Then and Now
To be an activist is to believe in change, and to recognize that our own ability to change, to grow, intensifies our power. The passions that drive us in college may be precursors to large-scale action to come—or they may be so affecting that, as we age, we seek alternative, quotidian ways to rectify imbalance. Here are 18 members of our community whose accomplishments at different points in their lives have wrought social change.
As in the rest of the nation, the late 1960s represented a period of intense turmoil at Sarah Lawrence. While a sit-in took place in Westlands during the spring of 1969 the new Black Students Association (BSA) on campus was lobbying hard for a curriculum and faculty that reflected the intellectual and cultural achievements of their race. President Esther Raushenbush wrote in a May 1968 memo to the Association, “As with many other aspects of our lives, both in education and outside it, this effort for a serious search into the contribution and meaning of the experience of black people should have been made long ago.”
“...our goal was to imbue youngsters from less than privileged back - grounds with a sense that they could accomplish anything in life.”
By the time student Paul Kwame Johnson ’74 arrived at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 1970, “the atmosphere on campus reflected the reality of the times,” he says. “There was a sense of African-American racial pride and a push for social change.” Living with a number of other African-American students in Slonim House—nicknamed “Black House,” Johnson says—where the BSA was based, Johnson began an afterschool cultural and ethnic educational program for youngsters in a low-income, racially segregated section of Yonkers. Today the program, Youth Theater Interactions, continues, with Johnson, who is now the group’s artistic director, carrying on the quiet but steady brand of community activism he began three decades before.
"When I arrived at Sarah Lawrence, Slonim House was the black cultural center for the College, as well as an academic center and a social gathering place. That year for the first time there were African-American males on campus who came from urban areas the College had never tapped before for its student pool. It was a very optimistic time. [But] for a black studies program to survive, to be successful, it needed to be more integrated with the other academic and social activities on campus, not separate...When I started Youth Theater Interactions, our goal was to imbue youngsters from less than privileged backgrounds with a sense that they could accomplish anything in life. That remains our goal today. It’s great to be a part of a sense of community togetherness, to make a difference for the race, for the people coming up behind us and the people who went before.”
It wasn’t the first time students at Sarah Lawrence assumed an activist role, but by the late 1940s they finally had a home base on campus. Community House, one of the original buildings of the Lawrence estate, first functioned as a gazebo, positioned on a rock promontory to take advantage of cool summer breezes. During the years of World War II, it acquired its name and four walls and began serving as a meeting place for student organizations. By 1947, it had become the dispatch point for community activists— some who worked on fundraising for the Community Chest, others who worked at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, and others who passed out leaflets in Bronxville for Brotherhood Week and placed posters in local stores advertising the World Food Conference.
Marjorie Powers White ’47, one those early SLC activists, recently shared some of her thoughts about her experiences working in the community. It wasn’t a confrontational form of activism, she explained, but it was effective in its own way. One summer, White also worked with children on an Indian reservation in the West, and in the years after graduation, she became a member of the Committee on Racial Equality, writing newsletters for it.
“I was just 18 years old and learning a whole lot of exciting things. Before you reach that age, everything is planned for you. Then, for the first time in your life, you have some choices—in what you study and how you spend your free time and where you go. So it’s part of the educational process when all of a sudden you realize what an unequal world it is, and you feel the need to be doing some small thing for others. No one told us to do it. It was part of being a human being, of relating in a larger way to the community.”
Westlands Sit-in, Part One: 1969
In March 1969, approximately 100 Sarah Lawrence students occupied Westlands Hall, locking out college administrators and demanding that a $350 tuition hike be rescinded. The sit-in took place not in isolation, but rather against the backdrop of a nation in turmoil: U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam for a cause many at home did not support; the Civil Rights movement in full force throughout the country; and students using demonstrations and sit-ins to challenge authority in colleges and universities. For the protesters at Sarah Lawrence, the notion that an institution of higher education should answer only to privileged white women was unacceptable. During the 10 days that followed, the protest broadened, with participants also demanding:
- that at least one-third of new students admitted be from lower income groups and a diverse racial pool,
- that Sarah Lawrence “immediately consider itself a coeducational college,”
- and that students as well as teachers in the same field have the power to hire and fire instructors.
