by Irene Chen
The Main Green is still a center of small-scale student protest, but 30 years ago a series of student-led demonstrations on campus and a nearly two-day occupation of University Hall compelled Brown to create the Third World Center.
Sparked from these calls for racial and ethnic awareness, the TWC today unites students of all racial backgrounds under its roof in Partridge Hall. The center’s name and role on campus have raised questions and caused controversy since it first began in the Churchill House basement in 1976. But this week, the center celebrates three decades of supporting students of color and promoting understanding through programs, lectures, the Third World Transition Program and the Minority Peer Counselor Progam.
Born out of protest
In 1968, a group of black women from Pembroke College camped out for three days at the Congdon Street Baptist Church to call on the University to raise the number of black students in the incoming class to 11 percent. As a result of this – the first major student protest over race at the University – the number of black students who enrolled at the University the following year increased by 300 percent.
After the first landmark protest, a series of successes followed. In the summer of 1969, the Transitional Summer Program, which became the Third World Transition Program in 1975, began introducing students of color to Brown. Another form of support for minority students came in 1973 when a group of black students founded the Minority Peer Counseling program.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the threat of budget cuts led to further racial tensions on campus. A coalition of black, Asian and Latino students occupied University Hall in 1975 to urge Brown’s administration to focus on increasing financial aid for students of color, to honor the promises it made after the 1968 protest and to create a center where students of different ethnic backgrounds could meet.
The 1975 protest dominated the campus for weeks. About 75 percent of the student body boycotted classes for a week. On April 25, 1975, the University committed to increasing the number of black students by 25 percent, launched a committee to review minority affairs at Brown and opened a center for minorities on campus the following year.
The Third World Center was born.
After settling with the University, a student leader of the protest announced to the crowd, “Our voices will not be silenced from now on. … The University has now heard us. … University, we are watching you.”
A legacy of resistance
“I do tend to romanticize the way the students came together in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,” said Karen McLaurin ’74, associate dean of the College and director of the Third World Center.
These protests shaped the mission of the TWC and influenced the students who utilize the center.
“I think that things have grown and changed since the mid-1970s, and I do think that we currently have a cross-cultural body of students that come together for different causes,” McLaurin said. “But whether that constituency would take it to the streets … anything’s possible.”
Now, McLaurin said, the campus climate is different.
“When I look back at those folks in the ’70s, you have to realize that they were in the basement of the Churchill,” McLaurin said. “Students of color have become a growing population, even today. Last year we thought we had the largest minority class, but it looks like next year, it’s going to be the largest matriculating class of minority students.”
As more minority students enrolled at Brown, students of different racial backgrounds came together to call for equality.
In 1985, the Third World Coalition, made up of 350 black, Asian and Latino students occupied the stairs of the John Carter Brown Library demanding that the University resolve the issues of racial inequalities it had promised to address in the previous protests of 1968 and 1975. Students chose the John Carter Library because it owns the documents of Brown’s slaveholding founders, and they claimed black students on campus also had a history in the University’s founding. In response, the University relocated the TWC to its current location in Partridge Hall in 1987, creating more space for students of color on campus.
But in the wake of these successes, there was a sudden explosion of racial tensions in 1989 – racial slur incidents, hate crimes and even a supposed “chapter” of the KKK at Brown. Posters that read “Keep white supremacy alive!!! Join the Brown chapter of the KKK today,” first appeared in Andrews Hall on April 29, 1989. In an interview with the TWC, one student recalled seeing that someone had scratched out the words “men” and “women” on the Andrews bathroom doors and replaced them instead with “whites” and “niggers.”
McLaurin believes racial issues still appear on campus today, but the administration and campus community are more prepared to handle situations that may occur.
“The minute the word got out that this was taking place over in Andrews, the president (Vartan Gregorian) immediately went over to Andrews and made it clear that this behavior was clearly unacceptable,” McLaurin said. “I think this still does happen today, but less frequently. I think we are better equipped to address those types of behavior today.”
The community today
Today, the TWC seeks to extend its mission beyond support for minority students. McLaurin wants the campus to view the center as for the whole campus, not simply students of color.
“We should be perceived as a resource to this campus, and I hope that that is the perception and the message that has gotten out there,” McLaurin said.
Some of the unease and confusion surrounding the Third World Center is due to its somewhat controversial name. Some students dislike the negative connotation of the phrase “Third World,” but the center’s name is based on the 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon, who called upon his readers to join together against the powers of colonialism by creating a “Third Way” separate from the “first world” of the United States and Europe and the “second world” of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
“Even people in the third-world community, when they first joined, didn’t want to be labeled ‘third world,’ ” said Krishika Acharya ’07, who co-coordinated South Asian Awareness Week. “There is an initial hesitation because of the meaning of ‘third world’ now versus what it actually means.”
Jennifer Soroko, assistant director of the Third World Center, believes there is a misconception about what the TWC does because of its name. “This whole ideology of creating a new world – it’s kind of a utopia of diversity. … I think that is what is trying to be captured here,” she said.
“The original idea of banding together a group of countries that was left out of this dynamic is really powerful. Because that’s what the TWC does, just tries to band together people from different places,” Acharya said.
Liliana Ornelas ’07 has been involved with the TWC and its programs since her sophomore year as an MPC. “I think that the TWC has kind of been my experience at Brown,” she said. “It was the environment that I needed to grow. The work that I’ve done here has definitely been a lot more valuable than anything I could’ve learned in a classroom.”
Acharya has had a similar positive experience with the TWC. “It was only after I became an MPC and became a part of that family that I really felt like I really belonged at Brown,” she said.
When asked if students might someday join together for protests like those that created the center, Ornelas said today there are new ways of effecting change.
“While we fantasize about the walkouts of ’68, we need to take that, learn from it and then see what else we can do that would be a lot better today,” she said. “How can we get together and talk about this and produce something that’s actually going to produce an effect and something that other classes after us will benefit from?”
Ornelas said the TWC needs to reach out to the rest of the University. “I think that a lot of the programming that comes out of the TWC brings up issues that other people wouldn’t talk about,” Ornelas said. “In that way we educate the campus on issues that aren’t really talked about.”
Even if the ways of creating dialogue are different today, the racial issues facing students may not be all that dissimilar from those that faced students in the past.
“There’s never an end point,” Soroko said. “I think it’s always going to be a dialogue. … It’s ever-evolving.”
Ornelas believes Brown’s current challenge is recruiting a more diverse faculty, but that the TWC has made great strides in creating a supportive community for students.
“Brown takes the lead in the kind of resources students of color have, and that’s something that we don’t appreciate that much,” Ornelas said.
Soroko said in the short time she’s worked in Partridge Hall, she’s seen the center’s impact on students’ lives. “They all come together and this is the place where it all happens,” she said.
This Friday, students will convene for the TWC 30th anniversary block party between Angell and Waterman streets and a panel discussion with the TWC directors past and present in Smith-Buonanno 106.