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Still Together: How a Summer of Protest Could Lead to Lasting Change at Yale

“The reason…I wanted to be on Board was to help make these changes.”

That’s how Eda Uzunlar ’22 described her perspective towards institutional reform within the Yale International Relations Association (YIRA), which bills itself as Yale’s largest undergraduate organization. Uzunlar ran to be YIRA’s Vice President in Spring 2020, driven by the feeling that the organization could be doing more to implement long-discussed policy changes in response to racial and economic inequalities at Yale and across the United States. She took office in May expecting the process to be a gradual one.

In a single protest-filled week this past June, it became clear to Uzunlar, among others, that gradual change would not be enough. On Monday, May 25, George Floyd, a 49-year-old Black resident of Minneapolis, was murdered by Derek Chauvin, an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Together with dozens of Yale student groups, YIRA launched into action. The organization’s June 2020 Instagram feed offered statements on racism and equality, calls for donations to civil rights groups, and promises to raise money for racial justice causes. 

On Tuesday, June 2, the Yale College Council (YCC) organized Yale Together, a fundraiser pooling Yale clubs’ resources to support five Black and Indigenous community organizations. Backed by more than 80 Yale groups compelled by a need to act—including YIRA—the initiative raised 57,715 dollars.

Over three months have passed since Yale Together stopped accepting donations in early July. While the Yale clubs and campus groups that donated and called for systemic change this summer haven’t gone silent, levels of activity on racial justice have descended from their summer highs. 

Across Yale’s campus, student organizations are faced with a quandary. Cultural and social associations, recreational clubs, and Greek life were mostly established as gathering places for people with similar backgrounds and interests—not with political concerns in mind. But the realities of systemic inequality has required student groups to take on more overtly “political” stances in support of social justice. As the personal becomes political, how are they approaching this challenge?

***

Shortly after the murder of Floyd—coming within a few months of those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade—Kahlil Greene ’21, former YCC President and a primary organizer of Yale Together, knew he needed to take action. 

“I came up with the idea for Yale Together when brainstorming a response to George Floyd’s murder with the executive board of the Yale College Council,” Greene told The Politic in an email. “I saw many organizations making statements, and when asked if the YCC should do the same, I said, ‘We need to do something more substantial.’’’

Although he appreciated the impact of statements and pledges, Greene thought it especially important to enact actionable change by donating money and resources to communities in need. 

“We realized that our own funds wouldn’t amount to much impact alone, so to multiply our giving, I came up with a streamlined process for other student groups to also give money and resources directly to nonprofits and community organizations,” Greene explained.

“And so, the movement was born.”

Operating remotely, Greene and other YCC members organized countless group chats, Zoom meetings, and Google Doc editing sessions with Yale club leaders as they worked to launch Yale Together. Greene and his team chose five organizations—based in New Haven, Minneapolis, and nationally—to direct donations to: the Black Visions Collective, the Connecticut Bail Fund, Black Lives Matter, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund, and the Greater New Haven COVID Community Fund. In choosing the organizations, Greene placed an emphasis on sourcing input from representatives of Yale’s Black student groups, as well as from Dwight Hall. 

Greene noted that “there was obviously a wave of social pressure that may have motivated a lot of otherwise indifferent people and organizations to support the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.” 

“However,” he continued, “we will see if, once that vigor dissipates, these clubs continue to take action in favor of protecting Black people from police violence and combating deeply set racial injustice.”

***

Translating summertime promises to continuous action on racial justice has been at the front of Iman Iftikhar ’23’s mind this year. Iftikhar, who serves as the Political Action Chair for the Yale South Asian Society (SAS), spent the summer at home in Pakistan. With limited avenues for direct action on American racial justice issues where she was, she began compiling resources for South Asian students wanting to support Black liberation causes in the U.S. soon after Floyd’s murder.

“South Asians for Black Lives,” now a 16-page-long document, includes a pledge from 28 South Asian student organizations across the U.S. to fight for racial justice and against anti-Black racism in the South Asian community. 

The challenge? 

“People signed on, but we don’t really know what that commitment looks like,” Iftikhar said in an interview with The Politic

In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, Yale Political Union (YPU) President Jeff Cieslikowski ’22 faced a challenge very different from Iftikhar’s. He and the Speaker of the YPU, McKinsey Crozier ’22, wanted to use their positions to make a statement on racial justice—without committing all of the YPU with them.

The YPU has an odd position among Yale clubs: It is both highly political and highly decentralized. Its seven political parties, which cover most of the political spectrum, come together for weekly debates under YPU auspices. Otherwise, they operate autonomously, making it difficult for the YPU’s leadership to claim to represent the organization as a cohesive whole.

