Salem College students’ sit-in highlights grievances from dorms to racism

Salem College students protesting conditions in dorms and racism conferred outside Main Hall on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)

Students cite poor conditions and a climate of racism and transphobia as reasons for occupying Salem College’s Main Building. Administrators say they are reviewing the students’ demands and are committed to working together to address them.

Galvanized by a recent mental health assessment of the student body at Salem College, students at the women’s liberal arts school in Winston-Salem initiated a sit-in in Main Hall on Monday morning to protest general conditions, academic quality and what they say is a climate of racism and transphobia.

Beginning at 11:15 a.m., students armed with laptops and school books began crowding into Main Hall. Some of them periodically emerged on the front steps and gathered on the quad, holding signs and chanting to publicize their grievances. At about 5:30 p.m. a student pulled up in a car and delivered a flat of bottled water to the hall.

Leniece Linder, a senior majoring in political science and communication who serves as president of Black Americans Demonstrating Unity, or BADU, said about 120 students are participating in the sit-in. Salem College’s official enrollment is 1,100.

“Salem College has living conditions that are intolerable,” Linder said. “The showers are cold. The food is inedible from mold and it’s not properly cooked. There’s no wi-fi. There are majors being offered that don’t exist. Salem has promised a lot of people that you can create your own major. They say they offer computer science, but we don’t have that. We do not have German. We do live with termites, roaches and rats in the dorms. There are windows that are painted shut and others that don’t close. Birds are free to fly in and out of the rooms.”

A hand-drawn paper banner hung above the entrance with large type reading “Strong are thy flaws, oh Salem” — a spoof on the college’s official song “Strong are thy walls, oh Salem” — with individual grievances inscribed like messages in a school yearbook.

Although the living conditions affect the entire student body, Linder said the campus also suffers from a social climate that is harmful to students of color and LGBTQ students.

“There’s racism that’s micro-aggressive and actual racism,” Linder said. “Professors are saying, ‘Do you know your father?’ and when they talk about black students they say ‘those students.’ There are professors telling black and Hispanic students: ‘You will never make it through pre-med, so you should just stop now.’ There are students calling Muslim students ‘terrorists,’ telling Hispanic students ‘go back to your country’ and calling African-American students n******. The school has no transgender policy. That’s a way to not have to take any action on transphobia.”

President Lorraine Sterritt and Dean Susan Calvoni acknowledged the sit-in in an email on Monday to students in which they said, “We care deeply about our students, and we acknowledge the importance of the concerns that they have raised. We commit to working with students, faculty, staff, administration, and the boards in order to respond to the call to action.”

Sterritt and Calvoni told employees in a separate email: “Please be aware that classes, activities and work in various offices may be affected by today’s events.”

The students presented administration with a 10-page list of demands, including a requirement for diversity training for members of the board of trustees down to general staff, hiring people of color for faculty positions proportionately to the makeup of the student body, “a visible and intensive effort given to the renovation, restoration and upkeep of residence halls,” and admission of students who were assigned as male at birth and who identity as women, along with students who were assigned as female at birth and identify as non-binary while feeling that they belong in a “community of women.”

Karina Gonzalez, a visitors guide who is studying sociology, and Lorina Morton, who is studying creative writing, said they met with two deans.

“They asked to talk about the ‘call to action,’” Gonzalez said. “We said, ‘We will talk to you when we see action.’”

Morton added: “We presented the document at 11:30; they came to talk to us at 12. It’s a document that you can’t digest in a half hour. One of the deans asked, ‘How long are you planning to stay here?’ We said, ‘We’ll stay here until we see action.’ She said, ‘Get comfortable.’”

Gonzalez declined to identify the deans with whom she and Morton spoke out of concern that she might violate the college’s honor code.

The administration released an official statement on Monday. “Earlier today, a group of students presented members of the administration with a 10-page call to action, which we are reviewing,” the statement read. “We offered to meet with the students to discuss the contents of the document. They have advised us that they prefer to continue their sit-in until action is taken. We respect their rights to express themselves in a peaceful manner.”

A spokesperson for the college told Triad City Beat that administration would have no additional comment.

Linder said a group of students and faculty called the “Committee on Community” have been meeting every Friday to discuss ongoing student grievances.

“All the years we have been talking about this and telling administration, ‘The racial tension on campus is about to explode,’ it’s been met with, ‘Oh, okay, that’s fine,’” Linder said.

Linder said the trigger for the sit-in was a text message received by traditional students with the results of a survey by the American College Health Association that showed high levels of distress among students at Salem College. The survey, which Linder provided to TCB showed that 97 percent of students reported being overwhelmed; 93 percent, “emotionally exhausted”; 75 percent, “very sad”; 68 percent, “overwhelming anxiety”; 65 percent, “very lonely”; 63 percent, “hopeless”; and 42 percent, “so depressed it was difficult to function.”

“That’s what kicked everybody into high gear,” Linder said. “We cannot pretend this is a one-person thing. Everybody was operating under the guise that they were all alone. When those numbers came out, we said to ourselves: ‘I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only one who was depressed.’”

Students at Salem College began an occupation of Main Hall at 11:15 a.m. on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)

UPDATE: Coverage of the second day of protests, along with photos and video from inside Main Building here.