Still active: Students work to change culture from the periphery

On the anniversary of the August 11, 2017, tiki-torch march through UVA Grounds, students refused to be corralled into a university-sanctioned demonstration area. Photo by Eze Amos On the anniversary of the August 11, 2017, tiki-torch march through UVA Grounds, students refused to be corralled into a university-sanctioned demonstration area. Photo by Eze Amos

By Ben Hitchcock

At 10:30pm on May 4, 1970, approximately 1,500 UVA students gathered on the Lawn to protest the murder of four student activists at Kent State University earlier that day. On April 28, 1983, a group of 100 students marched up to the office of Student Affairs Vice President Ernest Ern and presented a list of demands, including the admission of more black students, the hiring of more black faculty, and an increase in the amount of financial aid for black students. In 1991, a Cavalier Daily opinion columnist wrote: “The world around us is buzzing with black political activism.”

The University of Virginia has a reputation as a hidebound and conservative place, where seersucker reigns supreme and change comes slowly. But progressive political activism has always been present on Grounds. For decades, UVA students have banded together to protest against all manner of injustices.

Today’s students are building on the activism of their forebears.

“Some of my friends were at the big bicentennial celebration on the Lawn, with a big banner that just says ‘200 years of white supremacy,’” says UVA student Corey Runkel, a member of the Living Wage Campaign at UVA. “We found an image from 1970, when they were trying to do co-education… They had a sign that said ‘150 years of white supremacy.’ It was interesting to see that history.”

Runkel, a third-year, has been a part of the Living Wage Campaign since shortly after his arrival at the school. Founded in the late ‘90s, the group has advocated for the rights of workers around Grounds, lobbying the administration to raise the minimum wage for the university’s employees. In 2006, 17 students occupied Madison Hall for four days before President John Casteen had them arrested.

The campaign scored a significant victory earlier this year, when President Jim Ryan announced that 1,400 full-time employees would receive $15 an hour by January 2020.

“When I was a first-year, people that didn’t know about Living Wage directly would never talk about it,” Runkel says. The group kept pushing, though, and managed to force the university into action.

Other students fight for different issues. The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition “engages in political advocacy, education, and direct action around environmental and social justice,” says leader Joyce Cheng. Recently, VSEC organized to slow down the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Before that, the group lobbied the university administration to divest from fossil fuels.

“When the Atlantic Coast Pipeline opposition was really heightened, a couple semesters ago, we were really close with the people in Buckingham County,” Cheng says. “We have tried to strengthen the bonds between the university and the community.”

Many of UVA’s activist groups focus on issues beyond the university’s walls. Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society concentrates on “having really close ties with the community,” says Diana Tinta, one of the group’s members. That could mean anything from hosting an open mic night to organizing dinners and donating profits to refugees in Charlottesville.

Recently, PLUMAS painted Beta Bridge to protest the Albermarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail’s relationship with ICE. Activities like painting the bridge can galvanize students, and “that’s given us a lot of momentum,” Tinta says.

The Living Wage Campaign, VSEC, and PLUMAS represent just a small sample of activist organizations at the university. UVA Students United has organized around a variety of social justice issues; the Queer Student Union advocates for UVA’s LGBTQ+ population; the Black Student Alliance has been a catalyst for political activism since its founding in the 1960s. The list of activist organizations at UVA goes on and on. The school is chock full of passionate and innovative students.

Nevertheless, UVA’s activists themselves remain generally pessimistic about the role of political activism in the university’s culture. Despite the long history of action and the proliferation of progressive groups, some organizers still feel like the stereotypes about UVA’s apathetic political climate hold more than a little truth.

“I think it’s probably apt to say that this is not a place that is known for political activism,” Runkel says. “We’ve found it a very difficult place to organize.”

Runkel ascribed this difficulty to the less-than-revolutionary politics of many UVA students. “Part of it is a sort of self-separation from the rest of UVA life. We’re fairly radical, relative to other groups.”

Cheng echoes Runkel’s lament. “[Mobilizing students] is something, to be honest, I think we struggle with, just because UVA students are so busy and so involved in all their different commitments,” she says. “UVA is very closed off to student activism.”

Tinta, too, believes most UVA students are insufficiently engaged. “I don’t think that students are active enough in advocating for issues, especially when it comes to advocating for the Charlottesville community,” she says. “There are a bunch of groups that do great work, but I think that all these works need more collaboration and more support, which I don’t think that UVA students really give.”

So while many groups are working hard for a wide variety of progressive causes, student activism continues to exist on the periphery of the school’s consciousness, and that relationship shows little sign of changing. As long as that remains true, UVA’s activists know they have more work to do.