How we won at Brandeis

February 23, 2016

Last November, Brandeis University undergraduate and graduate students held a sit-in at the Bernstein-Marcus Administrative Center to pressure the administration to adopt 13 demands to increase the number of Black students, faculty and staff, and to address wider concerns of people of color on campus. They called the action #FordHall2015 in reference to a famous 1969 occupation that won the creation of a African and Afro-American Studies Department.

After a 12-day sit-in that ran through the Thanksgiving break, the university administration agreed to all of the students' demands. Cameron Mendes-Moreau, a graduate student at Brandeis' Heller School for Social Policy, talked to Lauren Nickell and Akunna Eneh about how students organized this victorious action--and some of the lessons of the struggle.

COULD YOU talk about what life at Brandeis is like for people of color?

BRANDEIS MAKES a very concerted effort to talk about these issues in the classroom, so that's a positive, but at the same time there's a cognitive dissonance about learning about social justice in the classroom and confronting it in your everyday life.

I think for students of color--I can only speak to my experience--there is an issue of visibility. They don't feel very seen except for when it's good marketing. I think that starts to have an effect after a while. There's a cultural competence issue, given that advisers and counselors may not be familiar with perhaps the culture or circumstances of students of color.

You think of [Brandeis] as this enlightened place because you spend so much time talking about issues of race and gender and sexuality and other markers of identity, and you question how to provide equality for all of these folks.

But then you see that the people of color party with the people of color and the white people party with the white people, and there's this dynamic that's uncomfortable--you want to feel like the Brandeis community is your community. That's what I heard a lot at Ford Hall: "I don't think of Brandeis as my place, or my community." It's an issue of belonging.

Brandeis University students during their sit-in at Ford Hall
Brandeis University students during their sit-in at Ford Hall (Amaris Garcia)

Once the conversation started, we looked at the numbers and said, "Well this aren't nearly enough students of color or faculty of color for an institution that prides itself on social justice!" and we realized it was a numbers issue too. That's where the demands started to come from.

We wanted more faculty of color in the university and on the tenure track. We wanted more students of color admitted, not only through the scholarship program but also through general admissions, because we wanted to counteract the thought process that assumes that students of color are only here because of affirmative action. We wanted to reconcile class issues with the reality on campus. That's the end goal. It will take a lot more work.

WERE YOU inspired to protest by the events at Mizzou and Yale and other campus rebellions around the same time?

I CAN'T speak for everyone, but in my eyes, there was a consensus among the people who were there that the Mizzou situation had initiated these kinds of actions across the country. They'd put out a call to other universities to take up the fight where they had left off. It played a big part for sure.

HOW DID this all begin? Did the demands develop out of the organizing you did in the first 24 hours, or did the full list of demands exist before the occupation?

THE DEMANDS were there before the action started. The last demand was that the board of trustees would hold a meeting to discuss our demands within 24 hours, and they didn't, so that was the impetus for us to stage a rally, and the rally was the impetus for the sit-in that started this whole action.

The dean of the university had been made aware of the demands and blew us off--as they had been doing to students who had been trying to communicate with him about these issues for quite some time before. At this point, it was clear that some kind of escalation was necessary.

SO THE sit-in wasn't planned beforehand?

WE WALKED into the building and sat down, and one of the women--one of the negotiators--said, "Okay, this has officially become a sit-in!" and from there on out, it was a sit-in! [We] had talked about potentially doing an action of that magnitude, but it hadn't been set in stone. It's just something that happened because of momentum.

HOW MANY people participated?

USUALLY, THERE were at least 75 people, and during the [Thanksgiving break], probably about 25-30 students who were the core people who were consistently there throughout the 12 days, we were involved heavily and we were in it for the long haul. Over the break, we took shifts so we made sure to keep a critical mass in the building at all times.

We wanted to balance that with understanding that it was finals time, and particularly for undergraduates who were there on scholarships, we didn't want to put anyone in jeopardy of losing their education. So we made sure that people were rotating in and out to handle their everyday business when they needed to. Most of the graduate students sitting in stayed full time.

We had two lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild who work with the ACLU come to advise us about potential legal ramifications of what we were doing. We had that advice in place within the first day, so we could be conscious of the risks we were taking.

