Finding home at the College: Activism, discourse and generative spaces

It was a brisk Wednesday morning. I knew I would regret my fuzzy sweater, due to the fickle nature of North Carolinian weather. Soon, the drums and bells arrived; a thunderous activist beat leading community members as they marched into city offices. I had come home to a flurry of action around a coalition called Greensboro Operation Transparency, started by folks concerned with police brutality, accountability and transparency. Activism has deep roots in Greensboro, the place of the first historic sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.

Greensboro, N.C., is home.

At the College, students have organized and rallied together under the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability (CTA). Last fall, over 40 student organizations signed a proposal that aimed to improve transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and our administration.

It states, “This proposal is left as a framework rather than a complete plan of action so that students, trustees, faculty, staff and alumni can together develop it into an actionable long-term agreement.” In an open letter, (“An open letter from the Board of Trustees,” Nov. 16, 2016) the Board and President Adam Falk rejected every single point.

The College is a hub for the economic and intellectual elite yet, despite our many resources and excellent quality of education, we often get stuck on – or simply don’t have – conversations that critically engage the institution or its history. Our history is the framework within which we understand the present moment. And when student activists point this out, our activism isn’t seen as a valid means of expression, of civic engagement.

Williams, too, is home; or at least I would like it to be.

When CTA proposes the beginning of a dialogue and is promptly shut down by administrative bodies that sends a message to us.

When posters for the Rename Horn Hall event are torn down, when folks are told to take down pictures of students involved in protest, when students are told to stop tweeting criticisms of the administration, it sends a message to us.

It tells us that our struggles are not important. It tells us that we should be grateful just for receiving a response. It tells us that dialogue and discourse that is truly generative and aimed at building relationships and community is not as honored as the reputation of this institution.

Let me clarify: When I refer to generative dialogue and discourse, I am not talking about allowing space for homophobic, sexist white supremacists to spew refuted pseudo-facts. Generative dialogue is a place of building, of discussion, of imagining new alternatives. It does not begin with assumptions that some of those at the table as less human. It is generative to interrogate how white supremacy is constructed, perceived and empowered by actions or institutions. It is traumatic and violent to question the humanity of any person.

That Wednesday in Greensboro, I saw seven community members stand peacefully as cops tied their wrists together and escorted them out of the City Manager’s office. They were charged with trespassing in City Hall, a public building.

Although I knew this risk in this “People’s Document Search,” a symbolic action to release the files of a dismissed case of police brutality, it still stunned me. The City of Greensboro preferred to jail its citizens rather than hold an open conversation with the 70 concerned community members present that day demanding answers.

I am not Williams, but I am at the College for the time being. Williams College is an institution of higher learning, and what we learn and do, we will take and apply it to our work back home and beyond. And vice versa.

The College was not made for me. But then again, neither was Greensboro.

The College has made some accommodations for me, but every day I am reminded that I am not the College. But the activist and the optimist in me refuses to give up on the College, on Greensboro, on this country, even when I am utterly depressed and distressed by it.

There is much talk about resistance and protest, but as organizer Kali Akuno and journalist Debbie Bookchin pointed out in talks they gave on campus, there is no talk about building alternatives. What would society look like without the systems that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency? Our engagement, our critiques and our political education are more important today than ever.

Transparency and accountability are integral to the building of a community, a sense of home. Without it, the project remains incomplete.

Valeria Sosa Garnica ’19 is from Greensboro, N.C. She lives in Fayerweather.