My campus lens: American University
Search for diversity leads to activism
Last updated, 7:39 p.m. ET, Feb. 11, 2016
By Sydney Young, American University junior
As an eager, prospective student, the harmonious dream of diversity that American University sold to me was enough to ensure that I would be attending in the fall. However, the school’s true demographics revealed that the diversity I was promised existed in every aspect except race.
When I arrived on campus nearly two years ago and found that there was only a 6% black population, I rushed to find some kind of commonality within the student body. My student activism began immediately when I applied to be the freshman liaison for American University’s Black Student Alliance. My job was fairly easy, as it was intrinsic for me to seek out and connect with other black students.
During the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury hearing in November 2014, tensions were high across campus as students hoping for an indictment gathered in their dorm lounges. Charges against the officer would alleviate the ache for justice that had been growing since the loss of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen who was killed in a gated community in 2012. The man who killed him, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Unfortunately, our would-be temporary solace never came. When the indictment for Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, didn’t happen that same month, I hopped on the metro to DuPont Circle and marched to the White House with two of my closest friends. We joined students from Howard University as well as other protesters, singing in solidarity and shouting our disappointment.
The black community at American University quickly reacted. Student leaders organized a protest and die-in to show our solidarity with students across the country who were experiencing racism and discrimination and to promote our desire for justice. Lying down on the steps of a central building on campus was not just a visual display of unrest, but also a way to create awareness for students who may not understand the effect that police brutality has on their peers. For someone to understand the fear and urgency that others feel when police are getting away with killing people who look like them is difficult. Regardless of our intentions and organized deliberation, our efforts were still criticized and our lives even threatened. Anonymous members of our student body spewed racist slurs and hateful commentary on the infamous Yik Yak app. However, as small as we are, the black community at AU is active and resilient, and the hate we received from students via Yik Yak fueled our next movement.
The push back we continued to experience gave way to The Darkening. The Darkening started as a movement, but soon developed into an organization completely operated by students. As The Darkening continued to develop and hold events, the Black Student Alliance began developing comprehensive ways to address other problems facing AU’s black community, specifically issues concerning staff, faculty and curriculum. The student alliance held a forum with professors, alumni, faculty and students at its annual Being Black at AU event. We focused on addressing the lack of diversity among professors, the treatment of food and service workers, as well as the implementation of culturally literate general education curriculum that caters to studies in the African Diaspora.
The Darkening furthered these efforts by facilitating dialogues, workshops and teach-ins on structural and institutional racism. As Baltimore riots over the death of Freddie Grey in April 2015 began to affect campuses all over the country, AU responded by developing an Alternative Break, trips during which students can get involved in community service work, to Baltimore that would explore structural racism and allow students to gain a more hands-on and comprehensive understanding of the complexity of racism in the 21st century as well as how it leads to civil unrest.
As the University of Missouri dealt with the fallout of racism and racist remarks from administrators, a nationwide call for campuses to stand in solidarity with Mizzou left AU open to more verbal attacks on Yik Yak. In addition, campus police and some members of the administration discouraged our protests. However, amid all the tension and stress in our learning environment, the black student leaders at AU re-established an NAACP chapter and made legislative breakthroughs in student government regarding racial and cultural sensitivity training. Our latest accomplishment was getting all of our cultural clubs to host Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Cullors sparked important dialogue between black student activists and other students who thought that the #BLM movement slighted students of other races.
Black students on campus are burdened with the responsibilities of being full-time college students and carrying the weight of racism. We are activists, event coordinators, organizers and therapists, and our goal is to create safe spaces for all to speak and pathways for equality in our classrooms.
Sydney Young, of Baltimore, is a CLEG (communications, legal institutions, economics and government) major at American University. The junior is president of the Black Student Alliance.