Birenbaum: When the University fails, community emerges

Gabby Birenbaum, Daily Senior Staffer

Graduation Issue 2021

It’s difficult to reflect on four years’ worth of college experiences when the last year and a half was so distinctly different from the first few.

After years of growth and independence, most of us spent six months or more in our childhood bedrooms. When we did come back, it was to a changed reality. Instead of spending my nights in a shunted-off back room of Norris making a newspaper, I was speaking to Edit Board through my computer screen. I would walk to the Jacobs Center hoping to maybe see an acquaintance, and then realize that between my bad eyesight and masks, I probably wouldn’t be able to spot them anyway. And so many of the places that made Evanston what it was for me — evening walks to Andy’s, studying at Unicorn Cafe, belligerently stumbling into Burger King for late-night chicken nuggets — were gone.

And I did not feel that the institutions that are supposed to serve our community did so with good faith. Last spring and over the summer, the University laid off and furloughed dozens of staff members, leaving some without pay or the freedom to take sick leave. Administrators cracked down on student-led protests, with our president even going so far as to call students an “abomination” and a “disgrace” for claiming their space and a stake in their safety. And despite hundreds of people coming forward to share stories of how Greek organizations have been harmful, violent forces in their lives, many chapters went ahead with recruitment this winter.

This is disappointing, but not entirely surprising. My years here before the pandemic were marked with troubling behavior from the University and organizations within it. From admissions to handling the deficit to underfunding mental health services to dealing with racist incidents and personnel, I’ve consistently seen profit prioritized over community, particularly when it comes to the most marginalized members.

I originally intended to use this column to address how that profit-oriented attitude manifests in the use of physical space around campus. Having access to the shared space of The Daily’s newsroom has made an immeasurable difference in my college career, facilitating so much personal and professional growth and allowing for life-changing friendships — and it’s tiny. I wish other groups had access to space, or larger amounts of it, as well — like a FGLI space other than the SES Office that has been discussed but unpursued thus far, or something more intentional for queer students than the GSRC, a small room on the third floor of Norris.

But instead, I would like to celebrate the ways in which students have created their own communities and spaces, even when the University has failed them.

The 2020-21 school year was incredibly difficult. Collectively, we contended with so much loss — of loved ones, of the spaces we did have that were now unsafe to use, of friendships that did not survive distance, of time with each other, of opportunities, of a traditional senior year.

As the world has opened up and I’ve seen so many more classmates, I feel a sense of shared joy and optimism, an acknowledgement of the resilience we’ve displayed and the camaraderie we feel.

I’m proud of us, and particularly the organizers among us, for so many things. I’m proud of everyone who stood up in favor of community safety over police violence through protests in the Fall, and of everyone who helped raise funds for displaced workers when their employer, the University, did not provide for them. And I’m proud of the little things too — just making it through this year with good friends and a semblance of emotional functionality is a massive achievement, and we deserve to celebrate that.

While I feel bittersweet about graduating, I hope that the day is able to capture the immense pride we should feel for building community in the toughest of times. And even if the University is unable to convey that, I’m not worried — it’s the joy we created for ourselves that has always been more impactful.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @birenbomb