IT SEEMS like what happened arose spontaneously, but it was also so well organized.

IT ACTUALLY happened all within the first 24 hours we occupied the building--the organization, I mean. Before that we hadn't put all our committees together. The only one that existed at that point was a negotiations team, which was comprised of students who were heavily involved in writing the demands and students who had been involved in talks with the administration prior to the sit-in.

That day there was a lot of tension in the building, and no one really felt like sleeping anyway, so everyone stayed up, and we held our first town hall meeting. We talked about what this action should look like and what we should do. We also talked about self-care. We got those initial conversations started and then we began the discussion of committees.

We knew we'd need supplies for whatever duration of time we were in there so we formed a resources committee. We talked about what would happen when authorities or the police showed up so we had the police liaison committee. We tried to answer questions about what we'd need to make this a sustainable and enduring project.

Everyone was so helpful and volunteered to work on the committees they felt comfortable with and where they could be most helpful. So by the time we were in there for 24 hours, we became pretty organized and streamlined, and then the donations started rolling in.

WHAT KIND of organizations gave you donations?

EVERYWHERE! Businesses in Waltham that wanted to contribute. A restaurant I work in donated food, and individual donors were always stopping by to bring us things. Our media committee created a Facebook page that was used to list the things that we needed, and also what we didn't need, and people were very responsive. We were never wanting for food.

There was a sense in the community that if we were going to leave Ford Hall, it wasn't going to be because we didn't have enough food or water. There was a groundswell of support. It was fantastic. In fact, at times, we had too much stuff!

WHERE THERE disagreements about prioritizing the demands among the students involved in protesting?

THERE WERE disagreements about everything, but it was a very democratic process. We voted on everything, everything--even the small stuff. However, we all kind of came to a consensus early that we were not going to back off on any of the demands, and that they were all going to be the priority.

I think there was the sense that all the demands were entirely feasible. We understood that in terms of negotiation we'd have to give leeway somewhere, so we'd offer to give leeway in terms of timelines and deadline, but always with the goals of getting all the demands met in a tangible way.

HOW DID students stay unified? How did that help make you successful in winning your demands?

IT WAS pretty magical. Inside [the occupation], it was a very intersectional place. We had white allies, Latino/Latina allies, allies from all parts of the Middle East, people of all different sexual identities. We made sure to repurpose one bathroom to be an "all genders" bathroom.

Because it was so intersectional, it was really solid. At one point, we heard complaints from some students outside that our demands were not worded specifically to address Latino/Latina students, so our final language in the action plan was not "Black students," it was "underrepresented minorities."

This action was never just about Black students, for us, it was about getting specific. I do think the situation for Black folks in America is historically unique, so I think there is a justification for focusing there [around the demands of Black students], but I also think it was a matter of being sharp and decisive in our demands rather than trying to pack in 60 or 70 separate demands to address every identity separately.

Everyone in there, no matter what they look liked or how they identified, was saying, "Black Lives Matter." Everyone was very much in support. I've never met a more amazing group of people.

Brandeis Asian American Task Force put out set of demand after ours, and then the Ph.D. students also put out a set of demands. So I think our action sparked a larger conversation about how those people wanted to confront the administration. When Brandeis Asian American Task Force released their demands, we came out in support of them publicly, and we reached out to them to ask what we could do to help.

They came out to support us during Ford Hall, and it was important to return that favor, not only because we have a moral imperative to do so, but because underrepresented folk at Brandeis needed to come together out of the understanding that there is a problem here.

WHAT ROLE did professors play in all of this? It sounds like they offered so much support.

FIRST OF all, the professors were great about moving assignments around, which is its own kind of support for students who were so engaged with the action that they didn't have the mental wherewithal to engage with finals.

But further than that, some of the undergraduate students developed a syllabus on racial inequity, because we knew we'd be fielding a lot of questions like "what is all of this about?" And sometimes for activists of color, that labor can feel repetitive. So they developed the syllabus so we could refer people to that when they had these kind of questions. A lot of the professors ending up incorporating it into their curriculum.

