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Black Student Union members Gracie Hargrove & Chase Alston say Baltimore’s premier institution’s “white savior complex” does more harm than good
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody last year and ongoing protests highlighting Baltimore’s apartheid like inequities, led the cities leading institutions to promise to do more. But Johns Hopkins University’s treatment of their own security guards who are mostly black and from Baltimore has raised questions about Hopkins’ commitment to the city, outraged students say. They wrote an open letter to the university president, protesting a move to undercut the security guards’ collective bargaining rights, which they say hurts workers by putting profits over people. We reached out to Hopkins and they declined to join us in this conversation. But we are joined in studio by two of the students who coauthored an editorial in the Baltimore Sun titled, JHU efforts to cut a union company raises doubts about its commitment to Baltimore. We’re joined by Grace Hargrove. She’s a senior and behavioral biology student at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. You’re also a member of the Black Student Union. And we’re also joined by Chase Alston. You’re a rising senior at Hopkins University majoring in public health studies and you’re a member of the Black Student Union and the Hopkins chapter of the Students for Democratic Society. Thank you both for joining us. NOOR: So Hopkins declined to join us for this conversation. We invited them on. But they did send us a letter and they said they are committed to engaging contractors who are responsible and fair employers. They’re talking about the security guards that maintain the Homewood campus. But they said after a 10-year contract with Allied Barton, the current company, they’re opening up negotiations. And they are open to hiring a none union company, but they’re going to make sure that they pay fair wages and benefits that respect the university’s value. So let’s start off with your response to that? Then I want to get into why you guys organized this effort to raise awareness about this. GRACE HARGROVE: Well I would say first off; this is the first time that we’re hearing of the response. So we haven’t received any kind of email or any kind of confirmation that our petition was received by the administration. NOOR: And how many students signed that petition? HARGROVE: Over 500 plus. And that’s including community members as well and graduate students and other people who work at the hospital. The Bloomberg School of Public Health etc. NOOR: So how do you respond to their — Hopkins saying they are considering contractors that are non-unionized and that’s going to reflect the best interest of the university? CHASE ALSTON: I think it’s honestly an empty promise and I think that an institution like this that’s had a history of making empty promises and then going back on those things and exploiting the people around them, it owes it to the people that are here to actually put something forward that’s going to make sure that these different things that they’re saying are going to be fair are happening to the community. And that it’s not just something where they’re like oh we’ll try to be fair. But if it’s benefitting us more than it’s benefiting you then we’re going to go with what benefits us more. NOOR: Hopkins is one of the premier institutions in the area. Certainly in Baltimore. It’s one of the things that Baltimore’s known for is Johns Hopkins. Both the university and the hospital. As a student there, where did you decide to be involved in this effort? Why is it important to you that workers get represented by unions? HARGROVE: I think being a college student, just generally speaking, I’m personally from Pennsylvania. So I’m moving into a different community where there are people that do have a history of unfortunately being moved and pushed out of their neighborhoods and their communities by Hopkins. And knowing that this is something that has been acknowledged by the administration and people that work with the administration. If anything we should be trying to make efforts to kind of reverse that and to alleviate. Unfortunately, the marginalization that a lot of these communities are experiencing. And also just generally being a student of color, like I don’t completely understand of course the conditions a lot of these employers of employees unfortunately are going through. But as a person of color, knowing that I do come from a community that unfortunately has to deal with a lot of underfunding and has to deal with a lot of lack of resources, I am going to use what privilege that I do have to kind of create a platform and advocate for these groups. That’s a very large part of the college experience. ALSTON: And knowing that they’re often seen as things that don’t matter is a shame and it’s something that I as a student can actively know of and not do everything in my power to not fight against it to make sure that other people are aware of it and that it gets to the point where somebody that does have the power to change this can change it. NOOR: And you’ve you know sort of both talked about Hopkins broken promises because they have especially in the wake of Freddie Gray you had all the major institutions in the city say they’re going to do better. It’s no longer possible to deny the deep inequities and the fact that policies led