Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Letter to the Editor: Access Denied

Editor’s note: This letter to the editor is a transcript of a Power and Privilege speech given on Feb. 22, 2024. Brackets have been added by the writer to emphasize the original tone and delivery. 

Good afternoon everyone! Again, my name is Sueli Gwiazdowski, and I am thrilled to be here and share some words about the ongoing disability rights movement through the scope of my own experiences as a Senior here at Whitman College. I speak from firsthand experience of being a visibly disabled student, who is grateful to be the first in my family to attend college, and skeptical of the inaccessible landscape many of us know as higher education. Anti-ableism education and community dialogues are, frankly, new to many institutions. Whitman College often posits itself, and rightly in some respects, as ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing the issues of marginalization which impact its students, staff, and faculty.

Before I get too ahead of myself, let me ground us in the history of this Symposium. The complicated and turbulent story of the symposium is critical to understanding the push and pull often involved in change-making within higher education–which is all relevant to the problems of inequity I’ll be discussing in a few minutes.

On October 6th, 2006, two students wore blackface to a fraternity social event; these students painted their arms and torsos black and their faces orange in what many accounts of the incident state was a hateful rendition of aboriginality. Across campus, students were outraged at the lack of productive dialogue and accountability. In response to it all, and subsequent national news coverage, then-Whitman College President, George Bridges, challenged the Whitman community to understand why blackface would be offensive – Franky, much of the official college correspondence seemed to sanitize the violent act against Black, Brown, and Indigenous Whitman community members. Soon, students organized a movement to cancel classes for one day, mid-week, by way of writing a letter to the faculty expressing their desire to stage campus-wide racial-justice centered lectures.

After an agreement was made to cancel classes, the first Symposium on Race Relations and Community was held on November 9th, 2006, a little over one month out from the initial call to action. In 2014, after nearly five years of the event not taking place, the first funded Power and Privilege (P&P) Symposium was held, and they have taken place under the same title since then. However, every year, the annual Power and Privilege Symposium brings a much more sinister problem to light: Higher education institutions co-opt and transform rhetorics of student protest as a means of demonstrating their commitment to social justice.

Personally, I believe many liberal arts institutions diffuse and redirect “the demands of student protest” in order to avoid radically transforming the university, maintaining business as usual. Student activists made a concerted effort to not only record the process of creating the Power and Privilege Symposium (P&P), but also to keep the spirit of speaking out against inequity alive. So much of P&P’s past is carefully illustrated throughout a Zine, titled, A Brief & Incomplete Recent History of Racism & Activism at Whitman by class of 2018’s Devon Yee. Yee explains that the first Symposium consisted of a plenary session and two following sessions, during which attendees could choose from which lecture they would like to attend. Yee explains that the next Symposium took place in January of 2008, but was put on hold by the administration after low student attendance.

In 2013, an Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) Senator Mcebo (MC) Maziya and Vice President Marcial Diaz-Mejia formed a committee in an effort to bring the Symposium back; later, they passed a bill, named the P&P Act, mandating yearly funding for the Power and Privilege Symposium. Very recently, in the Spring of 2023, the faculty voted to approve the guaranteed class cancellation for Power and Privilege programming. Needless to say, the program, borne of activist demands, has endured a long journey in becoming an institutionalized norm.

While I don’t have the time to delve into even more of the Symposium’s complex history, including the 2019 demand for reparations for symposium student-directors, by way of a Zine titled: For The Record, I wanted to take a moment at the beginning of my speech to emphasize the student activist struggle that was instituting the Power and Privilege Symposium and highlighting how it is now situated as an institutional norm—this is great in some respects, but also leaves many wondering: Do people actually listen to us – marginalized students – when we stand up here nearly every year of our college career in an attempt to communicate our hurt, our pain, and ask this community to do better? It is obvious to me, that much of the listening and learning done at P&P is selective. Is this college-sanctioned activism actually reaching the people it needs to reach? Because no matter how many times I get up here, I don’t notice much of a material difference to my day-to-day life as non-normative student here. In fact, I sometimes fear that being loud about disability and queer rights, and the larger fight for equity, has made me a sitting duck for those hateful enough to actualize their anger at my presence being a disruption to their peachy keen legacy.

What I’m really trying to say here is that being a proud and loud queer and disabled student activist has certainly made me visible to allies and accomplices, sure, but it has also made me hypervisible to individuals who want nothing more than to disempower me and further marginalize me—At more than one point throughout my college career, I have needed security to escort me to classes and meetings in order to feel safe—yes, at Whitman College. If hearing this makes you feel uncomfortable, or makes you feel pity, redirect that energy into frustration that this is where we’re at as a campus community in 2024. I don’t want your pity, I want movement, traction, and above all – change.

