California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom visited Sarasota on Apr. 5 as part of Newsom’srecently-launched Campaign for Democracy tour. According to the Washington Post, this tour aims to fight “rising authoritarianism” in various red states by “[meeting] with like-minded activists, students, candidates and elected officials” who are “fighting a lonely battle in places Democrats don’t typically visit.” In collaboration with Save New College and Newtown Alive, the Newsoms met for a listening session with community members who spoke to issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and educational programs that are being threatened by legislation such as House Bill 999.
The Newsoms met with approximately 30 community members at the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Public Library. This number included 13 New College students and press from the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and the Associated Press. Discussion was led by Newtown Conservation Historic District (NCHD) Project Consultant and Community Leader Vickie Oldham, who was joined by Walter Gilbert, former President of the Sarasota chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Oldham and Gilbert opened the conversation by first discussing the Newtown community’s history of civil rights activism—including the ten-year-long battle to integrate Sarasota beaches that had been reserved for white people only. This history of activism has also directly involved New College. In 1969, the Sarasota Board of Public Instruction was attempting to close Newtown schools in order to move Black students into white schools. This resulted in the Sarasota School Boycott, where 2,353 Black students chose to instead attend “Freedom Schools” set up at local churches, with classes on Black history taught by volunteer New College students.
Since Jan. 31, DeSantis-appointed members of the New College Board of Trustees (BOT) have pointed towards the school’s mission and the story of its founding as evidence of a “classical liberal arts” model inherent in the institution. New College was founded in 1960 with funds raised by the United Church of Christ.
“As a new trustee, I’ve actually been reading a lot about the history of New College,” Dr. Matthew Spalding said during the Jan. 31 BOT meeting. “How it was founded by community leaders working with congregational Christians who wanted to found a college here in Florida—reminiscent of what they had done in Harvard and Yale—on a classical liberal arts curriculum.”
However, the connections between Newtown and New College across time paint a very different picture of New College history—one rooted in activism, racial justice and educational freedom: “What New College is designed to be, it has been,” Gilbert told the students in attendance.
“I know it’s hard, I know, like you said, it’s not what you went to school to do,” he continued. “But you know what? You have to do it. You might want to go to class, but sometimes you have to go ahead and get the protest sign too. If you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
Gov. Newsom began addressing New College students by expressing his sympathies, and criticizing the ways Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is spearheading various attacks on “civil rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights” and more across the country.
“All of that at threat, state after state, led by your state and your governor with a zest for demonization and othering people,” he continued. “He has one thing that is common with everything he is doing: bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities.
“This is not something that we’re going to sit back passively out West without expressing ourselves very clearly and loudly, because the whole point of this—and you know this—is that this isn’t about you, it’s about a movement they want to export everywhere else,” Gov. Newsom said. “This is why this has to be called out in real time.”
Gov. Newsom then asked the students present to share their experiences over the past few months. Students responded with anecdotes about the unwanted national media attention and students being doxxed on Twitter. Others questioned New College’s financial future if the institution continues down its current path.
“I think that the most horrible part about all of this is the amount of money that’s being completely misused,” first-year Adom Neizer-Ashun told the Newsoms. “Our school has been starved for resources for over a decade because we won’t bend to the rule of Ron DeSantis, we won’t change our curriculum, we won’t become this institution that they want us to be. That’s what attracted me to New College. I wanted to get a good education, I wanted to be part of a community that was open and welcoming to all people no matter who you are and whatever you identify as.
“We have true problems on our campus: some of the dorms have black mold, some of the dorms have water damage, some of the dorms last year were infested with rats,” Neizer-Ashun continued. “The [new] money is being used for people’s salaries, the money is being used for a baseball team. [New] students are being offered $10,000 to transfer into our school and things like that while [current] students struggle.”
Participants also addressed the various attempts by conservative media outlets to portray New College as a “woke” institution, including those coming from within the BOT. They claimed that the majority of the DEI programs at New College are actually self-made by students. In comparison, the former Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE), disbanded by the BOT on Feb. 28, had only four staff members and only one with a position related to DEI.
“We made our own clubs, we have the People of Color Union (POCU), Queery,” second-year Nisreen Kalai said. “There was not already a structure in place. This school is a predominantly white campus. Many of us, the students of color, were begging for more diversity.” Kalai pointed out, “They’re attacking something that’s not even there and we don’t even have the chance to build.”
“It is already an isolating experience for BIPOC students on our campus,” thesis student Rocío Ramírez Castro added. “I feel that while most of the media attention, the doxxing, very dangerous things that have been happening to our community have been centered around our primarily queer community and the way in which we’re being targeted on a state level—and some students have been targeted on a personal level. As a fourth-year student who’s getting to step out of this situation, but their heart is still obviously at New College, I really feel for students of color that are on campus. I feel for the marginalized students that are on campus that have had to build their support systems from the ground up.”
One point of conversation that continued to circulate was the seeming inaction from the National Democratic Party concerning the legislation in Florida, with Gov. Newsom citing how DeSantis recently pushed for the College Board to strip the Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies curriculum of all mentions of critical race theory (CRT), Black feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement and more.
“I was screaming and yelling, ‘Where’s my party? Where were we?’” Gov. Newsom said.
“If you scale what’s happening here up to a national level, we’re going to have institutions that are run completely politically, rather than institutions that are sacred places of learning,” second-year Niko Jackson said. “If we allow these kinds of fear tactics to threaten professors and threaten students, it will become a place of indoctrination.”
Former Dean of Diversity and founder of Mosaic Movements Yoleidy Rosario-Hernandez was also in attendance, and spoke about how threats to educational freedom in Florida make zir question the quality of education zir own children might receive.
“We’re seeing this ripple effect across the whole nation, of this being adopted,” Rosario-Hernandez said. “When I talked to the Washington Post, my outcry was [that] I am the first, there’s going to be so much more damage that we need to be ‘hashtag woke’ about, because this is going to have such a detrimental, long-term effect on the education system, not just in Florida but our entire nation.”
Once the listening session concluded, First Partner Newsom spoke with a Catalyst reporter to deliver some final thoughts on the future of education in Florida and her hopes for New College students to continue advocating for themselves.
“I’m heartbroken for the students who came here to learn, to get an incredible, expansive education,” First Partner Newsom said. “I want to be of help and of service, I want California to be of help and of service. And we’re a state with our own challenges, our own problems, but we’re all human beings and we have to see the humanity in each other, and we have to commit to fighting this intentional, pernicious attack on human rights in America that’s been championed by the far right.
“We have work to be transparent about what’s happening in Florida with this Christian indoctrination in the education system by the dictator Ron DeSantis, and we have to stop it before it spreads across other states in our country,” she continued. “I wish for all of the children and students and faculty to take care of themselves and recognize that this is going to be a long road, a long journey, and not to give up hope because we need hope, and to reach out and ask for help.”