In response to recent symbolic protests, hate speech and natural disasters, a panel of prominent Brandeis community members gathered with students and faculty on Tuesday to speak with them in an open forum about their reactions.

Sitting in a circle to facilitate conversation, panel members and students alike introduced themselves to the group and gave their reasons for attending. Participants ranged from an international student trying to gain new perspective on the hectic events in America, to faculty members hoping to discern the effects of the news on both students and staff.  

“Like all members of our community, how I function is very much affected by the things I see on television and the events of the day, and I really am interested in understanding how this is impacting students, and how I can be engaged and how I can help,” Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren shared with the group.

The discussion was organized and led by Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mark Brimhall-Vargas. He began by describing some of the furthest-reaching events in the past nine months, such as the hurricanes and the recent Las Vegas shooting. He asked the panelists for their academic and personal perspectives on the novelty of this volume of crises.

Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) said that although the concentration of events is not necessarily new from a historical perspective, there is some divergence. “There is something about the permission that the Trump presidency has offered for people to express things so openly that does feel different, and yet I think the sentiments have always been there,” she said, adding, “You don’t have to wear your hood anymore.”

Ray also mentioned another shift she’d noticed in a distinctly contrasting area, where more whites are taking responsibility for effecting positive change regarding race issues.  

“Where race issues are concerned, I feel like whites are beginning to raise up their voices a little bit more and take up ownership of those issues,” she said, citing the markedly more mixed demography of the Charlottesville protests than previous protests of their kind.

Rabbi Liza Stern, acting director for Religious and Spiritual Life at Hillel, spoke about her own generational perspectives. 

Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement gave her the impression of constant, if imperfect, national improvement, she said. 

Now, however, she feels differently. “This is the first time in my life where I feel a sense of alarm about where we’re going,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to really do some fighting to get this country back on track.”

As the conversation turned to the subject of protest, Prof. Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) spoke from her experience in Germany with both Holocaust survivors and Nazi sympathizers. “I think we need to protest while we still can — while we still have that right,” she said. She also spoke of the community and strength-building benefits of protest, telling the group about a protest at which she met a member of the government who allowed her to connect with a refugee in search of housing.

While faculty attendees agreed that protest had been an energizing tool for them, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel noted that lately, despite Brandeis’ long history of social justice, today’s students do not always share this experience. 

Though he has drawn energy from students’ optimism throughout his career, he said he has found this increasingly more difficult in the past three years. “I have … the sense from the students of feeling so much weight and so much exhaustion, and … that we’re just not sure what we can do,” he explained, noting that with the constant barrage of crises such as hate speech and violence, “It feels like it’s daily.”  

Brimhall-Vargas agreed, saying he has identified a kind of “paralysis” among the student body when it comes to activism. He also saw a connection between this paralysis and the fact that there is not a consensus on what America is as a nation, noting that on some occasions, “civic engagement … comes with hate attached to it,” preventing initiatives to discuss compromise. 

From there, the conversation moved to free speech, and Brooten contrasted the illegality of Nazism in Germany with America’s relative lack of limitation. Brimhall-Vargas added that even here, “There’s a distinction between the technical reality of free speech and the lived reality of free speech.”

Ray commented that this variance in free speech is evident in the reaction to the recent NFL National Anthem protests. It’s significant, she said, that “even when you are silent, your right to free speech is circumscribed.”  

Speaking on how the realities of the modern world affect students, Ray brought up the volume and importance of the work of prominent activist and academic Angela Davis ’65, who continued to write and protest in spite of the extreme racial tensions she experienced throughout her career.  

Birren pointed out that not all students are capable of handling this kind of stress and must learn their limits, and Ray affirmed that “there need not be a value judgement” regarding their individual capacities.

Pulling all of this together, Brimhall-Vargas emphasized just how important these kinds of open conversations are for students and the faculty who mentor them. “When students are thinking about how to be leaders in a world that is clearly right now chaotic and dysfunctional, they are test-driving their skills in activism and protest and free speech,” he said.

After the event, Brooten said she was impressed with the participants’ willingness to listen to each other. 

Stern mentioned that she continues to worry about the effects of the outside world on students’ ability to learn and wonders about her responsibility to students in this area, particularly regarding how to balance protection and support.