The “Message of Solidarity” Cieslikowski and Crozier released in June reflected the nature of their organization. It encouraged donations to racial justice organizations, self-education on anti-racism, and support for protesters. But it came only from the two of them.

“When we released this message, we weren’t speaking on behalf of the Union. We weren’t speaking on behalf of the parties,” Cieslikowski explained in an interview with The Politic. “We were simply speaking as President and Speaker, as individuals who are in a position—not on behalf of the Union.”

In Iftikhar’s case, the SAS as a whole has committed to material action on racial justice. But that doesn’t mean every member is equally engaged with the issue. Iftikhar has set up an antiracist book club, is planning an October teach-in on South Asian organizing on campus, and has helped SAS join Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY) as a member organization. All these actions fit into the open-ended promises made in SAS’s pledge to be actively anti-racist. But Iftikhar still has concerns. 

“I will be very, very honest: Our wider group’s commitment to the cause has decreased,” she said.

“SAS isn’t inherently a political group,” continued Iftikhar. “I think people’s understanding of SAS has been that it’s a cultural, social organization that does dance…that highlights South Asian culture, but not necessarily politics.” 

For the YPU, where “political” is in the very name of the organization, students join for the express purpose of debating their views and political beliefs. But Cieslikowski sees the YPU’s commitment to issues of racial justice as an intellectual, rather than activist, commitment.

“The themes of racial inequality are a topic that we discuss and that we debate and think about frequently—how we can go about reforming it, what good strategies would be,” he said.

Cieslikowski reiterated several times that the YPU is centered on intellectual growth and debate, maintaining that “we weren’t saying that the Political Union is going to take steps to encourage [protesting]” in its solidarity statement.

“Our goal as the Political Union,” he explained, is “not to necessarily say, ‘go out and be an activist,’ but to say that ‘these are the things that you should think about and that you should clarify for yourself so that you can go out and be an activist.’”

“For a group like SAS, at least, there needs to be a reevaluation of our values,” Iftikhar argued. “What does it mean for SAS to suddenly be political? What does it mean for SAS to be an ally?”

The differences between the YPU’s belief in debate rather than protest and Iftikhar’s efforts to encourage activism within SAS illustrate Yale organizations’ diverse approaches towards addressing racial justice. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and many organizations are still determining how to act.

***

As the summer’s early days of round-the-clock protests and constant media attention to racial justice initiatives began to fade, Uzunlar said that YIRA’s Board of Directors kept discussing what they could do to go beyond “performative” actions and fundraising.

YIRA contributed 2,000 dollars to Yale Together in June, and Siddarth Shankar ’22, YIRA’s Treasurer, reported that it also raised 10,020 dollars (independent of Yale Together) via a corporate matching program. But the organization’s Board wanted to figure out how to sustain the summer’s momentum into the school year.

“We’ve been having these ideas in our head for a while of how we can do different things to better the YIRA culture [and] better how we have our official transactions with the community and the community outside of Yale,” Uzunlar said of the Board’s thought process. 

The Board’s conversations culminated in YIRA’s Institutional Change Project, a forty-point list of nine policies and thirty-one “best practices” intended to address systemic issues and inequality at YIRA. The items on the list touch on everything from YIRA’s recruitment process (which is now anonymous to prevent unconscious bias), to using Google Forms instead of Word Documents (to improve accessibility), to simplifying the acronyms of YIRA’s various Model United Nations conferences.

YIRA’s beginning-of-the-year recruitment process, which took place in September 2020, was the first test of the Institutional Change Project. 

“It’s gone really well so far,” Uzunlar said. But she sees many of the changes—like a project to work with YIRA’s alumni network to introduce stipends for students holding leadership positions at YIRA’s conferences—taking far longer than a month to pull together and enact successfully.

When asked about the plethora of pledges to act on racial justice made by clubs in the wake of the summer’s protests, Uzunlar drew from YIRA’s experience to offer words of caution.

“It’s easy to get caught up and think that sometimes if you don’t implement ‘this idea’ first, someone else will—which isn’t good,” she said. “It really does help to think thoroughly through things, especially when they’ll have realistic consequences.”

Uzunlar is optimistic, though, about the potential for meaningful systemic change at Yale. “I think everyone probably has the best intentions always.”

