Black organizers share experiences, strategies on campus activism


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Provost Jonathan Holloway in his office in November. Holloway, a scholar in African American history, discussed in his speech the history of black student activism and his role as a professor and dean.

Alan Perez, Assistant Campus Editor

After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, Sarah Oberholtzer (Communication ’17) said she wanted a space for black students to express grief and anger. So she organized a demonstration as a “space to breathe, cry and be enraged together as black students, as concerned students.”

“I didn’t see a space for me to feel rage adequately and publicly that was supported by the University,” Oberholtzer said at a Friday event. She said after that demonstration “it just made more and more sense to get involved in organizing efforts.”

Oberholtzer, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter NU, was among a group of panelists from several colleges — including Columbia University and the University of Missouri — who shared their knowledge and stories about on-campus organizing. The event was hosted by the Center for African American History, the Department of African American Studies and Campus Inclusion and Community. Speakers and panelists related the recent rise of black student activism to movements in the 1960s, including the 1968 takeover of the Bursar’s Office at NU.

Though some of the student activists had organized before the 2014 protests, they said their work escalated as the rest of the nation reacted in protest. Several panelists stressed “coalition building” to amass the power to push university administrators. Others discussed what they said was unfair media coverage, which one panelist said prompted him to establish media-free spaces for activists.

The panel discussion, held in the Rebecca Crown Center, was preceded by a speech by Provost Jonathan Holloway, who read excerpts from his upcoming book on the history of black student movements.

Holloway, a scholar of African American history and black student activism, discussed in his speech the difficulty of responding to student movements while he was a professor and dean at Yale University.

“Professor Holloway was like ‘This is great — look at this happening, students are waking up,’” Holloway told The Daily. “And the dean (in me) was like, ‘Oh God, students are waking up.’ Not that I wanted them to be quiet, but the dean in me wanted to say, ‘This is a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface.’”

Holloway was the dean of Yale College when the Black Lives Matter movement reached college campuses in response to the deaths of Brown and other unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. As Yale’s campus grappled with a series of racially charged incidents in 2015, Holloway became a “potent symbol for hundreds of African American activists on campus” after he gave an impromptu speech to students saying he would “do better,” according to the Yale Daily News.

At Northwestern, however, the dynamic is different, he said. As provost, he is less “student-facing,” as his position revolves more around interactions with administrators and faculty than at Yale.

The panelists discussed several aspects of organizing, such as the use of Twitter and other traditional media outlets. Oberholtzer said hashtags on social media sites make it easier to find past information on issues faced by activists.

She added that self-care is a problem often overlooked by activists, as the issues they face are “depressing.”

“I realize there was this moment where I noticed my boundaries, noticed this was too much,” Oberholtzer said. She stressed the importance of “creating a culture, wherever you build community, that checks in with each other regularly and is very intentionally prioritizing each person.”

Weinberg sophomore Sayeed Sanchez said he attended the event to learn about and get more involved in social justice advocacy at Northwestern.

Sanchez said he wasn’t previously aware of the similarities between the experiences of students of color at many elite institutions.

“I really appreciated that we had panelists who had a history at other places and incorporated concrete examples and histories of the similarities and also differences of their experience,” he said. “I’ll really be thinking about how these issues manifest (at places) like Northwestern and Columbia (University) … and how students of color and faculty can combat against that.”

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