The Personal Is Always Political For Students Combating Sexual Violence On Campus

Swarthmore College student organizers are feeling the fallout after leading protests that forced the only two fraternities on campus to disband.

A week after several dozen Swarthmore College students led a successful protest to disband two campus fraternities due to a culture of sexual violence and racism, the organizers are feeling the unique fallout that comes from disrupting a small campus.

“At a small school, sometimes change can come at a faster pace, but a higher cost,” Daria Mateescu, a junior at Swarthmore and a member of the school’s Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, told HuffPost this week. 

And change did come quickly to Swarthmore, an elite liberal arts college on suburban Philadelphia’s Main Line with about 1,600 students. It only took a month of organized protests to force the two fraternities, Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, to voluntarily disband. But protesting on such a small campus can be an intimate and arduous job; one that comes with a price. 

Mateescu and fellow organizer Maya Henry said everyone knows everyone on campus, including every single perpetrator. 

“The personal really is political,” Mateescu explained. “And it’s not a personal thing in that it’s a personal vengeance against anyone, but it is personal in that we are all anonymous to them, but they aren’t anonymous to us.”  

Swarthmore College students hang a banner near the Phi Psi fraternity house during a sit-in at the suburban Philadephia campu
Swarthmore College students hang a banner near the Phi Psi fraternity house during a sit-in at the suburban Philadephia campus on April 29 after documents surfaced with derogatory comments about women and the LGBTQ community and jokes about sexual assault.

Mateescu said she knows every member of the two fraternities she worked hard to disband. She also knows how each of those fellow students has perpetrated harm against someone she cares about in the three years she’s been at Swarthmore. 

Henry, a survivor who identifies as a black femme and uses the pronouns they/them, added that the protests were inherently personal because, bottom line, it’s about safety and bodily autonomy. 

“If we know the perpetrators of harm, spreading the information on what’s happened is about protecting people, not about shaming or dragging people,” Henry said. “It’s about safety.”

Protesting The System

The Swarthmore fraternities had always had a reputation for bigoted attitudes and preying on drunk women at parties. It wasn’t until April 3, when a group of students created the Tumblr page “Why Swarthmore’s Fraternities Must Go,” that everything changed.

The page highlighted hundreds of anonymous accounts of sexual abuse, racism and homophobia allegedly perpetrated from 2015 to 2019 by fraternity members at Swarthmore. Two weeks later, Swarthmore newspapers published leaked Phi Psi minutes with additional stories of sexual violence and racism. 

“Reading people’s first-person accounts on that Tumblr ― those very raw, personal, horrific accounts of violence ― it confirmed what was happening to us,” Henry said.

Consciousness raising, Mateescu added, was integral to getting student, faculty and administration support.

“One of the big aims we had is to make this seem like such a clear ethical decision,” she said. “This wasn’t just about whether some of your friends don’t like other friends. It’s not about two equal sides to an issue ― it’s an ethical argument against the existence of organizations” that perpetrate sexual violence.

The Tumblr and leaked minutes set the entire campus ablaze with outcries. Student activist groups like Organizing 4 Survivors and Coalition to End Fraternity Violence came together and called for the administration to terminate the fraternities’ leases.

Over the two weeks that followed, students protested at the Office of Student Engagement, the Office of the Dean of Conduct and at a meeting of the college president and board of managers. The protests culminated in a two day sit-in, with more than 100 people occupying part of the Phi Psi fraternity house students referred to as “the rape attic.” 

The protests made enough noise and garnered so much national media attention that Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon voluntarily disbanded on May 2. 

They stopped feeling like they had social power,” Mateescu said. “We’ve made it such that it was more socially advantageous to support this [protest] than to be in a fraternity or support fraternities.”

The Next Fight

After a whirlwind month of protests, organizers’ hard work paid off big time, but they’re still looking at the Swarthmore administration to right past wrongs. Organizing 4 Survivors and the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence are still pressing administrators to permanently ban all Greek life organizations from Swarthmore, rather than simply taking away leases. 

“We are not in any way trying to equate sororities and fraternities, but at the same time we do think Greek Life, as an American institution, is something you have to have privilege to opt into,” Mateescu said. “And we don’t think that’s something that belongs at Swarthmore or really anywhere.”

Protesting Swarthmore College students stage a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house on April 29. 
Protesting Swarthmore College students stage a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house on April 29. 

Swarthmore President Valerie Smith “continues to thoughtfully evaluate the recommendations” of students, faculty and alumni and will share her decision on whether to ban Greek life groups in the next few days, said Mark Anskis, the school’s interim director of communications. 

Smith wrote in an April 29 letter to students that “civility and dissent must coexist.”  

“What we are experiencing in our community reflects many of the struggles we see as a nation. As concerning as these moments can be, they also allow us to grow,” she wrote. “We remain committed to fostering a community that is open to self-critique and the recognition of one another’s humanity.”

Five student organizers outside of Organizing 4 Survivors and the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence this week announced a hunger strike. They’re demanding the school publicly apologize for the treatment of student protesters and commit to centering queer and trans students of color by reallocating the leases of the former fraternity houses to marginalized students. 

Picking Up The Pieces

The fallout from such powerful protests has left many students picking up the pieces.

“After the first day of the sit-in, we had a group of students calling the police on other students multiple times,” Henry recalled. “And now people have to function alongside each other in class and in dining halls and social spaces, knowing that there are students willing to call the police on other students. That’s something we have to heal from.” 

Morgan Dewey, communications director at End Rape On Campus, explained how student organizing is integral to change, but can often leave students, especially survivors, reeling.  

“These folks are putting their bodies on the line,” Dewey said, adding that many activists also are survivors.

“As a survivor, you’re informing your practices based on your experience and trauma can effect people in a lot of different ways, and it can effect organizing,” Dewey continued. “Organizing to see change on your campus and support other survivors can be one way that folks heal. But it can also be really traumatizing and it can be really exhausting.”

For now, Mateescu said, she and other organizers at Swarthmore will continue working toward making the campus safer for marginalized students. Remembering the power you have as a student advocate is key, she said.

“You actually can make this incredible change if you get enough people to see how ethically wrong one decision is and how ethically right the other is,” she said. “Not making this about social status or demonizing anyone, but simply saying you have a decision to make ― a moral decision to make ― and it’s up to you to make the right choice.”

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