“Today we have other ways of getting attention, for creating dialogue so that people listen to each other.”
Their goals unsatisfied, the protesters left Westlands on March 14 “to continue a fight that we have only begun,” said a statement they issued at the time.
“We were so naïve, so arrogant, which of course is typical of youth,” recalls Natasha Simon ’71. “But I also think that arrogance provided a good push and forced the institution to think about the ramifications of a high tuition on diversity and the fact that Sarah Lawrence shouldn’t be just a place for rich white girls. At Columbia the previous year, the university called in the police to take back the campus. It was bloody and violent, and there were mass arrests. But at Sarah Lawrence, it was completely non-violent. At dinner time, the administration even sent a van around with trays of food for the demonstrators. Today I wouldn’t respond that way, but the times then demanded that we take those risks.”
Diana Leslie ’69, now a Sarah Lawrence Trustee and a consultant to non-profit boards, helping them work more effectively with their constituents, agrees with Simon that time has made the power of the sit-in more clear.
“Looking back, we accomplished quite a bit. Over the past 30 years, almost everything we asked for has happened. Perhaps the sit-in itself didn’t cause that, but the demand for a tuition rollback brought attention to the issues and served as a catalyst. Today we have other ways of getting attention, for creating a dialogue so that people listen to each other. We’re also able to mobilize through the Internet and reach a larger group more quickly.”
Westlands Sit-in Part Two: 1989
In February 1989, a mural painted in a dormitory angered many Sarah Lawrence students who found it racially offensive. In response to the politically charged atmosphere that developed in the weeks that followed, the administration issued a statement declaring that it “welcomes and nurtures people of all races” and “rejects all forms of racism.” Dismissing the statement as merely rhetorical, a newly formed group, the Concerned Students of Color (called CSOC), demanded immediate tenure-track appointments for new faculty of color, the appointment of an administrator of multicultural affairs, and the creation of a center for people of color. Some 100 members and sympathizers of CSOC occupied Westlands Hall for a memorable week in March.
A white member of CSOC, Andrew Gebhardt ’89, most recently worked with a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., training low-income people in activist methodology. “We occupied Westlands before business hours, feeling angry and empowered. Our attitude toward the administration was, “So what are you going to do now?’ Looking back on that week before spring break 14 years ago, I’m proud. We did a good job of organizing students, we got our agenda on the table, and at least the College took concrete steps. Maybe they didn’t go as far as we wanted, but we left a positive legacy.”
Catherine McKinley ’89, a writer who teaches in the creative writing program at City College of New York, described the turmoil of her own racial identity struggles in a 2002 memoir, The Book of Sarahs. She was equally reflective in a recent interview about the March 1989 events. “I look back now at the sit-in, and some of it seems like so much bravado. There was a lot of rhetoric, a lot of posturing and trying to be like the fearless 1960s protesters. There’s a part of me that looks back and asks, “Was that really me?’ I feel a little ashamed. But at the same time, I realize that what we were able to accomplish was pretty impressive. There was a curriculum change and new hiring, and the institution looked at students with a new kind of seriousness. We were being just what SLC wanted us to be.”
Conceptualizing the Struggle
On June 3, 1962, the Civil Rights Committee of Sarah Lawrence College presented “The Struggle: Two Concepts” to a packed house in Reisinger Auditorium. Held for the benefit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the performance was described as an “impression of current racial problems interpreted through original compositions in music and dance.” Choreographer Carolyn Adams ’65, who went on to perform with the Paul Taylor Company for 17 years, wrote in the program notes then that her generation of blacks and whites must take responsibility for history’s mistakes, “because the same country which has imposed nearly unbearable restrictions upon them also gives them the right and responsibility to undo the evils.” Her suite of dances was presented in four parts, each marking a significant part in black history: heritage, bondage, isolation and hope. A former Sarah Lawrence trustee—and now co-founding director of the American Dance Legacy Institute and co-founder of The Harlem Dance Foundation—Adams says:
“It was a coming-of-age time for young liberal intellectuals at Sarah Lawrence, which was a fairly safe environment compared to the South at that time. We recognized that people our own age were risking death for this cause. We were artists who were expressing our concerns in a public way, and our message was that even those that weren’t on the front line—in Birmingham, for example—could make a difference, and that artists could make a difference. Activism doesn’t always mean a sit-in or a demonstration. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t only about demonstrations, Rosa Parks and large rebellions. In our case, it involved the making of a piece of art that let other people reflect and react. The battle for freedom and rights goes on. We have to protect liberty on a minute-to-minute basis and be ever-vigilant. Even at tea parties, the effort to educate one another goes on.”