A lot of the professors were bringing their classes outside the hall and teach there. An art professor came down with his class to take photographs of us, and then donated the photos to us for our own use. We used the images to post online to show people what was going on at Brandeis.

Overall, so many of the professors supported us. Some of them even showed up to the hall holding "We love you" signs and banners. It was a very emotional time for a lot of us, because not only were they there for us, they also left the administration at the table [when it tried to negotiate a compromise with faculty instead of with the students]. I don't know if we would not have made it mentally or resource-wise without them, or not get kicked out of the school. We're all very grateful.

WAS ONE of your demands to hire more tenured faculty of color?

YES, THERE will be several more [tenured faculty of color] hired over the next several years. They have set some money aside for that as part of the action plan specifically to meet this demand. It was one of the things we wanted to push hardest for.

Our faculty of color wear so many hats. They're professors and they're mentors, they're advisers for students who don't feel comfortable with their assigned advisers--they do it all. We have a professor in the Heller School who for years now has been acting as a de facto dean of diversity and inclusion, but isn't getting paid for that service. They do so much to contribute to the university in addition to researching, writing and publishing. Getting them enfranchised in some very tangible way was important to us.

But I think there will be a larger conversation about redistributive justice. We got a few more professors of color on the path to tenure, but I think the university needs to seriously think about changing paths to tenure for all professors no matter who they are. The current system is just inappropriate, to be adjuncting professors, year after year.

The conversation about finances was the administration just saying, "We don't have enough money." Our focus was not on where the money would come from--we were just saying, "In one way or another, you need to get it. You can do the financial acrobatics to figure it out." There was a big uproar when the students found out that the president of Brandeis makes $1 million a year.

There's a problem when the money is concentrated at the top, especially when our school largely doesn't tenure many professors because they say they "can't afford to," I think Ford Hall was just the beginning of something. It wasn't an end in itself.

WHAT ARE your thoughts about Black Lives Matter--about where it's going and how it impacts ongoing struggle?

AS FAR as how Black Lives Matter has contributed to what happened on our campus, I think it's opened up a national conversation. It started with police brutality and criminal justice issues, but it's really grown from there. It's all issues around race. It engendered this spark among people, to have these conversations in public and in ways that really make change.

But you can tell that any time you listen to a Republican, they've now become more extreme in their rhetoric about Black and Brown people. I hope it's that we're seeing a "night is darkest before the dawn" moment.

I think we can thank Black Lives Matter for pressing people on these issues, especially politicians. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been pushed because we want concrete answers. I think it's important for activists to push into the political arena and then push back outwards--to not be bound by political rules, but to impose upon the political process. Black Lives Matter has done a great job at this.

WHAT DO you see as a future for the struggle on campus in particular, especially about why many people of color cannot afford tuition?

THAT'S A problem that's very close to me because I've racked up just about enough debt to feel like I might never get out of it.

When I can get some distance from it, to me, it becomes a question of the political atmosphere. Are we going to continue down this self-destructive path of squeezing the very last dollar out of everyone? Or are we going to start looking at life a bit more like it is in Scandinavian countries? It's a question about liberty or equality--you can have both, but the liberty we talk about in America is the liberty to take advantage of people.

To me, we'll have a much more solid answer at the closing of this presidential election, not because the president will put out some magical answer to these problems, but because it will provide a political direction to us. It's going to be a matter of what politicians are saying, if they're willing to say that college education is a right, like K-12 education is a right. We'll be able to start making hard and fast changes.

There's a second part of that problem. When people get to university, they don't necessarily know how to navigate that space. This is true for people of color, and it's class-based for people who grew up in poverty--but specifically for people of color in predominantly white institutions.

They have trouble navigating, and I think that's a question of cultural capital. Are you a first-generation college student? Do you have anyone to help you navigate those waters?

I think that's part of it, setting up infrastructures and support systems that bring in first-generation students and provide them with that capital and help them to navigate that space. It's not only being able to access the education in general, but being able to access all the benefits of education in full.

There's a lot of work to be done. I think it's a conversation that's starting to be had in the national discourse, and hopefully, that will engender some change. At a gut level, people think that school shouldn't cost $60 grand a year! I think having these conversations and building awareness on the issue into political decision-making will hopefully push us toward more people being able to access higher education.

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