Last week’s “Real Conversations at Home” discussed the dark parts of the University of Rhode Island’s history, highlighting the importance of student activism in the 1970s and 1990s to motivate students to continue striving for change.
Speaker Earl Smith III, a URI alumnus, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, faculty member in Africana Studies and the director of the Cape Verde Study Abroad Program, led the talk for students and faculty in Hillside Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 19. He referenced student activism and the role it has played on this campus and within his own life.
“Students have transformed the world since the beginning of time,” Smith said. “We don’t give students enough credit, whether it was the Civil Rights Movement, war in Vietnam, or the recent events that you see going on today, like the full T-shirt policy or Black Lives Matter. At the center of every movement is the youth.”
The focus of presentation were the protests that took place at URI in response to cultural issues, as he asked students to make their voices heard.
“To me, culture is the most important thing,” Smith said. “I don’t care what major you are, what position you’re in…cultural realities can confine us or if you’re informed you can challenge it, change it, and liberate yourself. So, culture is very significant in every student movement or protest. Whatever you believe is important is usually the sum of your experiences.”
One of the first protests at URI was in 1971, where student protesters came together and demanded the restoration of the Talent Development Program, an increase of African-American faculty and the development of a Black Studies Program. Many of these demands were met and are utilized today.
“I found this really surprising,” Mark Gall, a freshman accounting and history double major, said. “I didn’t know about any of these events that happened on campus and I didn’t realize the impact they had and still have on campus today.”
Another protest came when The Good 5 Cent Cigar published a controversial image on the front page of their paper in 1992, sparking outrage. The image is of two African-American men in handcuffs without due process. Students were outraged based on the misrepresentation of black men in the paper and the absence of due proves in this case. Then the Cigar used a controversial comic in 1998 that captured the attention of media outlets around the country.
“There’s just certain struggles that we go through that a lot of people don’t see,” Victor Moreira, a fifth-year Africana Studies major, said, in reference to certain struggles that blacks have endured both in the past and now.
Smith also discussed the 1992 protest, where several student organizations, including Uhuru Sasa, CVSA and the Native American Organization, came together and commanded the attention of numerous newspapers, administration and faculty, in order to outline their 14 demands. During this protest, various students gave speeches about the disadvantages minorities faced at the university, such as a lack of adequate funding for multicultural organizations, lack of minorities with roles of power and overt racism. These protesters did not discuss these problems as issues that only pertain to one community, but as issues that affected the entire URI community.
“I see some of the same things that are going on in the video, on campus now with race and diversity, Moreira said. “It makes me want to start up a movement.”
Smith participated in this protest, as well as other current URI staff and faculty members. Michelle Fontes-Barros, CELS resource adviser and co-chair on the university’s Equity Council, and Karoline Lopes, acting director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, are two current URI faculty members that participated in the protest as well. Students were shown a video detailing the protests.
“I feel like this video needs to be shown to more students,” Moreira said. “ Students need to know the history here at this university, like, in order for you to create change you have to know this history of the university and what the university once stood for…there’s a lot that students need to know before they can get up and say ‘we’re going to make this happen.’”
The new General Education program, African American studies, the MSSC, the Counseling Center and the Gender and Sexuality center are all results of student led protests. “This showed that student activism has a big impact, even more than we believe. It was good to see that collective action can really work,” Gall said.
This was the fourth presentation from the Real Conversations at Home series. Deborah Bergner, coordinator of Educational Programs, is very passionate about this series and believes that these conversations are important to have with students.
“This program really helps students know that the administration today were the activists of yesterday,” Bergner said.
The final presentation of this series, entitled “Community Conversation with URI Police,” took place on Oct. 26.