“Some people are better at business statistics, but I think I’m really good at thinking of unusual ways to tackle problems,” says Rebecca Kalin ’70, who is the founder of The Asthma-Free School Zone Program in New York City. She first began designing this project a few years ago while completing work on her master’s in public health; a professor in one of her classes challenged students to think of creative ways of tackling the problem of asthma prevention at the community level. “He said, “Think of something creative,’ and I felt like an artist in a public health class,” Kalin recalls—then came up with a five-part program that brings together students, parents, community members, school nurses, teachers and administrators in New York public schools to improve air quality and reduce asthma and absenteeism. Rebecca began taking the program into schools a year ago and is now working with members of the New York City Council and the Department of Health. “It’s still the only program of its kind worldwide,” she says.
“Sarah Lawrence is a school of activists: If you wanted to do something, you were encouraged to do it. The rest of the world runs like snails.”
“Stopping the war in Vietnam was my main focus at Sarah Lawrence, and I don’t say that proudly. I got arrested something like five times. Most people take so long to get something done. Sarah Lawrence is a school of activists: If you wanted to do something, you were encouraged to do it. The rest of the world runs like snails.” And now? “Being older, I understand more about human nature. I try to use more leverage and less effort: If I do this, will I make it possible for other people to do that? I’m much more strategic. But I’m still totally committed. I’ve made a resolution not to work on this more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”
In 1979, Sarah Lawrence College sponsored the first Summer Institute in Women’s History for leaders of women’s organizations. Pamela Elam MA ’80, a lawyer from Kentucky who came to study in the recently created Women’s History graduate program, was one of the Institute’s teaching assistants. Out of that Summer Institute, she says, came the idea of creating National Women’s History Week, and she led the organizing effort to obtain federal, state and local government recognition for the role women have played in history. By March 1980, National Women’s History Week became a reality, supported by a statement by President Carter, a resolution introduced in Congress, and numerous proclamations issued by governors and mayors nationwide. But, Elam notes, nothing about the process was easy: “It is amazing that something so simple, so exciting and so necessary met with such indifference and outright resistance when we went to Washington to lobby; it served as a harsh reminder of just how hard women have to work for every single step forward.”
Later in 1980, Elam and half-dozen other students from the Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs organized the Congressional Union, named to honor the nonviolent militant feminist group that eventually became the National Woman’s Party. The new organization was formed to recapture the spirit of the suffragist pioneers in the present-day battle for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Through civil disobedience actions aimed at the Reagan White House in 1981 -82, the student activists attempted to change the political dynamics in the fight for the ERA. Now retiring after 22 years working for the City of New York—most recently as deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration—Elam is organizing a 25th anniversary celebration of the 1979 Summer Institute in Women’s History.
“We were taking action, taking risks and we were getting arrested. It wasn’t like it was just some esoteric discussion about women’s rights.”
“We showed what a very few women with limited resources and a lot of passion can do to make people across the country aware of the vital role women have played in this Nation’s history. We were taking action, taking risks and getting arrested. It wasn’t just some esoteric discussion about women's rights. There were many highs and lows in our fight. But once you start examining the role of women in history and seeing what remains to be done in order for women to achieve full equality, you just can’t stop. Now I’m working for the equality not only of women in the United States, but of women around the world.”
During his time at SLC, Lance Dronkers ’95 served as a resident advisor, was active in student government, and participated in such campus groups as the Asian Students Union and the LGBT Alliance. After college he worked with the Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS, “the only organization that spoke to what I wanted to do in terms of my ethnic identity and my sexual identity.” (Lance’s mother is Filipino, his father, Dutch-Indonesian.) Now he’s based on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he is coordinator of Grand Street Settlement’s Adolescent Sexual Health Initiative—a job that includes helping young people access reproductive health care, training teens to act as HIV/AIDS peer educators, working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth, and creating culturally sensitive education materials about sexuality issues. Next fall he plans to begin work on a master’s in social work in community organizing.
