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Students March for BLM, Advocate for IHEID Reform

In part 2 of our coverage on the BLM protests that took place on June 9th, this article puts a spotlight on the protest's implications for the student body and the Institute. Voici la deuxième partie de notre couverture de la manifestation antiraciste du 9 juin dernier. Cet article se penche ainsi sur comment le corps étudiant de l’Institut a perçu, vécu et fait sens de la manifestation organisée par BLM suisse romande.

by Anne Lee Steele and Adriana Stimoli

Note from The Graduate Press Team: The following report is Part 2 of the two-part account of the Black Lives Matter March held in Geneva last June 9, 2020. While Part 1 has focused on the context of police violence and racism in Switzerland, Part 2 puts a spotlight on the protest’s implications on the student body and the Institute.

In the wake of widespread outrage at the brutal murder of African-American George Floyd, protests have taken place across 3,833 cities in at least 60 countries, including at least 7 in Switzerland alone. Geneva’s own manifestation, which was organised by Black Lives Matter Suisse Romande, saw over 10,000 people take to its streets on June 9th. For the protest’s organisers, the event was one step of many towards reconciling with the country’s own history of racism and police brutality, in addition to showing solidarity. But for the IHEID students who marched, the protest’s significance lay somewhere between the global and the local, as students grappled with what BLM means for both their communities at home, and for all institutions worldwide, including The Graduate Institute. Throughout the afternoon, IHEID students were asked primarily three questions: “What does solidarity with Black Lives Matter mean to you?”, “How do you think the Institute can be more actively anti-racist?”, and “How can students at the Institute work to be more anti-racist?”. Although the need for unity was shared amongst them, their individual expressions took more specific forms, from addressing racism within their own countries to collectivising supporting peers, to simply fighting for survival.

Suite à l’indignation suscitée par le meurtre brutal de l’Afro-Américain George Floyd, des manifestations ont eu lieu dans 3 833 villes d’au moins 60 pays, dont 7 rien qu’en Suisse. A l’occasion de la manifestation du 9 juin dernier à Genève organisée par Black Lives Matter Suisse Romande, plus de 10 000 personnes sont descendues dans les rues de la ville. Pour les organisateurs, l’événement, symbolise un geste de solidarité ainsi qu’un pas de plus vers la réconciliation de l’histoire du pays en matière de racisme et de brutalité policière. Pour les étudiants de l’IHEID qui ont défilé, l’importance de la manifestation se situait quelque part entre l’échelle de ce qui relève du monde, et de ce qui tient des des particularités plus locales et intimes de chacun.
Tout au long de l’après-midi, les étudiants de l’IHEID se sont ainsi vu poser principalement trois questions : « Que signifie pour vous la solidarité avec Black Lives Matter ? », « Comment pensez-vous que l’Institut puisse être plus activement antiraciste ? », et « Comment les étudiants de l’Institut peuvent-ils travailler pour être plus antiracistes ? » Bien qu’un besoin d’unité soit partagé de tous, chaque étudiant s’est exprimé dans sa spécificité, soulignant entre autres le besoin d’une lutte antiraciste dans chaque pays, d’un soutien collectif, mais aussi du combat pour la survie que représente toute action antiraciste.

The day of collective action began with a poster-making session, organised by the Black Conversations initiative and the Afrique Student Association. It followed a week of online action, culminating in collective participation at the BLM protest.

“When the [protests] first started… For the most part, [Diandra and I] were tired, exhausted, and confused” said Teal Nguot, first year MA in Anthropology and Sociology and co-chair of Black Conversations (BC), a position he shares with co-chair Diandra Dillon, first year MA in International History. On May 30, Black Conversations released a statement that condemned anti-black racism, which was later endorsed and emailed to the student body by the Graduate Institute Student Association the following day. BC and GISA later collaborated to produce an anti-racist reading and resource list. For Nguot, “Individuals often understand solidarity to be a one-time event, [but] it needs to be your whole lifestyle, really”. Advocating that students use the shared resources as a starting point, he asks them to “dive into the material that is being shared”.

On June 5, a statement and petition was released by the Afrique Student Association (ASA) – in collaboration with BC – to gather the required support for a GISA endorsement that was later voted on, approved by, and released to the student body. “As students we stand together with all [others] across the world”, Kennedy Mmasi, co-chair President of ASA and first year MA in International Affairs said before the protest, “We hope this will be a turning point for increased equality across all races.” For Mmasi, solidarity with Black Lives Matter means a “sense of togetherness for all of us. Not just for me as an African or as a student here at the Graduate Institute… Solidarity, especially at a time like this, is more so [about] a sense of unity [and] togetherness, so we can actually change the status quo”.