us in this direction, they said you know we’re going to do something different this time around to prevent that from happening again. Do you think that Hopkins and other institutions have done that? HARGROVE: I haven’t quite seen it from a student perspective on Homewood campus. And I think us kind of, as you said, playing such a vital role in the community and shaping that community, we as students should be out in these communities. We as students should, I don’t know, be using the resources that we do have and exchanging that with these and building those relationships and I don’t really see that happening in comparison to where we were last April. If anything, we do know about the broken promises because we also as black students have had to advocate for ourselves in our own campus climate. And so knowing that Hopkins has a tendency kind of leaving our own concerns and grievances in the dust. It doesn’t quite surprise us. NOOR: So can you talk about that? Because I know Hopkins isn’t known for a hotbed of student activism. ALSTON: Yea, there’s a very big culture of apathy on our campus and I think a lot of that’s driven by the fact that most, its academics is kind of put over the needs of other people. And I think when you do that, you get into the danger of overlooking the needs of people around you and then the community around you. And you also get into the dangerous part where Hopkins will kind of acknowledge that something wrong has happened. But instead of fully acknowledging the broader scope of their effect of the overall community and their like historically how they’ve effected the community. They’ll do small things. It’ll be like going out and doing a community service day or going and giving a little bit of money to one elementary school to make up for centuries of abuse and neglect to the people around them. And I think it’s our responsibility as students to kind of acknowledge that they are there to be students but also acknowledge that they have the potential to make their university better and the way that you make your university better is by calling the people in charge of it out by the things that they’re doing wrong and being like no this is what you should be doing. This is how you can be better for the people, not just today but for years to come. NOOR: And so we’ve seen black lives matter protests erupt all over the country and especially on college campuses over the last couple years. Talk about the challenges and the successes of organizing on Hopkins campus. HARGROVE: I’m thinking about it from student group perspective. Just kind of coming from a year off of us kind of assessing what we still had in terms of people and students that hadn’t graduated and knowing that there’s a lot of empty positions and a lot of spots that we needed to fill. And unfortunately we did have a reputation of really kind of being a political group and more kind of a social organization. But you know, the two of us also being on the executive board and other members, we knew that we wanted to transform that. Unfortunately, there were a few times where we did have demonstrations and we were ignored by student populations and we were ignored by faculty members because they were uncomfortable. Now all of a sudden, these academic places and places of higher education are becoming places or stages for us to also have social justice conversations and it was something that originally I don’t think and even now I think we’re still receiving a bit of a pushback. But I think having the black student forum we did last November kind of kick started and catalyzed a lot of the organizations that we have been seeing by other coalitions such as the Recover Hopkins which is also something that is pretty popular, in the spring, kind of early summer area as well. ALTON: Yea, it’s something where being the space it is, happened as I said, allows for a lot of apathy. And apathy allows for ignorance. And for non-people of color that don’t have to deal with the issues that people of color constantly are dealing with, that ignorance is nice. Because you don’t actually look at the different rights that other people don’t have that you have. And you don’t have to acknowledge the privilege that you get every single day. And I think when you’re called out about it actively, it–initially it makes you feel bad, as if you’ve done something wrong and people don’t like feeling like they’ve done something wrong. So their natural response is to be against it. And I think continually pushing and continually going, no this is this history. This is why you’re privileged. This is why you need to stop what you’re doing and advocate for a change in the way that people are treated. Having those conversations is the first step towards making a long term change in any sort of movement. NOOR: And so you know, I really recommend all our viewers to real the full [op] that you wrote in the Sun and we’ll link to it on our website but you sort of ended by talking about the Hopkins administration’s white savior complex that forces it to help Baltimore but only if it results in greater benefits for the university. Talk about what you mean by that? ALTON: So we’ve heard like a few mixed reviews about that last comment. Some people think it was a little bit too strong or too radical but I think it’s incredibly accurate in the role that Hopkins has played. There’s always this look of what it is we can gain from benefiting with the community. It’s as