Jan. 31 proved to be a prominent date for most—if not all—of the New College community. The prospects of what the Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting could entail lingered on many minds, primarily a group of New College students, alumni and community organizations such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida (WVSWFL). Together, their efforts brought hundreds of outside community members, parents of students and alumni onto campus to rally for educational freedom before and during the BOT meeting, against rhetoric spread by the new appointees.
Media lined the steps leading up to the Hamilton “Ham” Center, where a podium was placed for the rally speakers—including X Gonzalez (‘22), Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani (47-D) and student organizers leading the protest.
“I want to first state that this is nothing more than a transparent attempt to score political points, regardless of how many people are hurt, fired or lose this place as their home,” Gonzalez stated—a powerful start to a line of compelling speeches.
While many students are working towards protecting New College primarily in the background, a handful of students chose to enter the spotlight, taking the microphone at the podium to face the wall of cameras and reporters before them.
“I’ve never been in so many meetings and calls in my entire life,” Thesis student and student organizer Madison Markham confessed. “I’ve never felt like this little place has been so in the spotlight before.”
Chants echoed throughout the residential campus in between and during speeches: “We learn what we want,” led by Gonzalez and “Say gay” following mentions of the infamous Florida legislature nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Sarasota is my home,” second-year and student organizer Kacie Bates exclaimed to the crowd. “I was born fifteen minutes away from here in Sarasota Memorial Hospital. This is my home and the state government is taking it away from me.”
Following the student organizer’s speeches were Florida house representatives Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith (49-D) from Orlando—both outraged by the new appointees and their agendas.
“I am here today to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each one of you in the name of academic freedom and against political interference in our classrooms,” Eskamani proclaimed. “Because, as you heard from speakers before me, what happens at New College can happen anywhere.”
The rally ended on an energetic note after hearing Walter Gilbert—former President of the Sarasota chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and current Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at Selby Gardens—share his experiences with New College, dating back to the 1960s.
“Our relationship in this community, with this campus, has been strong since day one,” Gilbert declared. “New College was established to be different. It has always been different. That’s why this school is open.” Many students may recognize Gilbert from the Newtown trolley tours—sharing stories of Newtown’s history as well as its relationship with New College and the everlasting impression it made in the Newtown and Overtown communities.
The solidarity between multiple groups across many communities was felt by everyone present as the crowd moved towards the Sudakoff Conference Center to line up for a security check—of which included bag and metal detector wands—to be granted entry.
Many of those who looked forward to entering the meeting were denied entry on the basis of there being no space remaining in the audience. Most of the audience consisted of media and outside community members, allowing for only a few students and alums to enter and view the meeting in real time.
“There were a lot of accessibility issues too,” Bates recollected. “When we were watching the livestream they had disabled closed captions and had no interpreter with them, while at our rally we had an ASL interpreter for our speeches. They don’t really care about creating access to their programming. It was disheartening to hear from other students that they weren’t able to get into the BOT meeting.”
Working on a whim, many volunteered laptops and speakers in various student spaces on campus to hold watch parties. Students exclaimed in shock, frustration and agreement at their screens for the duration of the four hour-long meeting.
The outcomes of the meeting became hot topics of discussion on campus as the news of Dr. Patricia Okker’s termination—among other decisions—began circulating.
“Based on their rhetoric, the trustees very obviously hold a disdain for the student body that they are here to represent,” second-year and student organizer Sam Sharf stated in response to the meeting. “They want to remove the queer culture of the school, programs for Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) students and important discussions from classrooms.”
While tensions are high and students are expressing their concerns over changes made, Markham urges students to reserve time for healing and community.
“[The meeting] certainly revealed the new trustee’s true colors,” Markham said. “I had a conversation with some people about how we need to keep hope and that if we spend so much time and energy on the negative feelings we have towards these people, it takes away the space we have to care for each other.”
“We can still be mad,” Markham continued. “But we have to ensure we make room for love. As a community, we really need that right now; to be there for each other in the midst of this chaos.”