Cultural space: Is history repeating itself?
by Simisola Sanni '97
The issue of having space for organizations is not a new concern at Mount Holyoke College, nor has it been an easy one. The Betty Shabazz and Eliana Ortega houses, the two cultural centers located on Dunlap Place, were acquired through hard work and determination on the part of students who felt they needed their own private space in which to meet, socialize, support one another, and organize events through which they could educate the rest of the campus. In comparing the fights the members of the Association of Pan-African Unity and La Unidad put up before acquiring these houses, one begins to see similarities in the chain of events that finally led to their success.
On February 27, 1970, the black students of Mount Holyoke College, along with several supporters on and off campus, took over seven buildings on campus, including the administration building, science buildings, the library, and Skinner Hall, which then housed Public safety and the switchboard operator. The take-over was an attempt to prove to the administration the importance the black students placed upon cultural space, as well as other related issues. Four representatives of the Five College Black community gave a statement and answered questions in the New York room that afternoon. President David Truman and the Mount Holyoke faculty passed three resolutions concerning the black student take-over.
First, they condemned the action of the black students in an academic community; second, they recommended the Academic Policy Committee should give immediate consideration to the proposals put forth by the Five College Committee on Black Studies; third, they recommended that faculty-student conference committees should develop a more comprehensive statement on acceptable procedures for making students' wants known. The president, faculty and students were able to reach a compromise, out of which the Betty Shabazz Cultural Center was born.
Twenty-four years later, the college was faced with another student uprising. On March 14, 1994, several members of La Unidad, APAU, MHACASA, AASIA, ASA, International Club, KAO and Native Spirit came together to form the Coalition. Similar to the earlier situation, the students had tried on numerous occasions to raise several issues with administration but had been ignored each time. A Village Commons event, where a woman of color had been wrongfully accused of trying to steal something from a gift shop, was the last straw for the students of color who felt the issue had not been adequately acknowledged by the College. The first instinct of the members of the Coalition was to take over the Mary Lyon administrative building, as their predecessors had done. However, some members persuaded the organization to present a statement to faculty and staff first, and if the next twenty-four hours yielded no response, then they could proceed with the take-over.
A meeting was held at the Betty Shabazz Cultural Center to which President Elizabeth Kennan, several deans and faculty were invited. The Coalition members presented their list of demands, including a cultural space for La Unidad, room and board for international students during traditional American holidays, financial assistance for international students for study abroad programs, cultural space for Native Spirit, institution of an Asian-American studies program, recruitment of more ALANA faculty and staff, and editorial control of the Voices! pages of The Mount Holyoke News.
As a result of the twenty-for hour threat, response was quicker this time and the administration reached another compromise with the students. Most of the demands were met, though some later than others. International students can now apply for financial aid to study abroad, there are some Asian-American classes (though more work still needs to be done in that area), and several dorms are open during holidays. Most important of all, cultural space was allotted to La Unidad and Native Spirit.
As issues of cultural space rise up again, through the EPC draft and other venues, one begins to wonder, is history going to repeat itself or has the Mount Holyoke College administration finally learned to take its students' pleas seriously?
Editorial: Space for LBA
How we are fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,
And Education's more than Nature's fools;
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dull, expected and designed;
And if someone would soar above the rest,
With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposing faction still appears,
The hopes to thrive can ne'er outweigh the fears.
Virginia Woolf quoted Lady Winchilsea in "A Room of One's Own"
Mary Lyon soared above the rest when she founded Mount Holyoke as a space for women to get an education. The opposing factions were strong: women's brains were believed to be smaller than men's at the time, and a woman's only hope of changing the world was through her son or her husband.
Today Mount Holyoke continues to provide an education for women as do thousands of other colleges and universities across the country. But the College provides something else: a space where women can find solidarity in their gender.
At last week's forum held by the Presidential Advising Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Affairs, several Mount Holyoke community members spoke out on the need for a safe space for lesbian and bisexual students on campus.
This is not the first time such a space has been requested. Jean Thoresen, a 1966 graduate of Mount Holyoke who attended the forum, says the College was asked to provide such a space while she was a student here over 30 years ago. "I'm very concerned ... it's time ... This group has repeatedly been on the bottom of the list," Thoresen said.
LBA, SYSTA and Spectrum also requested "queer space" in 1994. Then LBA co-facilitator Mary Ann McCabe '96 explained, "We need room to be safe, a safe place for all sexualities where questioning women won't feel like outcasts."
Lesbians and bisexuals at Mount Holyoke have been requesting a permanent space on campus for over 30 years and yet they still do not have it. LBA, SYSTA and Spectrum leaders have organized rallies, awareness weeks and a million other kinds of activities out of their rooms for most of these 30 years. And that is the least of the problems.
There are resources - books, films, magazines, posters, newspaper clippings - all that need a location so they can be used to their fullest potential, whether it be to guide the questioning woman or to guide the homophobic woman to a clear, informed answer.
But most importantly, there are the lesbian and bisexual students at Mount Holyoke who need a safe place to go to seek support.
Creating a space for lesbian and bisexual students is not about separating them from the straight people, not above keeping them together as an angry minority. Lesbian and bisexual students desperately need, and deserve a space, so they can find support, solidarity in their sexuality.