By Taylor Johnson, Spring 2016 Campus Leader at Duke University
This semester was my first experience as a NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina Campus Leader for Duke University, and I have already learned so much. Out of the gate I had a lot of plans, some of which, like weekly discussions about women’s rights, reproductive rights, and the rights of female students on campus, came to fruition. However, in light of the tumultuous situations occurring on my campus this semester, some of my plans had to fall to the wayside in order to capitalize on the activist momentum around the 7-day occupation of the Allen building in order to secure rights for Duke workers, a great many of whom are long-time employees, women, and people of color.
Though the activism originally began in response to a Chronicle article about Duke’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask hitting a female parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood, with his car and allegedly calling her a racial slur, it evolved to include a great many other things. We had visits from local activists from campaigns like Raise Up: the fight for $15/hour as well as informal class sessions by local faculty on relevant issues such as student activism in India and the political history of youth activism.
I can say with absolute honesty that the few weeks I spent in a tent out on the Abele quad in front of the Allen building showed me more about activism and community on college campuses than any of my other college experiences. It helped to establish connections between like-minded people separated by circumstance, previously divided into their own individual campaigns for justice and uninformed about the other activities going on around them.
As a clear example of this, following the dismantling of the tents for the summer, students got wind of an administrative decision to move the Women’s Center from its prominent position on the west campus bus loop to an unknown corner of east campus, tucked away behind student dorms, underneath the Duke Coffeehouse. Immediately, a huge wave of protest appeared, spear-headed in large part by the veterans of Abele quad, many of whom worked in some capacity with the Women’s Center and who I’d been in discussions with every day for the past few weeks.
Complaints and concerns about the move included: the invisibility of the center in an untraversed and relatively unknown part of campus, where only first years live and where students from all other campuses will have to travel a great deal further to get to; the fact that sexual misconduct hearings, where those accused of rape or assault sit in front of a committee, would occur in the exact same building as the Women’s Center, where many survivors of assault go to seek counseling and could therefore run into their assailants; the fact that the Women’s Center, in its original space on West Campus, had become a familiar safe haven to many students seeking therapy on issues such as gender or relationship violence as well as eating or body dysmorphic disorders, that they would now lose.
Addressing these concerns to the administration, we wrote letters, signed petitions, and created collective art demonstrating the mass protest against the move. For more information, check out this guest column in the Chronicle to stop the move, as well as a personal blog by a friend of mine and former Women’s Center intern McCall Hollie in regards to the decision. In spite of this, the administration moved along with their decision, and the Women’s Center was relocated. Over the summer and the next semester, I envision that a great deal of my position as Campus Leader will be focused on addressing the issues brought up by this move and rectifying the lack of space for discussion of women’s and reproductive rights issues on this campus.
Until next semester,