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Students strike to speak out against racial injustice

| Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Ever since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May, people all over the country have taken to the streets to speak out against racism. Inspired by this pursuit for racial equality, a group of students planned the Notre Dame Strike for Black Lives, a virtual demonstration seeking to increase awareness about racial injustice, which took place Monday.

According to a statement multiple students and organizations posted on social media, students were encouraged to enter their courses’ Zoom links and share a message in the chat stating the aims of the strike. Then, they would log off Zoom and spend their class time researching and learning more about racial justice at Notre Dame and around the world.

The demonstration’s organizers, seniors Annie Morejón and Mary Killeen McCans and junior Duncan Donahue, said they chose spearheaded this initiative to allow for increased student participation while shedding light on current issues.

“We began conceptualizing what a student strike might look like and what the aims of our strike would be,” Morejón said. “We figured out what kind of demonstration would be most accessible to those who would want to participate and meaningful in raising awareness.”

Students wishing to protest could submit a form expressing their interest in order to receive further information. Donahue said 260 students had registered their email addresses, but that some hundred more had shared information about the strike in their social media profiles. According to McCans, more than 800 people read their Student Strike for Black Lives document.

Because the strike called for students to leave their classes, McCans said they encouraged participants to reach out to their professors beforehand.

“Our goal is to get in the way of normal routines and bring awareness of issues to professors and students, not to derail lesson plans,” McCans said.

Daniel Lapsley, a professor in the Department of Psychology, said he was given notice of the initiative with a politeness he deemed “characteristic of Notre Dame students.”

“They informed me that they were going to have this strike. I was nonplussed by it — in fact, I rather encourage it,” Lapsley said. “I’d like to see some student activism, you know, I always encourage student activism in political matters and matters of justice and fairness.”

As a teenager during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Era, Lapsley said he witnessed similar unrest when he was growing up. Yet the current movement’s scope seems broader to him, and he said he hopes students will continue to advocate for justice.

“I’ve never witnessed something like this since the ‘60s, and it’s galvanized the whole country. And I’m glad to see it’s galvanizing Notre Dame students,” Lapsley said. “I’d be frankly a little disappointed in the student body if the movement towards racial justices somehow didn’t resonate with our own students, who are brought up on a steady diet of Catholic social teaching.”

Provost Marie Lynn Miranda also informed faculty members of the strike on Sunday night. In an email to faculty, Miranda said her aim was to “give [faculty] the opportunity to think about how [they] might handle/respond to the situation if it arises in [their] classrooms.”

According to Lapsley, this was a “friendly” email sent to give professors notice about the event. As such, he found reassurance about discussing the strike’s objectives with his students.

“I felt good about sharing the four agenda items with my class, which I did because the Provost shared it, so it gave me license to engage further. I thought was very helpful,” Lapsley said.

Moreover, Patricia Culligan, Dean of the College of Engineering, made faculty members in the College aware of the Monday demonstration, and asked to consider recording classes so those participating in the strike would not be disadvantaged.

Culligan said efforts to promote racial justice on campus are crucial.

“The importance of cultivating an anti-racist culture in our college and on our campus cannot be overstated, and I thank everyone for the efforts they are lending to this vital mission,” Culligan wrote in an email to faculty.

Courtesy of Mary Killeen McCans
Students changed their profile picture in their Zoom accounts to various Black Lives Matter messages to signify their intention to strike.

Striking for four demands

One of the main goals behind the Notre Dame Strike for Black Lives was to “stir the pot,” McCans said. With this protest, the organizers hoped to not only open up a space for the dialogue, but to stand in solidarity with the Black community.

“We want students talking about the movement and buying into it on a local scale,” Morejón said. “Another important aspect is of it was communicating support for our Black peers here at Notre Dame. This year has been full of so much grief and hardship for the Black community. There’s an urgency in this moment to build support and communicate compassion through action.”

Though elevating consciousness about racism was at the cornerstone of the strike’s mission, the organizers also strived to not merely talk the talk, but also walk the walk. As such, they are aiming to have four demands met: calling attention to on-campus racism, supporting the racial justice movement, defunding the Notre Dame Police Department (NDPD) and ceasing the University’s investment in private prisons and detention centers.