a community partner, which Hopkins claims to be with multiple different schools and multiple different organizations here. The nature of a partnership is mutual benefit. Mutual benefit. Mutual benefits. Right now, it’s very one sided and its very determinant on how much Hopkins wants to contribute and how long they want to contribute. And that’s abusive. And its not at all acceptable. And to be able to jump into a community and state that you know what should and should not be happening in that community when you feel like it and lead the people there that have been invested in there for decades and the people that are to come in the next generation, that’s–it’s not okay. And it’s not a partnership. It’s very exploitative. And it’s something that Hopkins hasn’t to this day, they haven’t fully acknowledged that it’s something that they regularly do in all aspects. HARGROVE: Even when we are kind of mobilizing and sharing our grievances and our concerns with the administration, we always have to structure things from an okay, well our peer institutions are doing this. And this kind of shows that you’re a progressive institution and you know we’re kind of leading the nation for X, Y, and, Z. That’s kind of the way that we always have to frame things. Rather than it just kind of being a basic human right. Or kind of, okay well I don’t want to have to deal with these oppressive obstacles as I’m attending class and I’m supposed to be a student and I’m being held to the same academic expectations as other students that are here that are experiencing that. ALTON: The people like in these positions aren’t dumb people. And I think that’s kind of the nature of it. Like you’re like okay, obviously you know that health care or being received well by a professor and not hearing racist sayings as you’re walking to class. Those should be things that we all agree shouldn’t happen. But what makes it beneficial for you as an administrator to also make this beneficial? Like its knowing that I have to make that argument as well and that there are community members that argument if they want Hopkins funding. If they want Hopkins volunteers or anything like that. It’s not acceptable at all. NOOR: So beyond this specific fight over the union contract for the security guards at the Homewood campus, what other changes do you want to see Hopkins implement in the community and the way it deals with students and residents? HARGROVE: Transparency, I think first and foremost. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the document, the Roadmap to Diversity, but it was just released by the administration last year as a response to the black student forum that was held by the JHU black student union. NOOR: And that was meeting with the president. HARGROVE: It was a meeting with members of the administration. I wouldn’t call it a meeting but more an opportunity for people to express concerns. To ask questions that we haven’t really had an opportunity to ask and we don’t know who to address these questions to or these concerns to but clearly kind of like a generic email. And its sitting in somebody’s inbox, it’s not going to be addressed. So it was kind of an opportunity for community members and students and staff to get their answers. ALTON: It was also a place we had before the question and answer part of the discussion. There was a PowerPoint kind of outlining what the Black Student Union had historically been doing. The fact that this isn’t the first forum or the first list of demands being given to be had. There were demands given in 1991. There were demands given back in the 60’s. All saying that black students on Hopkins campus wanted the same thing. And the fact that there’s been almost been 50 years of people protesting and saying hey I’m not getting treated fairly, please treat me fairly. I’m paying you to give me an education so treat me like you would other students. And no change has been made in that list. It’s something that needs to be acknowledged and it’s something that needs to be questioned. So we had that. I think as you were saying, transparency is definitely key but it’s also key to make sure that there’s when promises are made there’s actual quantitative efforts being put towards those promises. It’s not empty and it’s not something where it’s a goal that we might get to one day, it’s okay. If we don’t meet this by this checkpoint we’re going to do something. Or we’re going to shift how it is we’re approaching this problem so that we can better handle it and we can better tackle it. NOOR: Now are the student groups prepared to take some protest and have some type of direct action if their demands aren’t met. Has there been some discussion of that? HARGROVE: Currently not. It’s something that has been in discussion but given recent events that have happened that we do have, it’s never anything that’s out of consideration. Unfortunately, you have to be loud to be heard right? NOOR: And where can people learn about your work and follow what you’re doing? HARGROVE: The Black Student Union page that’s on Facebook. JHU Black Student Union. ALTON: Yea and the Hopkins Students for a Democratic Society page on Facebook as well. NOOR: Great, great. Well we’ll link to both and we’ll share this on those Facebook pages to help get out the word. I want to thank you both for joining us. ALTON: Thank you. HARGROVE: Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
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