sure. I’m really not sure.”
On campus, Kwolanne Felix, CC ’22, founded the Inclusion Diversity Task Force within Columbia College Student Council in the fall of 2019. When she realized Columbia Dining shut down over winter break, leaving low-income students in need of affordable meals, the task force helped arrange $1,000 for 200 meals.
Columbia Dining again shut down this winter break, and with a pandemic limiting food options for students even further, the task force stepped up. Felix was no longer on Student Council, but its members helped arrange $12,000 for 1,000 meals, which fed about 100 in-need students.
“I’m happy I was able to establish the [Inclusion Diversity] task force, but my biggest point of pride is seeing it grow and develop outside of me and my work and seeing the legacy continuing,” Felix said.
As a student organizer, Felix places her activism at the intersection of her various identities, including race, gender, class, and immigration. The main focus of her activism goes toward increasing funding and funded opportunities for Black and traditionally marginalized students at Columbia. This September, Felix presented and established the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fund of Student Council, “a standing fund” where both student council members and community members throughout Columbia College can request funds to help support marginalized students in whatever way they see fit.
For projects like the student fund council to be established and successful, Felix believes it is important that the voices of Black students be uplifted and heard.
“Listen to Black students,” Felix said. “Listen to the demands that have been made for decades, instead of trying to recreate the wheel as to what racial justice would look like. Racial justice starts by listening to the folks who have not received justice.”
Editor’s Note: Kwolanne Felix was a Spring 2020 and a Spring 2021 columnist for Spectator; Elizabeth Burton was a Fall 2020 and a Spring 2021 columnist for Spectator. Neither Felix nor Burton are members of Spectator’s staff and had no role in the writing or editing process.