What made you want to start @DearWLU?
I saw the rise of @dearPWI, and the two stories from W&L that made it onto there, and realized how many more stories people could tell. Having sat in meeting after meeting during my time at W&L, watching the slow burn of bureaucracy, I knew that all of the changes students and alumni want would take far longer than desired (or longer than seemingly necessary). Students and alumni invested in change have attended meetings, made phone calls, written letters and emails, and all of it has gotten the same response (very little). Never before have I seen the university be pushed to change and adapt by a public, outside entity, and I thought there was no time like the present to try that tactic. I set it all up at 4am after I made the decision to give it a shot, and it took off from there. I put time into picking the colors and fonts, wanting to create a presence that people would be drawn to and want to interact with. This project is all about getting W&L to look its unsavory underbelly in the eye, see it for what it is, and then do something about it.
What reactions have you gotten from the W&L community?
Surprisingly, I’ve gotten more love than hate. I’ve of course got a few over-done submissions that are blatant “jokes”—a lack of restraint regarding the writer’s imagination is usually what tips me off—and others that are angry about what I’m doing, or think I’m going about it wrong. But, mostly, people have been supportive. I’ve gotten hundreds of DMs and emails thanking me for my efforts and sharing their support. The thing that has probably surprised me the most is when people come at me aggressively for something I’ve posted, if I respond calmly and explain my rationale, they’ve more or less immediately backed down and been willing to engage with me on the topic. It’s been really interesting to see the aggression immediately dissipate once they don’t receive it back. More often than not, those interactions have turned into decent conversations after the initial defensiveness. I’ve taken to taking the weekends off, though, because those interactions can be exhausting. I have the privilege of maintaining the mask of the dearWLU persona during those interactions, but still, they can be draining.
When you look back at your time at W&L, what’s one time that stood out to you?
One time that stood out to me was GroupMe Gate. I won’t forget where I was when I saw some of those “memes,” or how they made me or my friends feel. It felt like everything stilled and then crashed. There was a lot of hurt on campus, and a sense of betrayal, that anyone in our community could find the things said in that chat funny, or say them themselves.
What submission shocked you the most?
I can’t say that many of them have been shocking, as I’ve had and heard about many bad experiences. But the fact that there have been so many stories about specific professors has been shocking, insofar as it all seems really blatant, and yet, they’ve remained in their positions. One of the two that are frequently featured has now faced some sort of consequences and the other… I don’t know. It’s been pretty disheartening, but not surprising, to see W&L drag their feet. We know they’re predators, the administration knows they’re predators. Their files are lengthy. What more do they need?
What is your end goal with this account?
My goals are twofold: one is to maintain (and pass on) a platform where people can share their stories from a place where they are so often silenced and pushed aside. The other is to show the administration that we care, that we will use our voices, and that we will not back down from asking for change. I’ve been surprised by the number of stories that detail heartbreaking experiences, but then include “I love W&L” or “I’m grateful to W&L.” I think that’s the really unique thing about the university. You feel beholden to it, even when it doesn’t feel beholden to you. It’s a bit like an abusive relationship—the institution hurt me and my friends more times than I can count, and yet, I (and many others) keep coming back, keep engaging. I could’ve walked away from it when I graduated, and not spent another moment thinking about it. For a period of time, I did. That was really good for me, to gain some time and distance. But after hearing about some things that were happening on campus, I reengaged. I felt it was important for current students to know that there were alumni behind them, because when I was on campus, it felt like current students versus. groups like Redoubt, with little other support. The school does alienate a lot of people who would be supportive of the measures we’re pushing for, for sure, but we do exist, and we are willing to help. That is why I’ve reengaged, and tried to bring other alumni along with me. I want to use my talents for good, and to help further the changes the students are asking for, and that the university so desperately needs.
If you did at all, where in the classroom did you learn about racism at W&L?
About the formal structures of racism, I did not. Naming the classes I took may give my identity away, but some classes I took informed my understanding of racism’s effects and impacts through experience, movements, and story, as opposed to a more structural or textbook understanding of it. I will also add that I only learned about these things because I sought them out. If you don’t purposely seek out classes that are taught from or about other points of view, you can miss them entirely at W&L.
I’m new to campus...what can I do to participate and assist the efforts underway?
Show up for students of color. If you overhear a microaggression in class, call it out. Have a conversation with your friend about why they can’t say the n-word, even when they hear it in music. Push back on unfair characterizations by professors. But also, show up to events put on by students of color and different organizations outside of Greek life. Attend Black poetry night, Taste of Africa, or the hundreds of other events organized by students every year. And encourage your friends to do the same. If we are going to call ourselves a community, then we need to start acting like one.
Can you simultaneously support BLM and strive to be anti-racist while being against the name change? I’ve been having some convos with friends who feel like people automatically label them as racist/say they can’t support BLM if they don’t support the name change and I’m honestly not sure.
I don’t think you can. Black people are telling you their experience—they’re telling you the name makes them uncomfortable. They’re telling you that attending an institution named for a man who did not believe Black people could be educated is traumatic. If you truly believe that Black lives matter, and you truly believe that their experiences and opinions matter, then you will support the name change. The name might not personally affect you, it may not make you feel some kind of way, and if that is the case, good for you. But it’s not about you. It’s about making W&L a welcoming, accepting place for all. Where everyone can just be a student if they want, and not forced into token demographics or de facto diversity consultant roles. That means making “sacrifices” (if you can call changing a name a sacrifice) in the name of the greater good for all members of the community, and the future of the school.
What do you think W&L’s biggest problem is?
Where to start. This seems like a moving target at times, but if I had to pick one thing, I really think it boils down to apathy. I don’t even think it’s always malicious or willful, but that is not an acceptable excuse. And, worse, sometimes it is malicious and willful. Students can be apathetic because a lot of the issues @dearWLU discusses, especially about racism, do not apply to the student body at large (see our dreadful demographic numbers). That doesn’t mean they’re not important, obviously, but it does mean that most of the community has the privilege of “not seeing” or “not understanding” the problems. Not seeing and not understanding are not acceptable excuses, especially at an institution of higher learning, but the social stratification only serves to encourage this. So, I would say on the one hand it’s student apathy, and the desire to stay within their own social circles and comfort zones at all costs. And then there’s the administrative apathy, which arguably could be worse. You have a lot of people who have been in their posts for a long time, especially in, say, Student Affairs, a department meant to care about the student experience and make it better. If most of the people in charge have been in their positions a long time, they’ll get a bit comfortable. That seems natural. But no one is challenging them to stay on their toes, to stay uncomfortable, or pushing them to make or advocate for change. W&L has been around for nearly 250 years. It has solidified its place in the liberal arts lexicon, there isn’t much higher to go or attain. The University doesn’t have a lot to prove—it’s, quite literally, an institution. So, now people are coming around saying it has to change this and that, and people are very change- and risk-averse at W&L. It would be kind of remarkable if it weren’t so frustrating.
Learn more about the @DearWLU project and read submissions at their website: dearwlu.com