Around Halloween of 2019, I vividly remember scrolling through Instagram when I stumbled upon a picture of white girls who seemed familiar, standing in front of what looks to be a Martin Court apartment, dressed in inmate clothing with cornrows and grills. The caption read, “THIS. IS. A. MICROAGGRESSION.” Seeing the pure ignorance and disregard for Black people’s lived experiences in their smiles angered me.
This incident spread around campus like a wildfire, through word-of-mouth and social media. As a result, the Davidson College Student Government Association organized a town hall meeting where some students could air their frustrations and others could listen. I remember barely making it into Hance Auditorium because it was over capacity, filled to the brim with people.
The townhall was mediated by SGA members; however, members of DMP and other prominent student activists dominated the meeting, trying to facilitate discussion and educate this sea of whites who did not understand the concepts of cultural appropriation or microaggressions.
As I was listening, there was one phrase that really resonated with me. “It is black women that take on most of the physical, emotional, and mental labor on making Davidson a better place for marginalized students—we are tired.” At the moment, I realized that the trend at Davidson was real. More broadly, I realized that marginalized students and faculty always bear the responsibility to educate the hegemony on the various inequities that plague Davidson’s campus.
Spring 2020 semester then arrived. I took an anthropology seminar that allowed me to research the discourse between race and activism at Davidson College. I wanted to delve into why my realization about activism was true. Throughout the semester, I interviewed various members of the Student Initiative for Academic Diversity (SIAD), the Asian American Initiative (AAI), the Fostering Inclusivity & Respect in Science Together (FIRST) Action Team, and the Davidson College Microaggressions Project (DMP). The pool of participants consisted of students of different races, genders, and lived experiences; furthermore, they talked openly about their lived experiences at Davidson as student activists. All the names mentioned in this blog post have been changed for anonymity. The purpose of this blog post is to shed light on activist culture at Davidson College, framing it in the lens of marginalized students and their lived experiences. The analysis of the qualitative data will give insight into how every member of the Davidson community should engage in their positionality, ultimately understanding the larger mechanisms that impact everyone.
Activism at Davidson College comes in many forms. It can be done through small acts of advocacy, like a student confronting a professor on a committed microaggression. It can also happen on the macrolevel, like organizing a rally and mobilizing peers to action after a racist incident.
Julianna, a member of DMP, defines activism as, “any work that goes beyond the written rules to make a space or environment more inclusive for everyone that may come through.” No matter what scale of change students are making, it is the work that is being put in that matters.
Beyond a broad understanding of how people perceive activism, who engages in activism is the next part. Stella, who is heavily involved in AAI, touched upon not only what kinds of students pursue activism, but why. They comment, “activist work is done by marginalized students for marginalized students… when it is your lived experience at stake, you have more of that drive to make that experience better for yourself and others.” Keeping in mind that Davidson is a predominantly white institution founded in white supremacy, these inequities that manifested from the beginning persist today.
As Davidson College sluggishly diversifies its student and faculty bodies, judging from the lived experiences of people of color and other marginalized folks, they are no stranger to structural violence. Davidson College was not made for today’s marginalized communities. Furthermore, the support systems for specifically these students have not caught up with Davidson’s current rate of increasing diversity. This is where activism comes in, students fighting to make their and future scholars’ experiences better.
Rachel, a member of SIAD, argues that “activists are advocating for systems and structures that should already be in place.” Another student activist, Sam of FIRST, comments, “Yes, it is our choice to join these [activist] organizations to do the work that we do, but [the institution] is forcing our hand.”
Activism is a reaction towards institutional inequities and the people engaging in the work are folks who are systematically disadvantaged by Davidson College.
Furthermore, most of the participants mention that their lived experience, which is determined by their identifiers, serves as a steppingstone to engage in activist work, which also influences which initiative to pursue. Going into this line of work is an individualized process; no one is actually forcing them to enact institutional change. Rather, activists feel obligated to take on the laborious work to secure a future Davidson that already has support systems in place for marginalized students.
Looking at Davidson’s hegemony, it consists of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, and affluent students. They are the minority in the four activist organizations represented in this project. Considering why activists are mostly marginalized students, the hegemony does not have to advocate for themselves. Davidson was made for them. The various social mechanisms that benefit the hegemony in and outside of the classroom are deeply rooted within Davidson College’s foundations. I am not devaluing the amazing work the few white students do in activist organizations; rather, I am referencing the overall trend in our Davidson bubble.
Looking back at student activists of marginalized backgrounds, we must remember that they are full-time students too. All project participants averaged around 10-12 hours of activist work a week, in addition to their academics. As a result, activists lose time for themselves and sometimes even sacrifice time dedicated to their coursework. Julianna says, “when you’re losing time, you’re losing focus on your course studies, you’re losing time from self-care, you’re losing sleep. If you don’t have sleep, you don’t have anything.”
Pursuing activism work is like adding a fifth class, requiring the same or even more amount of physical, emotional, and mental labor.
We also must remember that they are experiencing many inequities just as marginalized students. When you compound the stresses of activist work with systemic marginalization, it creates a double-edged sword. I believe this causes faster rates of burnout for these students, in which each participant said they have experienced. Some even dropped activist work because it was too much for them.
This is where compensation comes in. Student activists who are a part of FIRST and DMP are paid for their work. Members of AAI and SIAD receive no monetary compensation. At face value, it seems that only certain student activists are compensated for their work; however, we must understand some history of each organization.
