By Zainab Iqbal
Published: May 17th, 2017
Many colleges and universities are known for their sports teams, academics, or fraternity parties. Brooklyn College has always been known for its beautiful campus, its activism, and now, a brand new initiative—the We Stand Against Hate series.
We Stand Against Hate was started by Brooklyn College’s President Michelle Anderson. It has consisted of about 35 events happening throughout the Spring 2017 semester, including panels and seminars on topics such as immigration, surveillance, and the First Amendment. Coverage of these events has emerged on social media and campus newspapers on a weekly basis, but what is the larger story behind this initiative?
As Anderson was preparing to interview for her current position as president, she immersed herself in research about Brooklyn College and found there were some external concerns about what was happening on the campus—some people felt like they didn’t belong. She kept these concerns in the back of her mind as she began and continued with her three-month Listening Tour through which she listened to students, faculty, and staff about their concerns of the college. She realized there was a common thread.
“There was the question of ‘How are we perceived? How do we identify ourselves here? How do we understand diversity?’” Anderson said in a recent interview with The Excelsior. “So one of the things I found fascinating was that everyone identified Brooklyn College as a place of extraordinary racial, ethnic, religious diversity. But that a lot of people, nonetheless, felt excluded, and wondered whether or not they were truly welcomed here.”
“We are a place that attracts tremendous number of immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants, a lot of diversity within the community,” Anderson said, “And how we understand ourselves and that diversity, and whether or not people feel included or welcomed here seemed to me to be particularly important.”
In her research, Anderson learned that Brooklyn College students and faculty have been involved in protests, “since the dawn of this campus,” she said. She realized that this was a positive part of the college.
“We are a rebellious spirit that comes out of the diversity,” Anderson said. “So how can we use that for an engine of elevating the discourse around these many controversial issues?”
And so the initiative was born.
In an email sent to the campus last semester, Anderson invited students, faculty, and staff to come together to brainstorm ideas on how to address important and controversial issues expressed on campus. While she had her own ideas, she wanted to hear others’.
“I wanted to have a series of things, not just a one-off like we’re all going to come together and sing Kumbaya. No, we’re not going to all come together and sing Kumbaya,” Anderson said. “We’re not going to silent protest. What we do want to do is contribute to the discourse. And do it in a way that is about our roots as an educational institution.”
And so there were tons of ideas flying around in the tight room. Everyone was inspired; everyone wanted to contribute. Because there were so many ideas, Anderson suggested that whoever had a plan was responsible for making it happen: from finding speakers to locating a space to confirming a date. It was a “radically democratic process,” Anderson said, but a process that worked immensely.
As the planning was going on, the national election happened. Donald Trump, a man known for his hateful rhetoric, had become president.
“And that made so many more issues all that more salient, all that more urgent to talk about,” Anderson said. “As things unfolded, people said, ‘Hey I want to bring together an expert on one of the latest executive orders, or I want to being an expert on immigrant’s rights.’ So it became something that evolved over the course of this semester in ways that were responsive to external conditions.”
During the four months of the semester, each event was advertised on Brooklyn College’s official Twitter page, as well as on We Stand Against Hate posters around campus. Some events were met with dozens of students. Others, barely 20. Many of the events were live streamed on Facebook, where they were met with thousands of viewers: some who weren’t a part of the college, and others who were students and faculty who just couldn’t attend.
“I wasn’t able to physically attend any of the events, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t there at all,” said Melissa Beagle, a Brooklyn College sophomore. “I saw some of them live on Facebook, such as the one about Surveillance and the First Amendment.”
One of the most popular We Stand Against Hate events was held on March 2, when the Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK Program invited Serve 2 Unite—an organization with a common goal to inspire people to respond to hate in a kind fashion—to speak to students.
“It was a good experience. We had a guest speaker [Arno Michaelis] who was an ex-white supremacist and he was telling us about what had happened to him,” said Eloisa Mercado, a Brooklyn College freshman. “He eventually stopped being a white supremacist because he realized it just spreads hate. It was very interesting to hear his story and learn why we should spread positivity and not hate.”
Anderson is so proud of the series that she speaks about it to everyone she meets, whether it’s a potential donor or a room full of students. Why is this movement so important to Anderson?
“I think about swastikas showing up on a bathroom, or posters showing up around campus; these things affect us, they are here, it is not who we are,” Anderson said. “We may not agree on any number of things, but we collectively agree to stand against hate and to try to understand things in a more sophisticated level and to enhance our compassion for one another across differences.”
“We want to come together against that idea [of hate]. And we need to understand how degrading hatred is for our ability to have democratic institutions, to engage in this project of self governance, to have freedom,” she said. “We’ve got to understand how damaging hatred is to the preservation of our constitutional norms.”
Because of the positive response of the series, Anderson is hopeful that it will continue next year and beyond. “Cultural change doesn’t shift in one semester,” she said.
“We’re doing what we can to make our campus be known for this series, and I’m hopeful that we can raise some funds to help support it,” Anderson said. “We have to continue to remain committed to these kinds of dialogues. We want to have more complicated and sophisticated understandings of challenging geopolitical issues, challenging national issues.”
Though she has only been president for nine months, Anderson feels that the campus has quickly become her home, and is committed to having every voice on campus heard. She hopes to continue her We Stand Against Hate initiative next year, all while continuing to listen to the concerns of faulty, staff, and students on campus, “because the listening tour never really stops,” she said.
“Brooklyn College does not sit back and let the world hit us,” Anderson said. “We reach out, we engage. We want to understand more.”