In regards to defunding the NDPD, Morejón said the group acknowledged it could be “a contentious demand.”

However, they believe a reform is necessary due to the “the nature and history of policing in the United States,” Donahue said, and their “over-reliance” on weapons.

“We believe that a large portion of NDPD’s responsibilities such as handling drunk students and monitoring for alcohol consumption could be handled by strategies that do not disproportionately impact students of color,” Donahue said.

To bolster action to meet such objectives, the organizers collaborated with other students working in organizations like Notre Dame Socially Responsible Investing (ND SRI) and the Black Student Association (BSA), which have previously advocated for these goals.

ND SRI was founded in the spring of 2019 in order to “introduce a socially responsible investment option to faculty and staff 403(b) retirement funds to avoid current investment in privatized prisons,” junior Madeline Whitney, one of ND SRI’s founders, said.

As stated in Notre Dame’s Office of Human Resources’ webpage, the University’s faculty and staff must participate in the University of Notre Dame’s 403(b) Retirement plan “upon meeting the one-year-of-service eligibility period of employment.”

This mandatory plan, in which 95% of all faculty and staff invest their retirement money, is a mutual fund comprised of different stocks run by Vanguard, one of the world’s largest investment companies.

Among the stocks which make up the mutual fund are CoreCivic and GEO Group, two of the largest private prison and detention center corporations in the nation, which respectively own 120 and 125 facilities across the U.S.

Whitney said investing in these corporations represents a “massive violation” to Notre Dame’s Catholic values, which include the “utmost protection of life and dignity of the human person.”

“As institutions that run for profit, there is a strong incentive to fill each bed and keep people locked up for longer in abhorrent, inhumane conditions,” Whitney said. “Through their investment, our faculty and staff are directly profiting off these human bodies.”

Lapsley said he was “taken by surprise” by the University’s investment in CoreCivic and GEO Group, and only became aware about it through the strike.

“The University has a whole investment strategy,” Lapsley said. “It’s very complicated and most faculty have no idea where retirement funds are being invested, we just don’t. So there’s a lot of details of that we’re not privy to.”

However, he said after learning about this situation, he expected more faculty members would demand change.

“I do hope there is some faculty pressure or some way that we can address the issue,” Lapsley said. “The money should be invested in ways that reflect Notre Dame values, that should be the guiding light.”

Through the strike, Whitney said she not only hoped to raise awareness about this situation, but also increase social justice at Notre Dame.

“The strike is for so much more than just advocating for a socially responsible investment option, and I believe it will achieve its goals of standing in solidarity and bringing awareness to racial inequality on campus,” Whitney said.

Building momentum for future change

The strike was a one-day event; however, Donahue, McCans and Morejón said they hope it will spark change.

“This can’t just be a one-and-done effort,” Morejón said. “If we want to go beyond performative activism, this has to be a catalyst for sustained and meaningful action once the day is over tomorrow.”

Student body president, senior Rachel Ingal, was inspired to participate in the strike and said she hoped the University would be on the forefront of fighting racism.

“I have been amazed to watch this movement grow and see student organizers take the helm to hold Notre Dame to a higher standard, and I wanted to help them build momentum for this cause,” Ingal said. “It is important to capitalize on the current conversation around racial justice to enact real change, and I would hope that Notre Dame could be a leader on this front the way we once were.”

Ingalsaid she is looking forward to work “hand in hand” with other student activists, and that their demands would be addressed in conversations throughout her administration’s mandate.

“I see it as my responsibility to show solidarity and support for these grassroots movements, and I have been grateful to have already had such fruitful dialogue with some of the student leaders involved in today’s strike,” Ingal said. “We will remain in dialogue throughout the year on how to further their vision, and we hope to bring these goals to other bodies like the student senate as well.”

Even though the current climate is marked with ongoing protests and instances of intolerance, Lapsley said he was was inspired by the younger generation and said he felt optimistic about its ability to produce significant change.

“I think your generation is probably more tolerant than any generation of my experience, so I actually have enormous confidence in the transformative power of your generation, and I say that sincerely,” he said. I think your generation is not going to put up with the nonsense that my generation did.”

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