"The Coalition" Sees a New Chapter
Last semester, a group of Swarthmore students began the process of reviving what has historically been known among students as “the IC (Intercultural Center)/BCC (Black Cultural Center) coalition.” The IC/BCC coalition has existed in the past as a student-run collective of affinity groups and other identity-based student organizations that operate out of the Intercultural and Black Cultural Centers. Its newest iteration, “the Coalition,” is expanded to include to all student groups that experience marginalization on campus, not just those who are affiliated with centers. It is organized by four co-facilitators Alexis Riddick ‘20, Brandon “Frames” Ekweonu ‘20, Josie Hung ‘19, and Tinbite Kelemwork ‘22.
The co-facilitators agree that the goal of the new coalition is to “create community.” Hung describes this new iteration of the coalition as “a space for [all groups] to be welcome and to talk and to network and create community and solidarity.” Kelemwork emphasizes the importance of creating a community of diverse individuals and groups, while accounting for the ways in which these individuals and groups intersect. She says, “the coalition, to me, is the community that we have on campus. It’s made up of individual affinity and identity groups. [...] I envision the coalition really as the intersection of all of those.” The co-facilitators also share the goal of forging cross-group exposure and connection. Kelemwork says, “it’s a good way for student groups on campus to learn about other students and other identities that maybe they wouldn’t have been exposed to if they chose to stay within their specific identity or affinity groups.”
The coalition is meant to create a space that challenges biases and to be intentional about the ways in which students engage with one another. Ekweonu stresses the importance of “thinking about ways for groups to be in connection and meaningful collaboration...to be in dialogue with each other, to recognize a lot of the biases and positionalities that we all hold within our communities.” Hung wants the coalition to be a space where people authentically show up for and support one another, “really having people question ‘who do you always talk to? Who do you not talk to? Who do you see? What spaces do you enter? Whose events do you go to and show up for? [...] Do you show up and support and ask how you can actually do something?”
The co-facilitators also seek to foster a community that extends “beyond working relationships,” and addresses the emotional and spiritual aspects of belonging to a marginalized group on campus. Kelemwork speaks of the coalition’s potential to foster a “sense of belonging for students at Swarthmore... it feels like there’s very small pockets for students to exist in and not a safe place as a campus to feel like you belong here and that you’re going to do well here and that you’re going to be supported here.”
The coalition holds bi-weekly meetings, during which group activities, discussions, and workshops are held. Each student group affiliated with the coalition sends group representatives, called “liaisons” to these meetings, though all coalition meetings are open to everyone within what the co-facilitators call the “coalition community.” Meetings and discussions focus on different themes, like inclusivity within student groups, and other ways students can support each other. Practically, the coalition serves as a way for groups to keep updated on what other groups are doing, so that they can attend each other’s events, and collaborate whenever possible.
“A lot of individuals and groups do collaborative events every single year, but I have seen so many that were more like one group doing most of the planning and then looping in groups at the end,” says Riddick. “I have also seen collaborations that left out groups that should have been a part of the conversation or event, but were not reached out to because of a lack of a personal relationship between the executive board members. I would really like the Coalition to become a space were individuals personally connect and relate, and hopefully, that could get whole groups being more intentional with their event planning.”
Additionally, the coalition is entirely student run and “not institutionally backed.” Ekweonu says that this is “intentional, though it’s not that the coalition wouldn’t like support from other bodies with more resources on campus, but it’s that we’re very intentional about [the fact that] it has to be on our terms. We’re advocating for students who have been historically marginalized on this campus, and so if anyone’s going to be allocating resources to the coalition they have to be in support of that.”
One of the challenges in forging this new coalition is a lack of institutional memory about previous iterations of coalition and the goings on at the College in general. Hung says, “we really want people to keep working on this after we leave. We’re all only here for four years, and often times there’s a lack of institutional memory and we always have to start over.” Ekweonu discusses “having a way of recording and making sure this gets passed on, because we don’t have much on the coalitions that existed before us today. All we know is that they existed.” He hopes to find ways for the coalition to challenge this lack of institutional memory, and archive important history for incoming students, especially those who seek to make change. He says, “[We want to] have a way of recording coalition history and helping groups think about how they record their own history on this campus. [We are working on] finding ways for that information to be passed down in a more efficient way, since we all attend an institution that doesn’t value that and purposely tries to erase and invisible-ize a lot of that information. [...] It makes it difficult for people to know what kind of fights are recurring and not really new.”
When asked what the student body can do to support the coalition, the co-facilitators emphasize the need for building awareness about who they are and what they do. Much of the student body does not know what the coalition is and which student groups it includes, or confuses and conflates it with the centers. Beyond that, students can resist systemic oppression and marginalization on campus and support those already doing that work. Ekweonu calls on students to “recognize the students who have bore the brunt of taking care of the student communities and their communities, not only in the present and recent past, but historically, because it’s a systemic thing. Recognizing a lot of different things that contribute to the systems of oppression that manifest themselves on this campus -- anti-blackness is one of them...I don’t know if this works, but anti-black femme-ness...The types of things that people don’t want to talk about, but always want to talk about when it doesn’t relate to them and their specific situations.”
Ultimately, as Kelemwork says, the coalition is not a “set body.” It wants to “respond to the needs of the campus” in real time and by group. To help the coalition achieve this goal, the co-facilitators want to hear what students need directly from them. “We can’t speak for every community, every executive board or every student.” Riddick speaks of the importance of “allowing students to represent themselves. That’s a basic thing. Not going to one body, not even going to us, being like ‘what are students concerns?’ but going to students and groups and asking them personally is really big.” Further, she says, “having genuine care is a huge, intangible thing that the campus can do.”