“We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Upon hearing reports about a meeting between Donald Trump and presidents and leaders of historically black colleges and universities in March, many HBCU students are concerned with the infiltration of Trump and his racist, sexist, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQIA policies on and off their campuses. This is especially true for students at Howard University. Between the unannounced visit by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, in February and rumors circulating that Trump was invited to speak at the University last year, many Howard students are unsettled with the possibility of Trump and his cabinet’s continued presence on campus. Moreover, students and faculty are disappointed with the leadership of Howard University’s president, Wayne Frederick, and overall, his opaque relationship with the current presidential administration.
HUResist, a student-led, social justice organization, was created to ensure transparency and accountability from Howard’s administration and was also catalyzed as a response to Trump’s dangerous rhetoric and detrimental legal actions. Creating a list of demands, including "increase[d] visibility, access, and expansion of resources for immigrant, LGBTQIA, Muslim, and other underrepresented groups within our Black community", HUResist is following in the same grand past of Howard's legacy of political protest and activism against racist and discriminatory forces in the socio-political arena. Moreover, they are resisting administrative efforts at Howard which try to quell students’ voices and political mobilization. With their powerful slogan, “We have nothing to lose but our chains”, HUResist adopted a powerful quote by renown poet, Sonia Sanchez, to reflect their mission: “It is up to you all to make sure that Howard University fulfills its mission to you. We've fought too hard to let our Black institutions end up in the hands of people who oppose us.”
I spoke with freshman, computer science major, Modona Conteh, 18, and junior, political science major, Alexis McKenney, 20, on Howard’s campus and chatted with them about the goals of HUResist; the implications of a Trump administration for HBCUs; and why it is imperative for Black women’s voices, within and out activist spaces, to be heard.
Jaimee Swift (JS): “What was the impetus to create #HUResist? What was so unsettling about the relationship with Trump and Howard’s administration that led you to catalyze a student-led movement on campus?”
Alexis McKenney (AMK): “For me, it started after Donald Trump was elected and President Frederick sent a congratulatory email about his election to the Howard University community. I, along with some other students, wrote a letter to the Editor-in-Chief of The Hilltop, just talking about how that disappointed us and how it shouldn’t be communicated to the student body that [Trump’s election] was somehow normal. Our group started organizing after the Betsy DeVos meeting with President Frederick. There was no communication to us about that at all; no students, faculty or alumni knew about it until we saw it on Twitter. That really alerted us to the lack of transparency and how we are being represented by our president to this new administration.”
Modona Conteh (MC): “I was brought into the core movement after the whole issue with DeVos. Initially, I didn’t find an issue with it — I just thought it was a little weird [President Frederick] was taking photos with her, without our knowledge. How did she get on campus? Nobody saw her. He had a private meeting and he said he had student leaders represented there, which Howard’s student body as a whole did not recognize. He didn’t send out an email to the student body that even hinted about what they had discussed. This is not how it is supposed to be. After that, I began to consider the other instances Frederick has been inconsiderate about the feelings and well-being of the student body.”
AK: “Also, after election day, there was this heavy energy on campus. There were many conversations about “where do we go now?” that were student-led, with the support of some [Howard] administrative bodies. In terms of our movement, even though President Frederick may say he wants organizing and activism on campus, we had to carve our own space out for us. An activist space was not made for us nor were there resources given to us to figure out how to combat this oppressive Trump administration. Our resistance is also to our own institution and administration because it has not facilitated a space for us to organize, even though in the public sphere, it seems like there is. When you look at the legacy of Howard, our movements have always been student-led. When you think specifically of great Kwame Ture or Stokely Carmichael, the Howard administration willingly gave his information to the FBI. I think what we are doing is challenging an institutional problem but also being more progressive, radical and liberation-focused on our community as a whole.”
JS: “Trump, as we know, has created detrimental policies that have further marginalized communities in both the U.S. and abroad. What are some initiatives of HUResist that ensure Howard’s campus remains a safe space for everyone?”
MC: “In our list of demands we created, one of the first demands is that we want President Frederick to make Howard a ‘sanctuary campus’. Even though there is not a dictionary definition of what a sanctuary campus is supposed to be, the general idea is that it will be a place where undocumented people — students specifically — can be safe. For example, if Immigration and Customs Enforcement come and demand students’ information, they know that Howard University is going to stand behind them and not give up that information. Even if students were detained, they would have assurance that Howard would support them and give them as much help as humanly possible. There are policies that don’t specifically state where Howard stands on undocumented persons. Most of the time, when people hear the word “undocumented”, they immediately think about Hispanic/Latinx communities. Yes, they do exist in those communities but we also have to keep in mind there are undocumented people and immigrants who are Black, who are Black within Hispanic/Latinx communities, who are Black in African Diasporic communities, who attend HBCUs, and who live in fear daily they may be deported. We are an HBCU and we are in the District of Columbia. We owe it to people here to have a safe space. Moreover, there are so many intersections here at Howard. We have Black people who are immigrants, Muslims, undocumented, who are apart of the LGBTQIA community, and who are impacted by all these actions by Trump. Because of this, Howard cannot take a neutral stance.”
JS: “What are the future goals of HUResist? How would you like to see the the University change?”
AK: “In terms of the movement and what we want collectively, we want our demands to be met. We want Howard to be a sanctuary campus, we want policies that speak to protecting undocumented students, and also, we want more resources, visibility and access to underrepresented groups within Howard. We have outlined a list of things that can be done by the administration to move that forward. We also want a community center — the Kwame Ture Community Center — to bridge the gap between Howard and the greater D.C. community, specifically the Black community in D.C.”
JS: “As young, Black women activists, why is it imperative that not only your voices are being heard by Trump’s and Howard’s administration, but the concerns of other HBCU students are listened to as well?”
AK: “I think it is important because we are pioneers of this movement, but we also recognize we are not pioneers of resistance on [Howard’s] campus. It is really important for us, as Black women, to be on the forefronts of resistance because there is a context of Black women being silenced, especially within the Black community and social justice movements that are centered on the Black community where Black men have been historically centered. We are speaking for all identities under the umbrella of Blackness including immigrants, women, LGBTQIA and more who are too, oppressed. As Black women who are student organizers, we are the voices that hold our administration — which has other interests, other values, and other priorities — accountable to protecting us as students, as women, as immigrants, as LGBTQIA, and as individuals who come to this institution. When we came to Howard, we were under the expectation and assumption that we would be safe here. This is what Howard, “The Mecca” is supposed to stand for. HUResist and the individuals that comprise it are here to remind President Frederick, the Trump administration and Congress that we are here, we deserve to be here, and we deserve to be respected and treated as such.”
MC: “I think whenever there is a body of authority and a body that opposes it, there is always this wall of division. I feel like initiative needs to be taken. It doesn’t help anyone to be okay with the status quo and the same daily issues that we face everyday — whether on or off HBCU campuses. Someone has to do it and someone has to take a stand. We are doing this because we know we are not the only people being affected by Trump’s policies or even Howard’s. That is why it is so important for us, as Black women, to speak up and speak out.”