It was the night that (literally) woke up an entire campus. It was the night when a dozen different arguments on the nature of power, privilege and violence would play out in praxis at a tiny liberal arts school famed for its progressivism. It was the night of Guilford College’s 2017 Protest, and it began just as it would end: with a bang.
“Black Trans Lives Matter!” Such was the rallying cry of the student protesters marching on behalf of a Black trans student who had been assaulted just a few hours before the midnight protest that would blaze (or, perhaps, blare) its way through the sleepy, suburban campus where said assault had taken place. To make a long and painful story palatably short: upon hearing news of a Black trans student being assaulted after coming out of a night class and having their assault addressed improperly by P-Safe (Guilford’s security force), activists were gathered, and the aforementioned protest was planned out. Determined to wake Guilford out of its slumber, protesters marched through the campus answering the question of “When Black trans lives are under attack what do we?” with the rallying cry of “We stand up, fight back!” All through the campus, the protesters marched with fierce and righteous indignation, screaming “Black trans lives matter,” answering the above mentioned question of what they did when trans lives were under attack, and clanging pots and pans, with some noise-makers thrown into the mix. They were determined to wake Guilford up, determined to start nothing short of a revolution. When the dust had settled, though, it was to everyone’s surprise that the protesters had not started a full-scale revolution, but a heated debate over the very nature of Guilford college itself.
When asked about how much progress had been made within Guilford’s administrative body in regard to the safety of queer students of color, activist and rising senior Terri Daniels, 21, said in her characteristically no-nonsense way that “I do not feel like any institution is intrinsically safe for any social identity that is not hegemonic, and there is a lot of work to do. Guilford’s administration is aware. However, the question now is: are you going to implement the changes that have been voiced, and live up to our core values, or are you going to continue to be a venal administration and regress this institution even further? The choice is theirs. The repercussions will affect everyone.”
When asked about the cultural divide on Guilford’s campus, Daniels went even further, saying: “I think the cultural divide on campus is merely a reproduction of the oppressive political administration we have to survive currently. I remember when I first came to Guilford and feeling its magic. I instantly knew that this was the place for me. I knew I was going to be able to flourish. I’ve been here for three years, and I’ve had some hard times, but I’ve learned that growth entails pain and I’ve grown so much, which I appreciate. However, a part of that pain comes from Guilford’s administration and the push back from its far-right student population. Nonetheless, fundamentally, that magic is still there, it’s just rapidly decreasing due to Guilford not really seeking unique individuals. I think they seek out preppy, white, cisgender, rich; or Black, working class, and knows how to play a sport, which is basic and oppressive. Nevertheless, I understand why: that type of student brings stability and augments retention, which brings in revenue. We must not forget that all colleges are for-profit institutions (capitalizers) and will go to no end to progress their institutions. Yet again, the question is: are you going to implement the changes that have been voiced, and live up to our core values, or are you going to continue on?”
In regard to the counter-protesters who showed up later on in the afternoon part of the overall protest, Daniels was fairly magnanimous, stating that “I truly thought Guilford College has failed [the counter-protesters], but I wasn’t surprised. I actually anticipated their reactions. Due to our culture divide, there is an education divide. A huge portion of our athletes do not take classes that are going to improve the world and ensure that all life forms will be supported, and a huge portion of our non-athletes major or merely take classes that depict what the world actually is about, which are the classes everybody needs to take. These classes shows us that everything is a social construct, decolonize everything you thought you knew, and change the world to be the place you know it could be. Guilford College recruited these people to generate capital and claim “we have diversity.” Could you really expect them to fathom what happened? To be on the freedom side? I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.”
When questioned about how she felt the administration had failed, Daniels was brief and firm, saying “Administration handled the situation poorly. I also struggle with answering this question: what could they have done better? Therein lies the problem. The administration is inept, simply stated, which is why we have the school we have currently. Hire competent employees, and we would not have to deal with trivial situations.”