SLC courses on race and gender and urban history fired Dronkers’s interest in social issues, as did his involvement with activism on campus. “In the student senate, I had to learn to work with teachers and administrators. Those skills were really helpful later, in building coalitions and collaborating with people who may disagree with you or have different agendas. I always wanted to work with young people, but I’ve had to learn how to educate at the administrative level as well, because a lot of the adults at the agencies we work with have issues about youth and sexuality. I’m also learning to be more patient. Working with immigrant Catholic and Muslim communities and wanting to do sexuality education teaches you that. I’m less angry and more steady, I think. Otherwise it’s too easy to burn out.”
Action for AIDS
“Get out your formal wear—your evening gowns, tuxedos, pumps and high-button shoes. It’s the biggest night of the year!” the announcement read. The time was 1983, and the occasion was the first-ever AIDS benefit at any college in the nation. Organized by Lithgow Osborne ’84, the initial Deb Ball was created by the Young Gentleman’s League (and became an annual event at the College for more than a decade) as a fundraiser for the nonprofit AIDS Medical Foundation, now the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Osborne himself comes from a long line of activists—his great aunt Mary Parkman Peabody sat on the back of the bus with the freedom riders in the South during the 1960s. For him, he says, it was carrying on a family tradition. Now a sexton at St. Phillips-in- the-Highlands in Garrison, N.Y., and active with the Osborne Association, a family nonprofit that works with prisoners and their families, he recently looked back at that first AIDS gala.
“It was a time when the disease had finally acquired a name. As a gay man, I felt it was important to make others aware of AIDS, and that it affected everyone. We got the buzz going around campus, and I remember that by the night of the ball, the dining room in Bates, where it was held, was jam-packed. A lot of students came in drag. In fact, there were all kinds of wild get-ups. We officially couldn’t charge admission, so we took donations. But we made it clear this was a benefit and we weren’t looking for a dollar. It was more like $10 or $20 that we wanted. These days, I’m still advocating for disenfranchised people. They will always be with us, and the problems will always be there. The question is, do we stand by and watch, or do we become part of the solution?”
Wanting to Win
“I’ve grown increasingly interested in winning and in figuring out what it takes to change the government and the world we live in.”
Deirdre Schifeling ’96 is director of minority information services for the New York State Senate (“minority” refers to the Democrats’ current status as the minority party). Not much of an activist during her SLC years, she says, her interest in labor history and community organizing led her to attend the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute after graduation. For three years she organized with the Steelworkers and then the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Then politics called, and Schifeling signed on with the Working Families Party, created in 1998 by union members in New York State. She served as the party’s state organizing director from 1999 until the summer of 2003, when she moved to the Senate Democrats.
“I got frustrated with how dysfunctional the labor law system in this country is, and I wanted to learn about politics, but I couldn’t see myself going into regular electoral politics. I realized we weren’t going to get anything done at the state level until we took back the Senate. When a new, progressive group of senators took over the leadership [of the Senate Democrats], taking this job seemed like a good move. I’ve grown increasingly interested in winning and in figuring out what it takes to change the government and the world we live in. I’m struggling with how to balance the desire to win versus the chances to build something that’s lasting and democratic. I know those sometimes run in conflict with each other.”
Janine Jackson ’85 has been with FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting), a national media watch group, for 11 years; she now produces and hosts FAIR’s radio show, “Counterspin,” which is syndicated to 140 stations around the country. An interest in how corporations affect politics led her to do an internship with FAIR (located in New York City) while she was at the New School getting a master’s in sociology—which in turn led to an assignment to do research for the group on the 1992 presidential campaign—which then led to a job as research director. “I realized I didn’t want to be an academic, that I wanted to do something more applied. I feel very lucky to have ended up at FAIR.”
Jackson says she wasn’t engaged with anything but her schoolwork while at SLC. “I was always politically and socially minded, but I wasn’t active on campus. I’m still not a member of a lot of clubs or organizations. Activism is so integral to my life; I express it by what I do 50 hours a week. My parents were lifetime civil rights workers, and I always felt that I would end up doing something socially oriented as my career. Today the issues seem less abstract to me and more urgent. Things don’t look that different to me now, though. I’d say that today I’m acting on the ideas that I was developing when I was in school.”
