JAs wear bleached shirts to highlight entry system inequities

Last Wednesday, approximately 45 current and former Junior Advisors (JAs) wore bleached JA shirts to protest a lack of support for students and JAs of color in the entry system.  Their action was intended to highlight the systemic and historical whiteness of the JA system.

The JAs who participated all cited the historical roots of the JA system in the school as a predominantly white institution and the still-existing need for work to be done on improving that system. “The bleaching of these shirts serves as a visible reminder of the inequalities perpetuated by and through the JA system,” current JA Zeke King Phillips ’18 said. “It serves as a reminder of the roots of the system. By wearing these shirts, we’re trying to show the campus and the administration that even though we’ve managed to improve the system tremendously, we’ve still got quite a long ways to go.”

The action was particularly focused on highlighting the emotional labor that JAs of color perform in supporting first-year students of color, even those who are not in their own entries. “We still have minority JAs who keep applying to a system that has historically never been there for them,” current JA Kevin Hernandez ’17.5 said.  “While this is something that is quite evident from just looking at the JA system, it is something that needs to be explicitly said and shown. Bringing this to the forefront will not only show that this system is not changing fast enough but will encourage more members of the Williams community to get involved.”

Many participating JAs extended this concern to how the College’s administration supports JAs of color in their roles. “We need to think about how the role of a JA has shifted while our school’s definition hasn’t, and how that puts a huge burden on marginalized JAs,” current JA Ben Metrikin ’18 said.

The spark for the protest originated with a letter sent by John Rodríguez ’18, a current JA, to the Selection Committee (SelCom) for the JAs to the class of 2021. This letter, which Rodríguez sent before SelCom began its selection process over Winter Study, focused on the need to select JAs who would focus on serving all first-year students, not just those who have traditionally felt at home in the entry system. “In short, I have never felt like I belong here — neither as a frosh nor as a JA,” Rodríguez wrote. “To that end, it is a surprise that people of color continue to apply to a system that is well-known to work against them at all levels — institutional and social. And yet, we do. … I sincerely believe in the power of this system to do good for everyone in this community, but this system will never fully support people of color until it starts to adapt and to critically re-make itself. And that’s a process that starts with choosing people who are in this for the benefit of others.”

Rodríguez emphasized that, even given the success of this year’s JA selection process, systemic change should not be allowed to fizzle out. “I think the efforts of this year’s SelCom were especially successful, given the larger number of people of color accepted into the class. However, we must be careful to not rely on numbers or statistics to define ‘success’ within the context of the JA system,” he said. “The JA selection process can be bolstered, I believe, through a greater sense of transparency and accountability … In a predominantly white institution, social spaces and circles are majority white or white-dominated. And when those social circles and dynamics find their way into the selection room (no matter how many people of color are on SelCom, it will always be, first and foremost, a socially white space) white applicants who have white friends (or friend-of-friends) in the room are at an immediate advantage. No one is around to defend the quiet, Latina woman from their history class in the same way that a popular, outspoken white man will likely have lots of voices in the room to speak on their behalf.”

The letter then inspired further actions from the JA class. The idea to bleach JA shirts came from a group of low-income minority JAs in the fall and had been floating around for some time. The impetus to follow through with the action came just prior to spring break. Claudia Forrester ’18, Darla Torres ’18, Daisy Banta ’18, Sumun Iyer ’18, Brad Clark ’18 and King Phillips then bleached the shirts for the participating JAs from the classes of 2018 and 2017.

While the organizers did notify the incoming JAs from the class of 2019 about the action, that JA cohort ultimately did not choose to participate as they do not yet have their JA shirts.

“This letter was a jumping off point for a conversation around privilege in JA classes and how that privilege impacts the experience of frosh of color and JAs of color,” Rodríguez said. “There wasn’t a specific sequence of events per se, but this letter sort of began a conversation, which then expanded, and led to an amazing group of people developing the idea to bleach shirts as a way of attracting attention to the issues.”

In response to the action, Associate Dean of the College and Dean of First-Year Students Dave Johnson ’71 reflected on the progress of the JA system. “Every single aspect of what it means to be a JA has been improved upon to the point that the JA system that I started with is but a shadow of what it is today,” Johnson said. “Anything that [the Dean’s Office] can do to make the
experience of being a JA a better one is the sole emphasis of the year I spend with them.