Vivian Ejezie – Events Coordinator of ASA and first year MA in International History – agreed regarding the universal implications of the march. “I am [firstly] marching in solidarity with black people everywhere, and second for justice and the breakdown of institutional racism in every part of the world.” She grounded the ongoing manifestations in their historical context, saying that “while George Floyd may have started the [current movement]… [the protests are] a reaction to so many years of oppression, of racism, of inequality that black people have faced within the United States and everywhere”.

Co-chair President of ASA and first year MA in International Law Jean Aristide Nayaoba Bonkoungou agrees, explaining the necessity of showing solidarity to movements such as « il est important d’exprimer notre solidarité à travers des actes précis qui montrent qu’en réalité on ne peut pas se taire, faire semblant qu’il n’y a pas un problème de racisme qui se pose. Être en solidarité avec BLM c’est partager leur cause et se mettre dans la situation où l’on comprend la douleur qui vivent les populations racisées. » (It is important to express our solidarity through specific actions that show that in reality we cannot keep silent, pretending that there is not a problem of racism. To be in solidarity with BLM is to share their cause and to put oneself in the situation where one understands the pain experienced by racialised populations).

Student solidarity and IHEID community organising efforts were also assisted and led by members of GISA and the Latin American Network Initiative, who had shared resources and led coordination efforts throughout the previous week. “Solidarity means giving my resources to people who are organising, providing networks for people to organise, and [listening] to people’s general distrust with the society we live in,” said Alexa-Rae Burk, PhD Candidate in International History, who was recently elected President of GISA. 

Burk’s sentiments were echoed by Karen Chica Gomez, President of LANI and first year MA in Development Studies. She emphasised the regional importance of the BLM movement, saying that “it is also about recognising that racism is present in Latin America,” adding that police violence is “not only against black people, but [also] against indigenous peoples”. For Chica Gomez, solidarity is “something that we have to do every single day. [We] have to remember [this] and not stay silent, because silence is complicity.” Supplementing the list shared by BC and GISA, LANI recently released anti-racist resources in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as hosted an online event about police brutality and racism in Latin America on June 21. Their instagram page also features an ongoing series about police brutality.

As students rallied at Parc des Bastions before walking to Parc des Cropettes, their reasons for solidarity and anti-racist actions ranged from the international to the personal, from the political spheres of their own countries to personal friendships at the Institute.

For Jasmine Oduro, former GISA president and second year MA in Development Studies, solidarity with Black Lives Matter is grounded in her own experience as a black woman. “I am from Ghana and the UK… Growing up in the UK, I faced racism myself, so I understand what it means to gather and fight against [it]”. For many at the rally, solidarity with Black Lives Matter extended past the march itself. Solidarity is “all encompassing” Janine Furtado, also a second year MA in Development Studies, stated. “[It] means caring about black lives in every single aspect, and decolonising the way we think and the way we act”. Solidarity is “survival for many people” according to Daniel Milhomens, a second year MA in Anthropology and Sociology.

For Tapakshi Magan, a first year MA in International Relations and Political Science, it was the sheer number of people protesting that demonstrated how BLM has gone “beyond what happened in the United States [to represent a] universal cause.” For others, it had particular implications for their home countries. As an American, first year MA in International Affairs student Alex Nesicolaci spoke of the imperative for “institutional reforms, especially in the United States where [Black Lives Matter] originated”.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous due to their country’s restrictions on public protesting, called the march a “manifestation of solidarity” itself, citing the diversity of the crowds who participated. “This is actually the first time that I’m joining a protest,” the student admitted, emphasising how support through protest “is really needed to make a change”. This sentiment was echoed by Matheus Fontes, vice-president of LANI and first year MA in International Law, who said “for me, [solidarity] means understanding that even as a non-black person, you can [argue] for more awareness”. Students also cited how anti-racism engagement has increased not only at the Institute, but also within personal relationships. “It’s been very cool for me to see so many people I know [that have been] politically apathetic get really involved in this issue,” Priya Swyden, first year MA in International Affairs, said.

Matthieu Guillier, first year MA in International Affairs, notes how « au-delà de tout positionnement politique particulier il faut agir en solidarité et ne pas rester passif, car la passivité c’est en quelques sortes une acceptation de ce qui se passe. » (Beyond any particular political stance, we must act in solidarity and not remain passive, because passivity is a kind of acceptance of what’s going on). Olivier Flamand-Lapointe, first year MA in Development Studies agrees, and explains « être ici c’est une façon de montrer que le racisme systémique existe, et être ici c’est être en solidarité. Je suis pas une personne de couleur, mais c’est un signe de solidarité, de montrer notre soutien aux gens qui vivent des situations de racisme. » (Being here is a way to show that systemic racism exists, and being here is being in solidarity. I’m not a person of colour, but it’s a sign of solidarity, to show support for people who are experiencing racism).