For the record, the state of inequity and inaccessibility at Whitman College is so pervasive, I have often questioned my own place here. Let me detail this, since so few have actually reckoned with the lived realities of disabled people in this progressive community.

Only a fraction of the dormitories are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Countless classrooms, auditoriums, and lecture halls structurally segregate the physically disabled from the able-bodied.

I am regularly forced to use hidden back entrances to academic and administrative buildings – effectively relegating me to a state of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Discriminatory, biased, and hateful encounters and incidences are commonplace.

A social culture of able-bodiedness, one that touts pristine physique and agility, over belonging and inclusion relegates all non-normative students to a class of “other” and – at events like these – student teacher.

And these are just the grossest examples of inaccessibility; there are numerous others, and if I listed them all, that would be the entirety of my speech – Whitman College’s accessibility committee, which I’ve sat on for the past few academic years, is currently conducting a self-assessment in conjunction with reviewing an accessibility audit the college contracted professionals for. The committee has been working on progress transparency, and I hope to see those webpages come out soon – in the meantime, non-disabled people I challenge you to practice mindfulness and the act of [patronizingly] “noticing,” the next time you approach an on-campus facility, stop, and think: [patronizingly] Is it helpful, is it useful, could everyone access it? If the answer is yes, I don’t know, do a kickflip or something.

Today, we will first examine the problem of inequity and inaccessibility, articulate some of the causes, and discuss the actionable solutions.

Our first problem is the systemic exclusion of disabled people from public life at Whitman College. In a post Americans with Disabilities Act country, thirty-three years to be exact, you might think: “Surely in the last thirty years, Whitman College has made great strides,” but unfortunately, things seldom change. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and people were terrified that we would be going to war with Russia, today, Vladimir Putin is still public enemy number 1, behind Taylor Swift.

On November 1st, 1990, just a few months after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, an anonymous Whitman student wrote a letter to the Wire editor – this student, who is also a wheelchair user, detailed her account of inaccessibility at the college. On the second page, sandwiched between political satire and other commentary, this student spoke truth to power–ending her letter by signing as “the campus afterthought.” Today, in order to accurately problematize the state of inaccessibility at Whitman College, I will be reading this thirty-three-year-old letter aloud:

Whitman College discriminates against the disabled students.

“Does anyone realize how discriminatory this narrow ­minded little school is? Everyone
has their own experiences of being treated differently because of their background, whether it be religious, ethnic, or social. After all, who hasn’t been hooted at or stared at in town for being a “Whittie?”

But how many people face the blatant discrimination of being a disabled person on this campus? Every day I am forced to use back entrances to buildings, rickety, makeshift ramps, and dirty elevators. I realize that this is an old school and maybe when it was built, it never occurred to anyone that disabled people could even go to college. But these are no longer the 1800’s. Not only do I go to college, but I am a busy member of my sorority, Manna, ASWC, and K-W-C-W, and I coach junior wheelchair sports when l can. And I’m damned accustomed to being in the mainstream of things!

When I decided to come to Whitman, it was with the understanding that this old campus would do its best to accommodate my needs, and for over a year I feel I’ve been reasonable and quite submissive. I’ve put up with: a rickety ramp into Prentiss which passes under a river of filthy gutter water from a neglected storm drain; dining halls where everything is too high or out of reach; an elevator (in Maxey) which stinks like you wouldn’t believe. These and other inconveniences I can tolerate, but the straw that broke the camel’s back came today.

A meeting for students interested in studying in Florence, etc. was scheduled for three o’clock
on the third floor of Memorial. This is a completely inaccessible building for me, and therefore I was excluded from this opportunity. This is an informational meeting for all students. Well, what am I?!? To schedule anything like that out of my reach is to deny my right to partake in what is offered to the generality of my peers. That’s discrimination.

When I called to see about getting some information anyway, the administration member in charge (who shall remain nameless) said, “Gee, I wish you had called earlier. I could have scheduled a private meeting with you.” Well, that’s very nice, but Christ! I’m a busy person! I can’t re-do all meeting schedules for every faculty and administration member here! How difficult would it have been to reschedule that meeting for the basement of Mem or somewhere else in the first place? I realize that I’m the only person in the school who needs this type of consideration, but that should make it easier to remember, shouldn’t it? So much for accommodating my handicap.