***

While organizations focused on cultural, political, and international affairs may be naturally drawn to race equity issues, Yale organizations outside those realms have also reevaluated their purposes in light of recent events. Racial justice and activism are most likely not the first things that come to mind when the Yale Entrepreneurial Society (YES) is mentioned. YES Co-President Brihu Sundararaman ’23 knows that.

“Systemic racism, especially in the entrepreneurship-slash-venture capital world, is not talked about a lot, but the numbers don’t lie,” Sundararaman said in an interview with The Politic. According to the mission statement for YES’s Amplify speaker series, Black entrepreneurs received only one percent of venture capital funding in 2018, even though 63 percent of Black Americans are interested in starting a business. 

Amplify, which took place this summer, was one of YES’s first steps in embracing increased action on racial justice. A ten-week series focusing on the experience of “underrepresented minorities” in venture capital, it was hosted in concert with eight other national universities and nine historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The series was pitched as both a chance to learn from Black entrepreneurs and as a small fundraiser for five organizations encouraging Black representation in business and entrepreneurship. The initiative raised 910 dollars for those organizations.

While YES plans to host events like Amplify in the future, Sundararaman said it’s currently exploring other ways of creating what he repeatedly called a more “inclusive” environment. 

“In our application,” Sundararaman explained, “we are trying to actually make sure that we can hold ourselves accountable by asking people: ‘If you’re comfortable, would you mind sharing your background?’” 

The goal, he said, is to use the organization’s Fall 2020 data as a baseline for how and where YES needs to improve in terms of diversity and inclusion, and to continue tracking application information as a guard against bias in interviews and recruitment processes. 

“You can’t really make a change,” Sundararaman explained, “unless you have the data to say, ‘We need to make a change,’ or ‘We are improving.’” 

The data collected by YES so far show that the demographic breakdown of accepted YES members this year was as follows: 66.2 percent Asian, 23.9 percent Caucasian, 5.7 percent Black/African American, 2.8 percent Hispanic, and 1.4 percent Middle Eastern. 

For comparison, Yale’s student body breakdown for non-international students in 2019 was 15.3 percent Asian, 41.6 percent White, 6.1 percent Black/African American, 10.5 percent Hispanic, and 0.4 percent American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The University does not collect data on Middle Eastern students as a separate ethnicity.

“For us, these numbers represent a first step in holding ourselves accountable but also, hopefully, as an example for our fellow organizations to do the same,” Sundararaman said in an email correspondence with The Politic. “Compared to Yale’s undergraduate diversity, we believe this fall is a good initial step but know we have a lot of work to do in making entrepreneurship inclusive.”

That’s a point Greene would agree with: “Yale student organizations definitely need to increase pathways for underrepresented student groups to access both membership and leadership within their clubs.”

Informed by both its efforts this summer and the recruitment data it collected, Sundararaman said YES is planning events with HBCUs, “fireside chats” with a more diverse group of Yale-affiliated startup founders, and partnerships with the Black Student Alliance at Yale and Sube, the Yale Latinx Business and Leadership Student Association, this fall. It’s also introducing anonymous feedback forms for its members.

As YES plans for the future, Sundararaman doesn’t see the desire to effect change in the organization, and in reducing barriers to access in entrepreneurship, going anywhere. 

“‘We opened our eyes and then we closed them again’ will not be YES’s attitude to racial justice,” said Sundararaman.“That is not acceptable. When we are preparing the next round of leadership, [we will] make it very, explicitly clear: This is the new YES.”

***

As the days tick down to what promises to be a historic presidential election, racial justice issues have not lost their relevance for many Americans. Yale students are no different.

According to a Yale Daily News survey of the Class of 2024, about 90 percent of respondents were “somewhat” or “very much supportive” of Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality. Aliesa Bahri ’22 and Reilly Johnson ’22, the newly-elected YCC President and Vice President, respectively, campaigned on a platform that included a 19-point list of racial justice action items covering issues such as faculty diversity, mental health services for people of color, and defunding the Yale Police Department.

Greene hopes that a new era has dawned for the YCC—and for Yale as a whole. 

“I hope that my legacy is that of awakening a social conscience within Yale’s student government,” he said. 

While the extent to which Bahri and Johnson actually follow through on their campaign pledges remains to be seen, it does seem that Yale student organizations are embracing the legacy of Yale Together. Whether they continue to do so has yet to be seen. 

Enthusiasm for action on racial justice is already waning on the national level, and Yale is not immune to those trends. Clubs are returning to routines, students have other things to occupy their minds, and attention spans can be all too short. There is a danger that racial justice commitments fall by the wayside. 

But lasting, systemic change is not made in a day. As Iftikhar points out: “It’s a long-term commitment.”