Evergreen Students, Swept Up In A National Story, Try To Retake The Narrative
As protests overtook the Evergreen State College last month, students watched their school become a national symbol of campus radicalism.
Videos circulated of students shouting down professors and administrators amidst protests around race and equality. That attention led to threats of violence that shut down the Olympia campus for three days.
National media outlets and conservative websites seized on the videos as examples of everything that’s wrong with college campuses today: students who want to silence people they disagree with rather than debate.
But students on all sides of the issue say the videos captured only a sliver of the reality at Evergreen.
“We are a school that takes pride in being able to have conversations about equity and justice, and a small number of students have used tactics that a majority of students do not necessarily agree with," said Justin Puckett, who is wrapping up his freshman year.
Puckett, who is black, said protestors are rightfully concerned about the safety and equality of students of color. But he thinks it’s possible for people to talk about race without shouting.
He said there are plenty of students on campus who don't agree with the protestors' tactics, but they've been reluctant to speak out.
"They have been sort of yelled at or silenced," he said. "But I've decided to voice my opinion now because I feel like we've reached a point where we can't remain silent."
To understand the Evergreen's culture, it helps to know a bit about its history. The State of Washington launched this experimental school in 1971 with the goal of remaking higher education.
Instead of majors, students craft interdisciplinary fields of study. And they aren't graded in the traditional sense.
"You don't get an A, B, or C," Puckett said. "You get an evaluation that tells you how you did, what you can do better."
That approach as attracted students from a variety of backgrounds. Evergreen has high percentages of both LGBTQ students and military veterans. It also has a reputation as a bastion of progressive politics and activism in Southwest Washington.
But that doesn't mean everyone agrees. Students said that for years, and for the past couple months in particular, race has been a flashpoint on this campus of 4,000 students, 70 percent of whom are white.
Kai-Ave Douvia, a freshman, is Puerto Rican, Native American, and white, and calls his politics "further left than progressive." But, this spring, he spoke out on Facebook and other venues about a campus culture he viewed as overly concerned with identity. And he paid a price.
"Online, I had people who were just blatantly insulting me, saying that my parents should have beat me, that my animals deserved to die," he said.
Douvia said he also faced taunts and confrontations on campus and had to change dorms.
This week, he signed an open letter with 16 other students who say the protestors don't represent Evergreen. The letter is directed in part at state lawmakers who are talking about stripping funding from the public college after viewing the videos.
It's part of a counter-movement of students that has emerged in recent days. The phrase "let's talk peacefully" has appeared in chalk around campus.
Protestors aren't impressed. Georgie Hicks said reactions like that are exactly why students of color started raising awareness about subtle forms of racism in the first place.
“When people of color are loud, they’re perceived as violent," said Hicks, who identifies as mixed race. "We were loud, but we were peaceful. So they’re really being condescending and they’re displaying their bias toward people of color with these things.”
She and other activists say videos of the protests were taken out of context, reported as if they erupted out of nowhere and were aimed at a single professor when they actually came after years of students and faculty demanding policy changes to address institutional racism.
"Protest doesn’t always look like it does in the movies," said Jacqueline Littleton, another student who was involved in the protests. "And sometimes it looks like it did the videos that someone might have seen on YouTube or somewhere else. And through that we were able to get things done."
Administrators have agreed to launch an anti-bias training program for faculty and staff. And they’re working with students to meet other demands.
But Littleton, like others, has paid a price for all the attention. She appeared in one of the videos, grabbing a slice of pizza at an assembly. The next thing she knew, her face, name, address, and phone number were plastered on message boards online.
“It’s been a pretty frightening experience," said Littleton, who identifies as black but is also of Malaysian, Indian, and white descent. "I’ve gotten a lot of death threats and racial slurs in my phone since then.”