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Provost’s ‘Avenues for Change’ celebrated activism, but some student activists weren’t buying it

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Last week, the Offices of the Provost and Vice Provost of Student Affairs sponsored “Avenues for Change,” a series of events geared toward student activism at Stanford.

The panels were aimed at equipping students with the “access, knowledge and networks necessary to make things happen at Stanford,” but many student activists didn’t show — and some who did said the administration still has a long way to go.

The programming consisted of two main presentations, “Institution Unmasked” and “Mapping Activism,” along with a community center open house and tour. 

“The founding thought behind this is students want to change the institution, administrators want to change the institution,” said Vice Provost of Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole. “We think this is a great opportunity to come together and talk about shared goals and approaches.”

The events were organized by Hamzeh Daoud ’20 and Michael Ocon ’20, student employees for the Office of the Provost.

“We really tried our best to have this entire week of events as much informed by the community as it was curated and created for the community,” Daoud said. 

Daoud and Ocon are certainly familiar with Stanford politics, as they were both centers of controversy in 2018. That summer, Daoud posted and then quickly deleted a Facebook post threatening Zionists, which circulated internationally and sparked an anonymous targeted ad campaign for Daoud’s removal from their student staff position. They eventually resigned. In spring of that same year, Hoover Institution fellow Niall Ferguson worked with one of his research assistants and then-Stanford College Republicans president John Rice-Cameron to conduct “opposition research” on Ocon, an experience that led Ocon to take an extended leave of absence.

“We wanted to draw on our own personal experiences with political toxicity,” Ocon said of he and Daoud’s involvement in “Avenues for Change.”

The first of the week’s events, “Institution Unmasked,” was held in Paul Brest Hall on Sunday afternoon to explore the various ways students can achieve institutional change. Gabriel Saiz ’20 and Tyra Blackwater ’21, who participated in the successful campaign to rename Serra two years ago, began by explaining Stanford’s relationship with the California missions system and missionary Junipero Serra, who was canonized by the Catholic church in 2015 but is viewed by Native activists as responsible for “systematically destroy[ing] native culture and kill[ing] native people.” Activism against Serra landmarks on campus began with an Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) resolution in 2016 and culminated with the renaming of one street and two buildings in 2018. 

“Student activism at Stanford, in my opinion, is what has been responsible for so many amazing things we have at this school,” Saiz said. 

However, Blackwater added, “the activism that happens on campus isn’t really talked about; we don’t hear these things until we actively seek to hear them out.” 

Following their presentation, students and staff in attendance brainstormed answers and solutions to campus issues like sexual violence, University investments and faculty diversity.

Students were also given an opportunity to hear from four members of Stanford’s Board of Trustees, who described their own backgrounds and their unconventional trajectories to serving on the Board. They also urged students, if they wanted to communicate their wants of the institution, to show up and reach out.

On Tuesday night, however, “Mapping Activism” saw a significant drop in student attendance. Following an exhibit on the history of Stanford Activism in Tresidder Oak Lounge, student activist alumni Lily Zheng ’17 and Dahlton Brown ’15 discussed the YikYak scandal of 2014, their involvement in efforts like Silicon Shut Down and their perspectives on the role of activism within institutions. They spoke, however, to a mostly empty room. 

“The reason that attendance is low is because trust is low,” Zheng said following the panel. “I’m not going to blame [student activists] for not being here, because it’s also true that simply hosting an event like this doesn’t make up for the loss of trust or relationships that aren’t positive.” 

Nevertheless, Zheng expressed her excitement about the event, if only for the opportunity it provided to disseminate important information about Stanford’s history and institutions.

Undergraduate Senate Chair Munira Alimire ’22, who attended both Sunday and Tuesday’s events, agreed with Zheng that the best explanation for lack of student buy-in is mistrust. 

“Nobody trusts the administrators, and … everything that is happening is the same thing,” Alimire said. “A lot of students … do not think that these town halls, these conversations, these events, will do anything.”

Alimire expressed frustration over what she sees as an “upsetting trend”: the University refusing to protect vulnerable students from outside harassment. Two weeks ago, the Senate was served a cease and desist letter by an attorney acting on behalf of Senator Sam Schimmel ’22, who was facing impeachment charges that were later dropped. Alimire said she felt the University should have done more to protect the Senate.

In response to Alimire’s concerns, Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Harris told The Daily that “with regard to the impeachment case, residence deans sought to reach out to every student involved and offer support.” Additionally, she said, the ASSU retains its own legal counsel.

Ocon, who has experienced the consequences of non-student involvement in campus politics, said that experiences like these are part of what breeds mistrust with the University. 

“It’s up to Stanford to hold people accountable,” Ocon said.

And while Daoud and Ocon wholly agree that lack of trust is the administration’s greatest obstacle to student engagement, they — and the University — emphasized that this was the impetus for the Avenues for Change programming. 

“Student Affairs seeks every opportunity to collaborate with students so we can discuss common concerns,” Harris told The Daily. “The Avenues for Change event series was one such opportunity. We are grateful to the students who organized and attended these events.”

But, Alimire said, that’s not enough.

To administrators looking for more student engagement in programming like Avenues for Change, she urged, “Put your money where your mouth is. We need action. If you say that you support us, where is the followup?” 

Avenues for Change, she said, “is just the beginning.”

This article has been updated to include Pat Harris’ statement responding to Munira Alimire’s concerns.

Contact Emily Wilder at ewilder2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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