by Reggie Goudeau
[originally published March 25, 2022]
On March 10, I attended a demonstration in Tappan Square led by Professors Yveline Alexis and Pamela Brooks. We gathered there in protest of the Board’s refusal to revert back to the faculty compensation plan from 2013 that promised to raise many salaries. We also protested a new health plan which has increased faculty co-pay for seeing the doctor from $30 per visit to $100. The turnout was spectacular, the speeches and readings were heartfelt, and I felt like everything went surprisingly well. The event showed me that although Oberlin paying professors enough was the main issue, this institution’s inability to accommodate everyone’s needs (from disabled students to students of color) is also a huge problem. While reflecting on our work, I turned to Professor Alexis to discover her thought process behind organizing this event and what made it so successful.
When I asked her what inspired her to organize the protest, Professor Alexis said, “Watching my parents and the larger community struggle. They are considered laborers, and now that they’re at this certain age where we’re caring for them, we're essentially their retirement plan.” Our cries for fair wages and treatment go beyond helping those at Oberlin College. They are about rebelling against a pattern of marginalized people having to struggle for a chance at fair pay. Oberlin is an institution that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, so this place should not be another obstacle for students representing said values. Anyways, Professor Alexis went on to say, “It's time for us to raise our voices for those people like our janitors here, dining staff here, but also the reality that you need to pay professors at the rate that Gridmore pays their professors, Smith College, and other comparable institutions.”
Alexis tried being slightly more civil at first and waited for those with more privilege in her faculty meetings to step up. Sadly, that did not work, so Professor Alexis worked alongside Dr. Pamela Brooks and several students to demand change. I wondered how she managed such a large turnout, but Professor Alexis again praised students’ efforts. She initially just sent the students in her three classes the egregious letter by the board. Professor Alexis had a mix of her current students, alumni of classes she took, and other allies help organize the event and spread the word. The UPS Store also offered to print out and laminate plenty of flyers with ample time. Kopano Muhummad, a third-year previously involved in music and activism, even helped make a QR code for people to see the letter and get other updates. They also sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Besides these things, Professor Alexis also noted that she was struck by the testimonies from several neurodivergent students and how this place accommodates very few despite having so many resources.
I wondered if anything from that day besides the turnout surprised her, and the response here was striking. Professor Alexis was shocked by the rampant Title IX violations and mental health issues that Oberlin can’t adequately remedy. Professor Alexis respects and admires the great people at the Counseling Center. She also knows that the three to five employees there, though extremely impactful, can’t accommodate every student here coming with trauma. She was also shocked that RA’s don’t get a paid room from the College. Professor Alexis reportedly accepted that the protest slowly drifted away from being focused on properly compensating professors. She is a big advocate for rest and believes that if students aren’t functioning at even 70% capacity, they can’t learn, generate activism, or do anything else important. She was also happy to see students from immense generational wealth step back and offer their services.
When I requested that she name testimonies from that day that still resonated, she said the efforts of her classes were powerful. Beginning the testimonies with Kopano Muhammad and ending them with Joshua Jackson felt “holistic” according to her. Alexis also respected how everyone spoke once for the most part since she reportedly does “...not vibe with people who take up too much space.” I was concerned with privileged students doing just that, but thankfully the opposite happened.
When I inquired about whether Oberlin treats her with comparable respect to other institutions, Professor Alexis had to think a bit harder. According to her, the main difference between Oberlin and similar places was that other institutions and her colleagues there all encouraged her to succeed. At Oberlin, there’s a culture to always help others, regardless of how that impacts your well-being, and to support every Black event possible. I experienced this recently when I didn’t perform at a recent Soul Session because I’d had a rough week and didn’t want to break down or give a lackluster performance. Despite the many questions I received following that day, having the strength to say no was very powerful. I’m proud that I gave myself the room to heal since Black people on this campus rarely get that opportunity. Professor Alexis notably goes to Black Church as well, which is a 3-4 hour process along with her tons of other responsibilities. Doing all of this is unsustainable, and as she puts it, other professors aren’t often “put under this pressure to be everything to every Black student” while completing other tasks and still functioning.
Before I concluded my time with her, I asked Professor Alexis if she knew what the next steps are for Oberlin to give everyone here an equitable and comfortable experience (regarding wages, available resources on-campus, equitable class environments, etc). She responded by saying the solution was to keep the pressure on Oberlin and continue organizing. This may seem simple, but this course of action is bound to remain effective with solidarity across campus. Even though I had to leave the event a half-hour early, I still felt the power from that space even days later. I am not confident that Oberlin will respond correctly here, but I’d love to be proven wrong. If that scenario doesn’t happen, I don’t mind. I’ll try my best to make it to the next protest, and I encourage anyone who cares about workers' and students’ rights to do the same. As Professor Alexis said during my final minutes with her, “Who got next?”