Commencement is a time for looking back on past accomplishments as well as looking to the future. In this reflection on her time at The New School, graduating senior Brittany Duck reflects the creation of the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Social Justice Hub in the new University Center:
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With graduation rapidly approaching, it’s an apt time to reflect on my time at The New School. In my two years as a graduate student in The New School for Public Engagement, I have had my fair share of personal and professional triumphs, as well as setbacks. Without a doubt, one of the most meaningful highlights of my time at The New School has been working as a student organizer for Student Health Services (SHS). My journey with SHS began when I applied to an online advertisement for a work-study position. The job was created in response to data from the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), the bi-annual New School student health survey, showing that students who participated and identified as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) experience greater isolation and higher rates of depression and anxiety than their classmates. The job intended to address these needs by hiring student workers to help build community for LGBT, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and Gender Non-conforming students (total acronym LGBTQIAGNC). As a queer-identifying incoming student, excited to get involved on campus, the position seemed like a great fit. After meeting my future bosses, Tamara Oyola-Santiago and Rachel Knopf Shey, and fellow student organizers Jade Fair and Will Johnson, I knew this was the job for me.
The team got to work. We organized mixers, film screenings and panels. We talked to LGBTQIAGNC students about their needs and what types of events and policies they would like to see at The New School. We quickly realized that one of the most significant obstacles to student organizing and community-building was the lack of student-run social justice space on campus. Jade, Will and I decided that the school’s administration should make a greater effort to support some of its most vulnerable students. Consequently, we started developing a plan to advocate for the creation of a student-run organizing space, and, with the university pouring millions of dollars into construction for the new University Center, we thought that was the best place to house the proposed student space.
The first thing we did was research other student efforts to create an organizing space. We discovered that the University Student Senate (USS) in previous years had voted to create an LGBTQIAGNC student center, but that the plans had been tabled because of debates about preferential treatment. Some argued that other students on campus, especially students of color and low-income students, also felt marginalized and to privilege the needs of LGBTQIAGNC students was unfair. This argument did not sit well with the team, especially Jade and I. As two black, queer students, not from wealthy families our organizing, from day one, was intersectional. People do not have unitary or static identities, and our push for a student-run space was always cognizant of that fact.
Next, Jade and I decided to confront the university president and provost. In the fall of 2012, we attended a university-wide town hall and asked President Van Zandt directly about the needs of marginalized and underrepresented students. The question seemed to catch him off guard, and his initial answer was dismissive. Our efforts may have ended there, if not for the advocacy of Sydney Kopp-Richardson, interim director of the Office of Social Justice Initiatives. During her weekly meetings with the administration, Sydney pushed to keep the issue of student space on the agenda. She also worked to connect Jade and I to other students, including Jillian White, Peta Mni, Rhiannon Auriemma and Rashid Owoyele, also doing student-organizing work on campus. As the group of interested students grew, we worked to develop a formal, written proposal for student space. We decided to name our proposed space the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, after black gay writer and New School alum James Baldwin, trans Latina activist and Stonewall agitator Sylvia Rivera, and Chinese-American labor organizer Grace Lee Boggs. The legacy of these three activists cast a wide shadow, but we were immensely inspired by their work. We circulated our proposal to several student organizations, including the Feminist Collective, Students of the African Diaspora and Asian Students Society, and among faculty and staff. Admittedly there were detractors. Some said it would never materialize, that we would never gain access to the new building, but we kept pushing.
In late 2012, another town hall was called, this time to specifically address the need for student space. The president and provost met with about 40 students and a handful of sympathetic faculty and staff. The conversation was heated. Students aired their grievances and shared action steps from the proposal. At the end of the semester, we were unsure what, if anything, would come of our efforts. At the start of Spring 2013, I received good news from Sydney. The administration was willing to discuss the creation of an intersectional social justice space. A design charrette was organized with student advocates, Sydney, Tamara, President Van Zandt, Provost Tim Marshall, Senior Vice President for Student Services Linda Abrams Reimer, and designer Michael Joy. It was an immensely productive meeting. The administration was responsive to student demands and appropriate compromises were reached. The meeting was followed by a tour of the new building, and I saw for the first time what would become the 5th floor Social Justice Hub.
Since that meeting, almost one year ago exactly, many things have happened, good and bad. The space that so many people fought to create is now a reality. People have transitioned out of the university, new student leaders have taken up the torch, and the Social Justice Committee and Office of Social Justice Initiatives have taken over day-to-day management of the space. So much work remains to be done. This time is bittersweet for me. I suppose given my limited time here, I always knew I would not get to see the space fully flourish, but I sincerely hope that it does. I hope that New School students for years to come are able to make it their own, that it will contribute to making this university a more just and inclusive place for all students, especially those who are often left out because of their race, gender expression, sexual orientation and/or socio-economic status. Most of all, I hope people remember that The New School has a storied history of student activism: from sit-ins, to hunger strikes, to occupations. I relied on the examples set and victories won by students whose names I’ll never know. It is my hope that by sharing this story I can let others after me know that this university is yours, and you have the power to change it.