On Feb. 23, around 100 of the 698 students enrolled at New College of Florida walked out of their classrooms in protest of recent actions taken by the new Board of Trustees (BOT) and the proposed changes targeting Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives made at the Jan. 31 BOT meeting. At that meeting, Trustee Christopher Rufo introduced an ”Abolish DEI Bureaucracies” proposal which, among other things, called for the termination of the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (OOIE). A modified version of this proposal which will formally disband the OOIE and relocate its staff members to other departments was approved by the trustees on Feb. 28.
The walkout was part of a statewide “Stand for Freedom” event organized by a coalition of activist groups opposed to recent attacks on educational freedom, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. While the New College-based activist organization NCF Educational Freedom organized the demonstration at New College, the walkouts around the state were organized in partnership with Dream Defenders and Florida College Democrats, who worked with student leaders to kickstart the walkout as a movement called “Stand For Freedom.” Major state universities all held walkouts simultaneously, including University of South Florida (USF), University of Central Florida (UCF), Florida State University (FSU) and more.
New College students gathered together in the plaza outside the Jane Bancroft Cook Library making colorful signs and hanging notecards praising the college’s community on threads strung between trees. Students also covered the 18-foot tall “Four Winds” sculpture outside of the Academic Center (ACE) with flowing dark blue streamers.
The Catalyst spoke with thesis student Nick Beck on the ground at the event, who explained the idea behind decorating the sculpture and providing notecards to attendees.
“[This is the] Four Winds sculpture, which carries a lot of significance with New College, college lore and our founding principles,” Beck said. “We wrapped this up with some streamers here to show the darkness that’s blowing through.”
“Then over there we set up some yarn with some message cards just for people to be able to air out their thoughts in a public space,” Beck continued. ”And show some of the values and significance that New College has had on all of us. It’s kind of similar to a wishing tree.”
Once the students who joined the walkout arrived and settled, activist organizer and second-year student Sam Sharf began her speech and public address. She made an announcement of the creation of a state-wide coalition meant to protect educational freedom and the marginalized groups affected by the recent siege on “woke” culture started by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
After the address, the Catalyst spoke to Sharf to hear more about the walkout and future plans for demonstrators.
“We decided to partner with the statewide coalition to host our own New College walkout and display that we do not like the changes that are happening at our school and in Florida in general,” Sharf said. “We’re informing everyone about our forthcoming plans for creating and expanding a movement that’s launching on Tuesday [Feb. 28]. We’re going to have a hang-out where we make art and prepare posters, and begin developing a coalition of people for the next round.”
Other groups that held simultaneous events across the state are also looking to expand the movement, including the group that helped to organize the Stand for Freedom state-wide walkout. It was originally formed in the wake of DeSantis’s request that all public universities and schools supply the state with the medical data of all trans students, and has expanded its aims to stand in solidarity with New College and repel attacks on the public education system in general.
“He hijacks school systems as he did with the New College of Florida,” the group’s online walkout declaration reads. “[He] marginalizes and dehumanizes the LGBTQ+ community and portrays an abject disregard of the rights of students. We demand the DeSantis administration restore DEI initiatives, stop its attack on LGBTQ+ students and end his abuse of power.”
The Catalyst spoke to Stand for Freedom leader and USF student Ben Braver on the phone, who explained the concept behind the group.
“This isn’t organizing against Ron DeSantis,” Braver said. “Of Course, it’s organizing against his attacks. But what we are doing is a celebration of freedom in education and diversity of thought, because that is what we as students care about. That is why we chose to go to these colleges.”
“We’re trying to reclaim the narrative,” Braver continued. “We are telling people that we care about diversity in our schools, that we care about the freedom to engage with new ideas and the freedom to access new ideas. And so, yes, we are against Ron DeSantis destroying our education system. But what we are for, is freedom.”