On Monday, May 4, students gathered downstairs in the Usdan University Center to speak out in solidarity with marginalized communities and victims of police brutality in the wake of recent protests in Baltimore, Md.
About 25 students shared testimonials, personal stories of oppression, and prayers. The event was organized by Marjahn Finlayson ’15, Arnelle Williams ’17, and Jayleecia Smith ’16. Finlayson explained the origins and timing of the event.
“It was a group of us sitting down one day…after the STEM retention forum,” Finlayson said. “A lot of us were thinking about how, especially in the sciences, how we have to focus between being students and then trying to be present as black students, and how Baltimore has affected us, how the death of Freddie Gray has affected us, how Trayvon Martin stays with me even though it’s been three years. We had to…explain to the professors at the retention forum why these things bother us. And then, for me, when I spoke to other black students, a lot of them were at a point of numbness because it feels like every other week a black person dies.”
While the events in Baltimore were highly discussed online, Williams noticed a lack of physical space on campus for in-person discussion.
“After speaking with [Finlayson], I was thinking about the emotional trauma that I know many black students are going through,” Williams said. “A lot of people expressed their anger or their concern over social media, but I felt like that space on social media was virtual, that you had to be someone’s [Facebook] friend to see it, not so much at Wesleyan where it needed to be potent. I felt that we needed to create a space…where we can bring people together and truly hear our stories.”
The event began at 11 a.m. and was scheduled to last until 1 p.m. but ran until almost 3:30 p.m., with some students skipping class to remain at the event and hear the stories of their peers. Williams acted as the moderator, and the event alternated between periods of emotional speeches and moments of silence.
“A lot of people used the phrase, ‘I wasn’t intending on speaking,’” Finlayson said. “The silence really brought people to want to say something. It was tragic but beautiful all at once to see everybody…just coming up and saying exactly how they felt.”
Williams and Finlayson commented on the lasting impact they hope the event will have on students in attendance.
“It was powerful,” Williams said. “It was impacting. And it doesn’t go away; we’re still trying to figure out the next steps to keep these conversations going because it’s all about the movement and keeping it going. You don’t experience the hype and then move on which is what I think a lot of people for the [Black Lives Matter] March did…just assumed that they did their part in combating racism.”
Participant LaNell Williams ’15 echoed this sentiment and spoke to the campus culture surrounding activism.
“Part of the problem is that we as Wesleyan students…like to go along with this whole kumbaya idea,” LaNell Williams said. “Like everyone is supposed to be happy, we’re supposed to be going about things in a positive way, and we get really content whenever [events like] Black Lives Matter happens…and students feel like they can’t take an extra step. And I feel like this happens all the time…where you’re content with having this shout out to what’s happening on campus without putting in the effort to thoroughly understand what was going on. That’s what happens a lot on our campus.”
The event was staged in Usdan during lunch hours in order to increase its visibility to the student body. However, many students walked by the discussion, and Arnelle Williams expressed her frustration with this occurrence.
“You have someone up there expressing their anger their fear, their emotions are at such a high, and I just glance out the window and someone is laughing, smiling, and eating, and just interacting with their friends without a care in the world,” she said. “It just reiterates the ‘not my problem, it doesn’t relate to me’ [mentality].”
Finlayson expressed similar sentiments, particularly about the mentality of some students who walked by the event without stopping to listen.
“Everybody loves black culture; everybody loves to be a part of appropriating [it],” Finlayson said. “Nobody wants to hear the real narrative…. When the horrible shit happens, you have to look to Foss Hill to see everybody like, ‘That has nothing to do with me.’”
LaNell Williams described her experience as a woman of color in the STEM departments at the University, and the event’s purpose of bringing race issues to the forefront of the campus discussion.
“We became visible at that moment,” LaNell Williams said. “We only become visible whenever…a march happens or a protest happens or something like that. Other than that we’re not visible on this campus. And it’s unfortunate because, for me, I’m a science student as well, and being a woman of color in the STEM fields, you end up being even more invisible. It’s hard to even get people to work with you, even on a social justice level.”
Arnelle Williams emphasized the importance of continuing the discussion surrounding race on campus and expressing her hopes for lasting change.
“I told people, ‘If you leave this space unchanged then you didn’t learn anything. You didn’t get it,’” she said. “I’m really hoping that people got it.”