DMP was founded by Dr. Amanda Martinez, the Chair of Communication Studies and Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Sociology. According to Juliana, DMP was originally an informal awareness-raising community research initiative, compiling data from academics and Davidson community members about microaggressions. It was only in the 2019-20 academic year when the organization started to branch out and disseminate information about microaggressions, defining and providing resources to cope with them. Through the diligent work of Dr. Martinez and student collaborators, they can fund their initiative through various Justice, Equality, and Community internal grants. The funding is unfortunately not guaranteed, leaving DMP continuously seeking grant money to compensate their members for their work.
The FIRST Action Team was founded in 2019 after Davidson College received a $1 million-dollar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to promote diversity and inclusivity in STEM (Eastland). Students, faculty, and administration work together to encourage more people of color to pursue STEM, all while maintaining an inclusive environment. However, the grant will expire in 2024; for the FIRST Action Team to continue, they must find another funding source.
AAI was founded in Fall 2018 by a group of Asian American students in response to the Neo-Nazi incident. They shed light on the need for Asian American visibility on campus and the creation of a community, all while advocating for an Asian American studies department. The organization is completely autonomous, not connected to any institutional entity. However, AAI has collaborated with numerous student organizations and departments to host a multitude of programming. AAI core members do not receive any monetary compensation due to not receiving any endowed or other internal funds.
SIAD was founded in 2013 by a group of students in response to a large percentage of faculty of color being denied tenure at Davidson College. This led to students serving on all tenure track professor searches to ensure an equitable and just candidate evaluation. SIAD is a presidentially chartered organization; however, student members are not monetarily compensated.
Students who do the physical, mental, and emotional labor of activism deserve to be compensated. Monetary payment seems to be the most direct form of compensation. Recognition and access to opportunities are also other forms. Depending on the organization, compensation can look differently.
In the case of DMP and FIRST, the grants used to fund their initiatives have restrictions and are not absolute.
The crux of this uncertainty is the lack of endowed or committed institutional funds to continually support these organizations; therefore, they must continuously apply for grants to pay for labor and keep their work alive, in the name of equitable compensation for this type of emotionally disruptive labor.
For AAI and SIAD, they also do not have endowed funds to pay for student labor. To have direct access to stable funds and ensure organizational longevity, the institution or a donor must provide funding for that specific purpose.
The lack of endowed funds stems back to Davidson’s white supremacist roots. Since the vast majority of Davidson alumni, students, and faculty identify as white, investing in members of our community who exist on the margins (particularly students of color) has historically not been a financial priority of the college or our donors. Only in recent years have we seen significant institutional commitments towards undoing the structural inequities that privilege white over non-white people. Case in point, the four organizations mentioned in this blog post were all founded within the past decade alone, keeping in mind that our institution was founded 183 years ago. I argue the dearth of stable funds for these activist groups is a result of this trend.
I initially thought compensation would be a way to mitigate burnout. Broaching the idea of compensation to my participants, all of them would still do the work, with or without compensation. Kate from FIRST states, “When I was initially invited to join FIRST, I didn’t know there was monetary compensation. Looking back, I would have still done it if there was no monetary aspect.” Sam expresses the same thing, “If I could go back to when I started Davidson… would I still do [activist work]? The answer is yes because I don’t see how I wouldn’t do it… I can’t see a situation where I wouldn’t end up doing it. I think that’s the same situation for a lot of students.” The participants who receive a paycheck enjoy monetary compensation, most expressing that it alleviates burnout. However, all participants, compensated or not, indicate that short term compensation is not the main motivator. When we think about monetary compensation, we must consider where and especially who the funding is coming from. If not, it may taint the very nature of activist work.
Looking at the aggregate, Davidson College as an institution benefits from activist work. Decreasing campus microaggressions, bringing Asian American Studies on campus, or increasing inclusive pedagogical practices within the classroom will attract more applicants from diverse backgrounds.
The college profits from this, opening the doors for new sources of funding or opportunities. Activist work is accomplishing Davidson College’s goal to be more diverse and inclusive. Although activists do not directly seek compensation and recognition, it does not mean they should be unrewarded or forgotten. The institution’s value of equity should extend to activists of marginalized backgrounds. Finding stable funding to support activist organizations is a way Davidson as an institution could be an active player in initiating long-lasting change.
This blog only reemphasizes common knowledge: That these activists of marginalized identities possess incredible determination, resilience, and selflessness. They do the work and engage in discourse to undo the many mechanisms of marginalization that they themselves experience. Without some form of stable compensation, whether that may be through stipends, resources, opportunities, or even tuition deductions, Davidson College would be doing a disservice to these students. Their work will impact our community many generations from now.
Rather than Davidson playing a passive role in enacting change, they should help equity initiatives find steady sources of funding so they can continue to empower students who do not possess hegemonic power. Playing an active role should be an expectation for every member of our community; we should all find ways to be active accomplices in the fight to address and dismantle the white supremacy embedded within the institution’s socio-historical context.
To all of the student activists who put in the work on the micro- and macro-level, visible or nonvisible, and all the faculty and staff that support these endeavors, thank you; we truly do not deserve you. You make our community a better place and support the folks who need it the most.
Eastland, Drew. “Grant Promotes Inclusivity, Diversity Within STEM.” The Davidsonian, 1 May 2019, http://www.davidsonian.com/grant-promotes-inclusivity-diversity-within-stem/. Accessed 5 June 2020.
Nick Nguyen (he/him) is a junior at Davidson College, originally from Salisbury, MD. He is an Anthropology major on the pre-medicine track with hopes to pursue an M.D. and a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology. Throughout his time at Davidson, Nick has grown passionate about social justice and equity, continually learning more and trying to do his part in making campus a more inclusive place for marginalized folks.