In the weeks following the June 9th protests, institutions of all kinds – universities among them – increasingly appear to be facing a kind of reckoning. As “systemic racism” and “anti-racism” enter the global lexicon, long standing calls to diversify faculty and students, decolonise curriculums, and apply critical pedagogy have been reinvigorated. While these educational movements have slowly taken root within the academy, recent events have thrust them back into the spotlight. Five years after #RhodesMustFall began in South Africa, Oxford’s Oriel College voted last Tuesday to remove their statue of Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian mining magnate who was one of those responsible for the colonization of southern Africa, and for whom the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship is named.

While the Institute’s Bibliotheque has responded with a supplementary list of anti-racism materials, and a number of articles have been released on the Institute’s website, students also shared their thoughts about how the Graduate Institute might respond to these ongoing movements at the protest on June 9.

For many, this begins with looking at the student body itself. “What we have now is a sort of ‘elite diversity’,” Ngout argued, saying that institutional change might begin with the recruitment of “students from all sorts of class backgrounds and all sorts of ethnic backgrounds”. Chica Gomez notes in particular that “We don’t see a lot of representation of people with African descent [at the Institute],” and Fontes cites the need to be “more aware of the selection process of students” due to the fact that “a lot of minority and underprivileged people don’t have access to the means to come to Switzerland”. Milhomens extends this past the “criteria to select students, but [also to] scholarships“.

While Chica Gomez reports that LANI has been in talks with the Students Initiative on Asia (SIA) and Black Conversations to create a panel “[to] discuss different perspectives on racism,” students also addressed institutional-level change in a variety of other ways, and were diverse in their suggestions. Some called for events to initiate dialogue. Others called for changes in curriculum, or even faculty themselves.

“The Institute needs to move beyond the gender and diversity commission,” Oduro said. “It needs to really take a look at diversifying the curriculum, and provid[ing] safe spaces to have uncomfortable conversations”, a sentiment that was echoed by Mmasi, who cites the need “for the Institute to facilitate dialogue amongst students, faculty, and staff” to increase “awareness around racism or any form of injustice in society”. Ejezie also agrees that “more can be done… [by] organising seminars and conferences where students can come together to talk about how institutional racism is evident in our societies, and how the privileges that some people have [can be] detrimental to other people.”

Jean Aristide insists that the Institute organise gatherings to target racism’s roots: « pour être antiraciste l’Institut pourrait organiser des évènements et des activités qui permettront de promouvoir les idées antiracistes, car le racisme naît principalement de l’ignorance. Il faut un certain nombre d’activités, de conférences et d’enseignements qui permettent de rentrer dans cette logique où l’on comprend que la différence raciale n’est pas une différence de fond. » (To be anti-racist, the Institute could organize events and activities that will promote anti-racist ideas. This is because racism is born mainly out of ignorance, and we need a certain number of activities, conferences and teaching that allows us to enter into this logic where we understand that racial difference is not a difference.)

For some students, however, it is the structures of the postgraduate programs, curricula, and faculty themselves that require change. “They should rethink the courses, the literature, the professors, the epistemologies,” Milhomens said, when asked what the Institute might do to be more anti-racist. Furtado is specific: “Personally, I think the Institute needs more black professors”, noting the difference in representation amongst the Institute staff. She adds that “at the Institute, a lot of our classes are about the Global South. Yet, the people who are teaching about the Global South, aren’t actually from [there].” Second year MA in Development Studies, Derya Senol agrees, adding that “if [the Institute is] going to have International Affairs and Development Studies, the narrative needs to change. [This history] should never have been, but [both fields] stem from a colonial legacy, and we need to discuss it”.

As students have begun to question what role IHEID plays within these global conversations, it is against the backdrop of the Institute’s own formation and history with which the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated.

As Black Lives Matter continues to gain momentum worldwide, the Institute students who participated in the protest were vocal both in their support of the movement, as well as in their understanding of its wider implications. For these students, systemic racism and discrimination are urgent issues that still need to be tackled within the Graduate Institute, especially as it self-reports almost 100 nationalities in its student body alone. But how they will be addressed in real time, and what is needed in order to do so, remains a question for those at the top of Maison de la Paix.

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1 comment on “Students March for BLM, Advocate for IHEID Reform

  1. Pingback: The Graduate Press Wrapped – A year in review – The Graduate Press

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