Confrontation at Convocation

Student Protest Highlights How Evergreen Addresses Conversations About Race

By Jon Fitzgerald

Before Orientation started, I had set out to write an article about DisOrientation Week, a series of student-organized workshops bringing social justice issues to the forefront that’s put on by the Black Cottonwood Collective, an anarchist student group. But I can’t talk about DisOrientation, or Orientation, without talking about Convocation.

On Wednesday morning, when Naomi Oreskes finished her talk on the common read, “The Collapse of Western Civilization”, Evergreen President George Bridges announced that they would transition to the question and answer (Q&A) portion. At that point, two students stood up in front of the podium with cardboard signs that read “Evergreen cashes diversity checks, but doesn’t care about blacks.”

Bridges, seemingly flustered, thanked them for expressing their concerns before pushing the Q&A onward. Bridges announced they would have a chance to have their voices heard after the program had finished. But after the Q&A, the school songs were taught for twenty minutes, the program was concluded, and a large amount of the student body left.

What happened at Convocation brings up the issue of activism and convenience. Evergreen as a college promotes “civil discourse” and tries to push its students to engage in social issues that commonly divide people. As important as the DisOrientation workshops are for engaging students in social issues, they are a choice for the people who go to them. Because the school-sponsored Orientation Week doesn’t include these types of activities, students are not obligated to attend any social justice workshops, and can choose to hear people’s voices when it’s convenient for them. But the end goal of these Disorientation workshops is to be able to encounter these voices in your everyday life, in moments just like Wednesday’s Convocation ceremony, and be ready and able to engage.

Evergreen lists “Linking Theory with Practical Applications” as one of “The Five Foci of Learning.” This means understanding abstract ideas and putting them into practice in the real world. This is something that is central to the Evergreen experience. Not just understanding the point of view of others, but taking action when the time comes. At Convocation, students reached out and tried to be heard and George Bridges and a lot of students did not come through to listen.

If we desire to live up to our commitments as a community to engage in difficult conversations and work towards social justice, this means showing up for conversations like the one student protesters at Convocation were trying to spur.

The day after Convocation, President Bridges sent out an email where he apologized for his actions, stating, ”I believe we should have ended the ceremony once Dr. Oreskes had finished and turned our collective attention immediately to our students.” Bridges was faced with a moment where he too was unable to implement the fifth of our school’s Foci.

The point of Orientation week, along with DisOrientation, is to acquaint new students with the conditions here at Evergreen, as well as each other. There was not a more important moment of Orientation this week than when the protocol for Convocation was broken. If non-black students thought it was awkward, or that their attempts were too extreme, they should consider why their fellow students felt that they had to disrupt such a large event to get their voices heard. And even then, how many people heard their voices at Convocation?

A small group did stay to hear their fellow students, but their demonstration quickly changed from a few statements from students of color into a discussion over the value of the Black Lives Matter movement, mostly lead by the audience. The level of support towards the protesters fluctuated between arguing or clarifying to declarations of humility and kneeling from white students towards the students of color.

A faculty member stepped in to encourage white people not to take up space by talking, but just to listen. A handful of white students took turns reiterating, ironically, that white people should only be listening. And while the black students did want to address their non-black peers, they also wanted to address their administration, whom they felt, indicated by their signs, have not been addressing their needs. The administration did not stay to listen.

I did go to some Disorientation workshops this past week alongside Orientation. Some of them focused solely on orienting minority communities that would not specifically be addressed by school-sponsored Orientation week, and others worked to educate non-minority students about issues like Israel/Palestine, dismantling white privilege, and the history of Olympia’s Port Militarization Resistance.

I learned things from these workshops that I was able to use even the next day to help inform other students. Activism is everywhere at Evergreen, and becoming more aware of what others are fighting for will not only make you better equipped to navigate the community, but will help you decide where you really stand and what you’re willing to fight for.