Institutional reluctance versus individual need: Reflections on “From Lavender to Purple Ephs”

We have heard that the College administration is reluctant to make progress unless there is consistent, widespread pressure from students. One regular complaint is lack of representation. Genuine representation goes deeper than the percentages of people admitted into and hired by an institution. It is also about whom the College deems deserving enough to have a building named after or to have their photo permanently nailed on a wall. Though women of color have been here for decades as staff, administrators and students, the College does not seem to believe that any are important enough to be represented in this way, with one exception. 

My project “From Lavender to Purple Ephs (LTPE)” sought to increase the representation of women of color at the College. It formally ends this semester, as I gather material for archives, complete the website and thank the hundreds of people who supported me. With closure comes reflection, so lately I have pondered where this project fits into institutional change.

In a beautifully and thoroughly written article, UCLA Professor Robin Kelly analyzes the paradoxical relationship between institutional change and student activism. Though this is a simplification of his work, one of his points is that institutions of higher education will never be the front lines of societal transformations, though people within an institution may. Institutions are resistant to large-scale change, preferring incremental progress over decades, whereas people might need immediate action.

I know the College as an institution will not demolish the societal structures that make women and students of color disproportionately underrepresented in spaces like Williams. I also know, as people who provide so much emotional and physical labor to the College, we deserve adequate representation. 

Hence, there is a precarious balance between institutional reluctance and individual need. This balance is further complicated since women of color also happen to be human beings who are only able to extend so much energy outside of their classes/work. Women of color frequently feel pressured to speak up about issues of representation, and often we must provide so much of our own energy to make a space inclusive. How then, understanding their personal boundaries and the limitations on institutional change, does someone affect change?

This is not a question I can fully answer. I value both large-scale change and baby steps as a survival mechanism until more substantial change occurs. However, this is not universally applicable, as those in immediate danger of police brutality, deportation, environmental racism and other acts of violence cannot wait for incremental change.

Two months into my freshman year, I created LTPE to emphasize the importance of institutional as well as numerical diversity. On Nov. 4, 2016, multiple large and permanent art installations appeared throughout campus and online during an unveiling ceremony attended by over 120 students, faculty, staff and alumni. The pieces feature photos and stories from over 100 self-identifying women of color, including students, faculty, staff and alumni, on their relationships to the College. I assumed LTPE could cover miles of progress, not knowing that institutions thrive on baby steps.

To some extent, LTPE addressed the lack of depth in representation on campus. I was frustrated with only seeing representation in curated black and white images of happy people smiling, as this is not the experience of every person. We each experience the College differently, so this project was neither about which stories I agreed with nor about promoting any single experience of the community. I sought to give self-identifying women, trans and femmes of color spaces to speak unfiltered about what Williams meant to them and to give them agency over how they are represented. The project provided a genuine portrayal of Williams in this way, including feelings of acceptance and supportive athletic teams as well as hate crimes and critiques of the institution.

Returning to where this project fits, I’m grappling with whether this project confirms or contradicts Kelly’s theories.

On one hand, this project is mine and not the institution’s. I devoted hours of my time each day for over a year to creating the project, contacting hundreds of alumni and students to get submissions and photos, fundraising over $13,000, designing and ordering the pieces, etc. Completing this project served as a coping mechanism and a way to empower myself in a space that was alien and cold to me. In this way, it is not institutional change and exists outside of that framework.

On the other, this project is reflective of decades of activism. Countless women of color fought to make Williams as inclusive as it is now, and previous pressure on administration certainly made my process smoother. Drills in the wall and support from many different offices on campus make the project part of the slow, incremental process of institutional change. The permanent inclusion of raw, uncensored stories from a diverse group of women of color carries representative power. This project did not change the culture of the campus, but it likely was a baby step.

I’m only at the College for four years, so baby steps may be all I can do to make Williams more inclusive. In my own words, I developed this project “to create campus dialogue that moves us from lavender, a single narrative, to purple, an appreciation of the paradoxical coexistence of many different narratives.” It was incredibly naive of me to believe a project could do all that, but I’m hoping this baby step is a meaningful one in the larger institutional trajectory.

Raquel Douglas ’19 is an economics major and Africana studies concentrator from Houston, Texas. She lives in Gladden.