Students discuss campus activism through King’s vision

James Ricks, ’21, encouraged students in attendance to take what they talked about to the rest of campus: “This conversation cannot stay in this room.”


From left to right: James Ricks, ‘21, Joëlle Simeu, ‘20, and Heeth Varnedoe, ‘19, facilitated the discussion on student activism. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Grace Mamon

About 30 students, professors and administrators gathered in a circle in Hillel House to discuss the role of student activism on Thursday, Jan. 17.

Four Steps to Justice: Dr. King’s Tips for Changing the World Nonviolently; A Community Discussion” was organized by students and Howard Pickett, the director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. It coincided with the week-long celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Student facilitators Joëlle Simeu, ‘20, Heeth Varnedoe, ‘19, and James Ricks, ‘21, opened the discussion with King’s four steps for nonviolent revolution: gathering the facts, negotiation, education and preparation and nonviolent, creative action.

“We want to remember Dr. King and his legacy, but also to talk about some of his strategies and how we can apply them to obstacles we face in the world and at school,” Varnedoe said.

Professor Howard Pickett encouraged students to develop action items for goals they had to improve campus climate. Photo by Hannah Denham, ’20.

Students shared their opinions on the role of student activism, defining it as a way to offer a unique viewpoint about issues of injustice, an opportunity to challenge their own preconceived notions and to speak for those who have less time and fewer resources on their hands.

Ricks encouraged students in attendance to take what they talked about to the rest of campus.

“This conversation cannot stay in this room,” he said.

Students identified obstacles to achieving their goals for campus climate like apathy, reluctance to leave one’s comfort zone, lack of empathy and vulnerability and “activism fatigue” as obstacles. Many in the room agreed a key difficulty is maintaining momentum for activism, especially in a demanding college environment.

Students brought up specific issues like physical accessibility on campus, micro-aggressive language and the intersection between Greek life and substance abuse. Students challenged one another about the origin of these issues and why Washington and Lee has struggled to address them.

Some ideas to strategically optimize activism at the university included using student news media more effectively, encouraging classes that address justice issues and using the requirements of Greek organizations to stimulate activism and community engagement.

Tammy Futrell, the dean of diversity, inclusion and student engagement, was one of the several faculty members and administrators in attendance.

“I’m here because I’m always ready to hear what students have to say,” Futrell said after the event.

Other events revolving around Martin Luther King Jr. Day will take place through Sunday, Jan. 27. The full schedule of events can be found on the university website.