Illustration by Katherine Streeter
Many groundbreaking social justice activists of our time are members of the Barnard community—and they have accrued tremendous wisdom from years of putting themselves on the line for the sake of causes greater than themselves. At a campus event this fall, members of the Class of 1971 who had participated in the Columbia student protests of 1968 exchanged insights with student activists in an electrifying intergenerational panel discussion, followed by small group dialogues.
“Apathy is unacceptable,” said Rowan Hepps Kenney ’18, who, along with panelists DaMonique Ballou ’17 and Nadia Mbonde ’17, is currently engaged in organizing for Black Lives Matter, student-worker solidarity, and transgender justice. Moderator Katherine Acey, a senior activist fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), emphasized that anyone can be involved in social justice activism in some way. “Activism doesn’t only mean being in the streets,” she said. “You can be an activist no matter where you are.” The event, attended by 150 students, alumnae, and community members, was sponsored by BCRW.
The students expressed deep admiration and appreciation for the alumnae who paved the way. “There’s so much to learn from those who came before us,” observed Mbonde. “We need to stand on the shoulders of these giants and build on what they’ve done.”
Participants included three members of the Class of 1971—Katherine Brewster, Janet Price, and Karla Spurlock-Evans—all of whom had been involved in the occupation of several Columbia buildings to raise awareness of their objections to the University’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the proposed construction of a gymnasium for Columbia on city-owned land in Morningside Park, and against systemic racism at large. Many students were arrested by the New York Police Department, which used tear gas as it quashed the demonstration.
Short excerpts were shown of the two films created by members of the Class of 1971 documenting how their lives were shaped by attending Barnard during this tumultuous time. Many members of this class were affected not only by the 1968 protests but also by the other social change movements of the late 1960s and beyond that forever altered our world.
The conversation continued at individual tables, where everyone had the chance to share their views on what it means to create social change. Frances Connell ’71—who was arrested when she occupied Fayerweather Hall—said, “I thought if I occupied that building, the Vietnam War would end.” After graduation, she went on to become an oral historian, a consultant for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and an associate professor at University of Maryland University College. Kelsie Mason ’15, a writer and filmmaker, said, “I used to think I could never go through the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, but here I am—I’m living it.”
Participants of all generations left the James Room feeling hopeful, motivated, and galvanized. •