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Alumni Reach For Social Media As Racial Tensions Hit Yale

When April Joyner, Yale University Class of 2007, first heard about a controversy over a racially insensitive email sent by a residence staff member at her alma mater, it was through Facebook.

“I was on the Overheard at Yale Facebook page,” she said. “What I found was, there was rigorous debate and a lot of emotional response, which I found very understandable, and what I was really impressed by was that students were not willing to let it go. And that they put it in context, really reiterated that this was not just one email...it's just one incident in a series of things that have happened at Yale over the past few years and really for decades."

As Yale University has seen protests against racism and discrimination on campus, Joyner’s since been using social media like Twitter and Facebook to express support for students on campus, along with signing open letters against the school and posting her own analysis online. She’s not alone.

Racial tensions this month have been leading to protests at schools like Yale, University of Missouri, and University of California at Berkeley against what students call a “culture of exclusion” in the schools. At Yale, that protest has been organized and led by students, with in-person marches on campus and meetings with administrators -- meetings that have already resulted in a list of promises from university president Peter Salovey to work to make Yale better. 

And as those protests gain momentum, there's also been a bubbling contingent of young alumni of color and outside supporters joining in. They're using social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to amplify students' stories.

“We are seeing that everywhere,"  said Mark S. Luckie, former Manager of News at Twitter and the curator of Today In Black Twitter. "People are engaging the alumni -- because the students can’t do it alone.”

#YBS students at yesterday's #MarchOfResilience A photo posted by Yale Black Seminarians (@yaleblksems) on Nov 10, 2015 at 7:20pm PST

Luckie said at universities like the University of California at Berkeley and Missouri social media is allowing outside supporters, including alumni to feel connected to those protests and follow along in real time.

In a way, it makes sense that much of Yale’s confrontation over racism has happened online: that’s where the conflict started in the first place. First, an email was sent by a group of administrators before Halloween who deal with student life and diversity -- they were asking students to avoid racist costumes, like headdresses or blackface. Then, a response email from a university administrator who helps run one of the Yale residences, Erika Christakis.

"Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition," wrote Christakis, who is the Associate Master of Silliman College with her husband Nicholas, the college’s Master.

"And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity – in your capacity - to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?"

"Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended," added Erika Christakis, referring to her husband. "Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

Some students of color and alumni said her email was disrespectful and racially insensitive. They disagreed that a suggestion to avoid racist costumes was some kind of assault on free expression. So they started criticizing the administration both in person and online, and their frustration became public. They posted Christakis’s email to a website called pastebin and wrote an open letter to the Christakis couple that supporters signed through Google Forms.

Some students demanded the couple’s resignation, along with more systemic changes to the college: more ethnic studies faculty, more financial aid help for international and undocumented students, and more mental health workers for students of color. They developed a petition and a formal list of demands, confronted university administrators in person, and held a march with over a thousand students and faculty, one they dubbed a “March of Resilience.”

#MarchOfResilience has officially concluded, but crowd stands strong, dances. Keep on keepin' on. #Yale pic.twitter.com/KAaPzLiWXQ — Catherine Rodríguez (@latinadramaturg) November 9, 2015

Some alumni of color were quick to add their voices to the crowd. Joyner, for example, posted a copy of Christakis's email to a website called Genius, which annotates song lyrics -- adding her own annotations about what in the email was offensive.

Other Yale alumni of color host #CurrentSee, a regular “Twitter Chat” on the social media platform, where they tweet questions and receive responses from around the country. This week, they hosted a chat that specifically talked about their own experiences with racism at Yale:

Luckie said that online responses like these, along with the ability to follow developments on a story in real time, can have tangible effects for a student movement.

"They’ve been around the block. They know what a student needs, and they know how they can interact with the university," he said. "When you bring this older generation they’re adding this additional level of knowledge where they can actually accomplish things with these students.”

Luckie said that if alumni feel connected to what’s going on at their alma mater through the fast pace and intimacy of social media, that might lead them to put their sense of connection to use, whether with financial donations, or by pressuring university administrators to take student demands seriously.

Not all the response online has been supportive of the student protesters.

Before students had their March of Resilience, before they developed a petition with a formal list of demands, a group of them confronted Nicholas Christakis on the residential quad at Silliman and asked him to apologize for the email sent by his wife. The conversation quickly got heated, and one student began to yell.

That video got posted to a site called The Fire and conservative commentators called the students "crybullies" throwing a "temper tantrum." One writer for a right-wing news site, The Daily Caller, published the full name of the student yelling in the video; her supporters say she soon faced death threats, although she did not confirm that.

Luckie said one of the risks of social media's role in activism is how quickly people can develop a “mob mentality” and pile on people without knowing the facts or context behind their situation.

“Sometimes the context is terrible, sometimes the intention is terrible,” he said. "But as citizens of the world we have to take a step back and...have dialogues with ourselves, on and offline so we can understand not only the message but the ramifications of the message.”

While some people may find that social media can increase the risk of conflict or make them feel unsafe, others are using the online platforms to reach out to particular students and better understand their stories.

Aura Bogado, Yale Class of 2012, is far from her alma mater in New Haven at this point: she lives in her hometown of Los Angeles, where she works as a reporter. But online, she's also been reaching out to current students over email, text messages, and Facebook to hear them out.

"I’ve been in touch with many students of color who I’ve never met, I hardly know anything about them, I’ve had other students of color that I know from my time there connect me with them and I really what I’ve been doing is hearing them out," said Bogado. "The other day I did get a text from a student -- and it kind of broke my heart. It said, how did you survive?"

"An 18-year-old black student shouldn’t be having to ask me this over a text," she said. "She should be feeling there are the resources at a school like Yale."

University President Peter Salovey has said he's going to build some of those resources. He's responded to the student demands, with another campus-wide email and a statement online. Salovey said the Christakis couple isn't going anywhere, but the school will be making some changes, including more multicultural training for staff and having counseling hours at the school's cultural centers for Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American students.

"It is clear that we need to make significant changes so that all members of our community truly feel welcome and can participate equally in the activities of the university, and to reaffirm and reinforce our commitment to a campus where hatred and discrimination are never tolerated," he wrote. "The efforts that we launch today, and the commitment to the core values they represent, must be continuous, ongoing, and shared by all of us."