Upon being asked about the protest’s slogan and how she would have improved the protest, Daniels turned fierce yet hopeful, saying “Black Transgender Lives Matter, and when Black Transgender lives are under attack, we stand up and fight back. I wouldn’t do anything differently…That protest was beautiful, filled with passion, and also an integral part of my Guilford experience. I would do it exactly the same in a heartbeat.”
Next, I interviewed Guilford’s president, Jane Fernandes.
Upon being asked about what precipitated the March 2017 protest, Fernandes, the first deaf woman to lead an American college/university and a notable educator in her own right, stated “A trans person of color reported being sexually assaulted on the grass outside King Hall near Hendricks after getting out of a night class [was what started everything]. P-SAFE did not address the report to the satisfaction of the reporting student, other students, and many non-students because their emergency alert was too slow, and the message, once sent, added insult to injury, in their view, by mis-gendering them. They felt we didn’t care enough to take swift and effective action and thus on March 1, 2017, a protest in front of Founders Hall occurred. Greensboro community members, who arrived on campus ready to storm through the residence halls disturbing the peace with noisemakers, pots, and pans, complicated P-SAFE’s ability to investigate and enraged many students by interrupting their sleep.”
In regard to student safety, and more specifically, the safety of queer students of color, Fernandes had a list of hard-fought post-protest accomplishments ready and waiting to go, showing that since the protest, Guilford has: “Created an office of Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and hired Barbara Lawrence to serve as the inaugural Vice President and Title IX coordinator; hired a more diverse staff to better represent our diverse students. Established a gender-free residence hall (Shore Hall) to support student recommendations made last spring; established the Women and Non-Binary People of Color theme house (Cobb House) and supported their formation and programming; adjusted the College health care coverage for staff/faculty to cover trans-related health; included gender therapy consults as part of our free medical services offered through Guilford College by Eagle Health Services; and continued the work of the Transgender and Gender Non-Binary Committee.”
Fernandes then went further, sharing the credit and stating that “The work of the Student Affairs Division has accomplished the following: In Public Safety, we have established new alert codes for emergency notifications. These codes have resulted in prompt emergency alerts being sent out to campus on a variety of incidents. We have implemented mandatory training on LGBTQIA language, culture, and current issues for all P-SAFE officers and other administrators on campus. We have continued to intentionally diversify our public safety staff where we now have 6 Black staff members out of 12 in the department. Our student programming through OSLE has shifted towards events aligned with student of color interests. The student leadership in the office is almost entirely students of color including many queer students. Our programming is centered on many Black performers and artists and has been well received by the broader student population.We have prioritized involvement, time and staff dedication towards Brothers Doing Positive and Sister-to-Sister, which are Black student mentoring groups. Their presence has notably increased this year. Student Affairs was an essential partner with MED for the fantastic Black History Month events that happened this spring. Overall, Student Affairs is now comprised of 12 staff of color and 15 White staff making it one of the most racially diverse divisions on campus. We have removed all gendered language from the student handbook.”
In regard to campus-based sexual assault, Fernandes said that In the immediate aftermath of the reported assault on campus, “We created two different support groups for survivors of sexual assault.We created a resource packet with suggestions about where trans students can get supportive counseling/therapy, trans-friendly doctors, etc. We continued to build relationships on campus with students who are a part of this constituency.
Friends Center brought in two special Quaker guests this year, one a woman of African descent and the other a person who identifies as trans. The goal was to get leaders from these communities in front of our students, sharing, teaching, and guiding them. I know other offices have done the same. Staff / Faculty / Students have participated in pieces of training to better serve people of color and queer folks in the past year.”
Ending the interview, Fernandes stated that “Essentially, the March 1 protest heightened my awareness of the challenges and vulnerabilities of people of color and queer people. I have incorporated this new awareness into the work I do every day to find, recognize, and lift up how working with trans people of color, for example, intersects with my work to support all Guilford students, especially those from marginalized groups. By raising my own awareness, and doing my own work, I hope that I can contribute to improving the climate of inclusive academic excellence at Guilford.”