With ruffled feathers,
The campus after-thought”

You might have already noticed in comparing the letter I’ve just read to the list I shared earlier in this speech, but few things have materially changed for disabled students at Whitman College. Every day, we – the disabled – use back entrances to buildings and makeshift ramps. When I decided to go to Whitman College, I too made the decision with the understanding that this “old campus would do its best to accommodate my needs,” I too believe I, and too many others, have been more than reasonable in putting up with the bare minimum of accessibility and nodding our heads in polite agreement when we are told “it will just take a very long time for these structural changes to actually take place.” We, the disabled, advocate for visibility in our classrooms, inclusion in clubs and activities, we sit on committees, we are sorority and fraternity presidents, yet, still I know this college will likely only be wholly accessible after thirty some years of ground breaking and construction. Yet, there is nothing more for us to do than be grateful for what we have? What would this college look like for disabled students today if the groundbreaking started with the publication of this letter? Would I have to speak before you all and testify to the real burden and pain of exclusion? It is time for someone to use their power and privilege to advocate for us. Because, evidently, even when we risk it all to attend a college we know is inaccessible, because the quality of education stands out, this community continues to underappreciate and overlook us.

I have spent every single year of my college career working and advocating non-stop for this institution to move beyond conversation and materialize the demands disabled students have been making for over thirty years. I’ve sat in the archives and scoured the internet for hours reading through committee meeting minutes and official college correspondence older than me, looking to understand how and why this college still isn’t accessible—where are the stories of movements for accessibility and accountability before these past four years? They must exist, but where are they? I’ve sat on numerous finance, budget, and advisory committees all in an attempt to unmask how to successfully advocate for enduring change on this campus.

Disabled trauma and pain is another Whittie’s learning moment, right? It wouldn’t be the good ol’ College experience your parents and grandparents got if you can’t get away with being a bigot while you’re at it, hmm? When I trek across campus, going class to class, I sometimes wonder what it feel like to be a non-disabled legacy student here, knowing that accountability and retribution doesn’t really apply to you – Are you drunk with power, or drunk with the empowerment institutions like this embolden you with? It is actually mind-boggling that at an institution that posits accountability and justice-centric work, it seems like non-disabled white people are consistently given the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes at the expense of every marginalized student, staff, and faculty member. It’s always “mistakes happen, luckily they’ve learned and it’ll never happen again” instead of centering the harmed parties ability to access their place of education, employment, or leisure safely and comfortably. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not advocating for some iteration of cancel culture, I am just asking for the bare minimum of ethics and justice to be met by the same institutions which pride themselves on being ahead of the curve on DEIAJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and justice).

This is not to say that all of the work I have participated in and witnessed in my past four years here was done in vain – I appreciate the hard work I see on the accessibility committee, for example, and this college is on the road towards getting on the right track. But, as that thirty-three-year-old letter shows us, and all of the archived ADA committee meeting minutes from the 1990s, we all need to engage in lighting a fire under this issue for accessibility and inclusion to actually materialize this time.

Alright – let’s all meditate on this for a second. Close your eyes. Inhale, hold your breath, now exhale, inhale again – [whispering] now imagine you’re a legacy student at Whitman College, you aren’t worried about groceries next week, or your ability to move through this campus comfortably or safely – now open your eyes. Did living in that imaginary world lessen any stress? Make you wish you had something you don’t really have. Yeah, me too. On the other hand, if some of that felt like your average Thursday, you can scan this QR code to reach my personal Venmo.

You might be sitting here thinking “gee, this is an awfully powerful message” or “wow, she sounds really pissed off” – yes and yes – but importantly, I have used Power and Privilege as a platform for three of the four years I have been a Whitman student. Little freshman me logged onto Zoom for a Power and Privilege workshop and literally told y’all how to behave around disabled people, because she literally knew what was coming for her in the near future. And still – I sit up here, a couple of assignments away from graduating – with hundreds of hours of free labor under my belt – and frankly, not much has changed. In fact, my visibility as an activist has actually launched me into a hole of trauma and pain. But, hey – I heard I got to be a lot of people’s learning moment – so there’s that, right?

So, here is my call to action: don’t worry, I’m not going to ask anyone to burn anything down or stage a coup. [jokingly] Thesis is taking up too much of my time right now to do all that. We need to collectively engage in meaningful actions against ableism. We need to stop relegating this fight against discrimination and exclusion to conversations and committee meetings. I am calling on every member of this community to make accessibility and inclusion a priority in their personal, social, and professional lives. Stop putting disabled livelihoods on the back burner. When you leave, make a point of learning AND putting that education into action. Demand that your college-owned facilities be made accessible, call on your colleagues to be access-centered, and lead by example – because – the people who need to be at this presentation, are probably too busy skiing on what they’ve termed “powder and privilege,” yeah – it’s a real thing.

Don’t be a bystander in the face of the ongoing disability rights movement – Be an accomplice in making change happen.

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