San Francisco-based Changemakers—could an organization be more aptly named?—is the 17th nonprofit Tracy Gary ’73 has started in her 30 years as an activist-philanthropist. It’s a national foundation working to democratize philanthropy by helping community-based local funds, particularly those involved with racial, ethnic and sexual minorities and the environment. Gary is on the road nearly half the year raising $20 million for Changemakers and conducting workshops, visiting groups and attending conferences.
Gary notes that she “came to SLC from a pretty conservative background and a pretty conservative boarding school” into the midst of protests about the Vietnam war, civil rights and feminism. “My activism was ignited, and suddenly I had a sense of politics and of how I could leverage my influence—and the space to shape my own values and strategies and to see myself as a catalyst.” After she inherited a $1.3 million trust fund and decided to use her wealth to facilitate social change, she started her first nonprofit, Resourceful Women, which teaches women how to be more effective philanthropists. Since then she’s been involved in starting or empowering some 250 foundations, networks and groups advocating for social change.
“I could leverage my influence— and the space to shape my own values and strategies and to see myself as a catalyst.”
“My activism has become more focused and strategic over time,” says Gary, who, with fellow philanthropist (and former SLC trustee) Cate Muther ’69, addressed a major gathering of SLC alumnae/i and friends in November. “I have a much deeper analysis about how change happens and the multitude of approaches that are necessary to make change. I take more ownership of my own place in the gap of unconsciousness and domination that divides so many of us.”
Part of the Action
In 1981, when Sally Lilienthal ’40 launched Ploughshares Fund, headquartered in San Francisco, she was convinced that nuclear conflict posed a terrifying threat to civilization. Today, Ploughshares supports some 130 programs aimed at stopping the threat of nuclear, biological and other weapons and addressing the environmental issues these weapons raise. “The idea, unique at the time—and I still don’t know many other foundations that do it—was to raise the money that we then give away,” Lilienthal says. “When people give money, they tend to become more educated and involved. We started with nothing, and now we give away about $5 million a year.” Until recently, she worked at Ploughshares full-time, “but when I turned 84, I decided to work only three days a week.” Racial justice was the arena in which Lilienthal was most active after she left college and for many years thereafter. (She also had five children, became a sculptor and was active with several arts organizations.) In the 1970s she went to work with Amnesty International, opening its first branch in the West and serving as the group’s national vice-chair.
Sally credits the College with exposing her to views of the world different from her conservative family’s. “My father told me he’d kick me out of the house if I voted for Roosevelt,” she recalls. “Luckily, I found out about the privacy of the voting booth.” At SLC she discovered that there are alternatives to “the safe, obvious thing, that it’s possible to be creative in thinking about how we can affect the world. I’ve learned over the years that I could be part of the action. I certainly didn’t know that when I was young. Beyond marching or writing letters to the newspapers, I learned how to build an institution that can accomplish something significant.”
Ensuring the Right to Write
In 1994, Sarah Lawrence sociology faculty member Regina Arnold, along with colleague Myra Goldberg (writing faculty), four undergraduates and students from the Graduate Writing Program, began the Right-to-Write program, working with 28 inmates at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla. The program, which continues today, was designed to help inmates use the written word to relate their experiences and express their feelings. From its small beginnings, the program grew. By 1999—when it was coordinated by Jennifer Wallace MFA ’98, a freelance poetry teacher and recent graduate of the poetry program at Sarah Lawrence—there were 30 students working with 160 inmates. Each semester’s efforts culminate in the publication of collections of the inmates’ poems, fiction and memoirs. Wallace, who now teaches poetry and academic writing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, cannot forget the power of the experience.
“When we shared intimacies through these writings, there was something very familiar. We were learning about each other through the dialogue, and that’s a kind of activism.”
“On the very first night we went, it was a “shazamm,’ a life-changing experience, and you couldn’t not do it. The connection was immediate, because the women were so excited and open and sharing. There you are sitting at a table, elbow to elbow. It was the kind of environment where stereotypes, not only about one’s self but also of a marginalized people, quickly break down on both sides. We were very different in many ways. I was a middle-class white kid, and they were predominantly black and grew up on the streets. And yet when we shared intimacies through these writings, there was something very familiar. We were learning about each other through the dialogue, and that’s a kind of activism.”