Five Years After Amherst Uprising, What Should Campus Activism Look Like?

This Thursday, Nov. 12, marks the five-year anniversary of Amherst Uprising. The movement, which was initially planned as a one-hour solidarity protest with students at the University of Missouri, Yale and other universities, lengthened into a weekend-long sit-in at Frost Library where students aired grievances concerning the experience of students of color on campus. The execution of the movement initially started somewhat rocky, with the publishing of 11 demands that were simultaneously criticized as illiberal and unambitious. But after further communication with the administration, the movement elaborated on nine long-term areas for improvement: “cultural competency, academic policy, prospective students, faculty and staff hiring, student resources, the mascot, funding, alumni relations and mental health.”

The lasting results of this moment of activism include the abandonment of the Lord Jeff mascot and the foundation of what is now the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, the college will begin its remembrance and reflection on the activism and protests that forced the school to reckon with its institutional failings with respect to people of color on campus. 

Of course, there is much to be said about whether the college has made the administrative policy changes necessary to meet the demands of Uprising. But this week, the Editorial Board wants to reflect on something beyond just policy. We find it necessary to think about Amherst College’s culture of activism over the past five years and in particular, the impact of storytelling on that culture. 

In coming together and speaking about their own experiences, students of color who participated in the Amherst Uprising made the administration, faculty and their white classmates aware of the vast cultural and policy failures that lay just under the surface. While metrics like student demographics painted a rosy picture of a rapidly changing and radically diversifying college, treatment and support for students of color had not improved at the same pace. The college’s heightened awareness of this after student story sharing made the Amherst Uprising perhaps its most popular student movement — participated in by two-thirds of the student body and formally endorsed by four-fifths of the academic departments.

More recently, using a similar storytelling strategy, students and alumni joined together using @BlackAmherstSpeaks, #ReclaimAmherst, and #IntegrateAmherst to push for the college to reckon with its failures to protect and support its students of color. Like the Amherst Uprising, these movements have relied primarily on the collective sharing of grievances and harmful experiences in order to make the campus at large aware of issues that linger. However, learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, these movements have presented the college with concrete, actionable demands regarding campus safety, staffing practices and racial sensitivity training. 

And so far, it has worked. In response, the college released a 17-point anti-racism plan, addressing the concerns raised by each group and taking serious aim at root issues.

Even as we continue our engagement with national and local politics following Biden’s successful bid for presidency, one of the areas we can and should be most focused is on Amherst College itself. We have the experience and the power to make our college better, all we need is the will and the right message. The best way to find those areas that need improvement and address them is in a constant dialogue. Whether this is through @BlackAmherstSpeaks, The Student or just communication on social media, making our community a better place will be easiest if the people who have problems they are yearning to solve create or make use of a platform that can reach those who have the power to change things, in most cases the alumni and the administration. 

The Student will always stand as a platform dedicated to reporting on and sharing the Amherst student experience with the world and with one another. We are proud to have taken part in #IntegrateAmherst and stand ready to support more community members in their desire to have their voices heard and their stories shared. But we are not enough.

Students, alumni, clubs, teams and other campus organizations need to work together to make sure they are sharing their students with as much of the community as possible, not just their own social circles. When we communicate our problems, we can make changes. As much as we rag on the administration in these pages, it is also important to acknowledge that the administration does truly want what is best for this school and its students. Oftentimes all that is needed is to share what is wrong.

Amherst Uprising was a product of ordinary individuals coming together to create an extraordinary moment where historically dismissed voices could be heard. However, the weight of campus activism should not fall solely on individuals or moments. To create a culture of activism that goes beyond the moment, we must create structures of activism that can sustain themselves. We must look at our campus as a landscape to make change and that requires ongoing action. And often, the most effective action looks like telling people’s stories and giving voices a platform. Thus a sustainable structure of activism might lie in the posts of an Instagram feed, the pages of this newspaper or wherever else storytelling can be used to energize change around us.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 7)