A Response to the Gallaudet Situation
I have been struggling to understand why I am supporting the Gallaudet BOT and administration in the current struggle at the University.
I am a longtime social change activist, and have developed strategies for analyzing and addressing power imbalances and structural inequality, through my rich experience working with disenfranchised people and groups throughout the U.S. and through understanding my own disenfranchisement as a woman, a lesbian, a working-poor person and now as an older person.
So I know Deaf people are usually under the power line and have in many ways up to today been controlled and defined by hearing people. In my experience, hearing people really have a hard time “getting it” from the perspective of Deaf people. However, things are not simply Deaf/hearing. Race, class and gender bring their own power imbalances into the equation. For example, the Deaf community is still very divided by race. There is a large Black Deaf community which basically rarely interacts with the white Deaf-controlled institutions. This is obvious in the NAD, which has made little if any progress in including Black Deaf people, or taking initiatives to reach out to and support the existing institutions and leadership in that community. Gallaudet reflects this reality, with a minority of Black Deaf students, and few Black Deaf faculty or administrators. And of course, we have to include in our analysis the place of the Asian-American, Latino and Native American Deaf people, among others.
The issue of class is complex in the Deaf community. Ordinarily it would mean advantages of money and education (in the US). In the Deaf community, education and college education definitely create classes of people. Living in Washington, DC I’m very aware of a divide between the college-educated, Gallaudet people and the others who did not attend college or are not from Gallaudet. Then there is class related to hearing status. People who are Deaf with Deaf parents or families, native ASL speakers, rate high within the Deaf community. People who are later-deafened, with hearing families, and especially those who can speak, rate higher in relation to the hearing community. (see the work of Barbara Kannapell). In the past, these latter individuals were leaders in the Deaf community. Nowadays there is something of a shift as Deaf people become proud of their language, culture and community and Deaf leaders emerge who come from a strong Deaf background, and are native ASL users. Further, Deaf people now have PhD’s in key disciplines and they can speak for themselves with authority.
Things are made more complex by the introduction of cochlear implants—a physical modification that allow a person to hear sounds. We know of many Deaf people who have had this surgery. The Deaf community has been opposed to this surgery for many reasons, especially as it is applied to children who cannot decide for themselves if they want it or not. Yet now there is confusion about the acceptability of this procedure. We don’t know yet if the cochlear implant will create another class of Deaf people, or just add to the “hearing impaired” (as opposed to Deaf) group.
Gallaudet as an institution is at once a home and a history for many Deaf people. For many it was the only place where they could be themselves and take real leadership roles. For many it is a family history going back generations. Gallaudet has reflected the times in which it lived and so did not take leadership regarding race, for example, or even regarding bilingual education for Deaf children and recognition of ASL until fairly recently. While Deaf people do have leadership roles at Gallaudet, the institution still has a way to go in terms of reflecting a truly Deaf vision of equality. This is apparent in the leniency toward faculty who are not fluent in American Sign Language. As a social change person, I would say the faculty should be at least 70% Deaf and all faculty fluent in ASL and knowledgeable of Deaf culture and history. This is not the case today. Also, all students should have required courses in Deaf History and culture and in American Sign Language from a sociolinguistic perspective. So Gallaudet is at a challenge point in terms of defining and redefining what its leadership will mean in the 21st century.
In 1988, the students (with leadership from outside Deaf community people as well) held a successful protest which resulted in a Deaf president- I King Jordan. The protest was a classic organizing example of clear, simple demands and persistence. I viewed the students as being in the right. Deaf leadership was required for a Deaf institution. This was a basic principle. As a result of the protest, the make up of the Board of Trustees also changed to involve Deaf leadership.
Today the issues are less clear. Ostensibly the students object to the selection of the incoming President and to the process by which she was selected. But to me it feels like someone opened Pandora’s box. Every resentment and accumulated anger over the past 18 years is rising to the surface. People had 18 years to take action and address what they considered to be failings on the part of I King Jordan, but they did not. Fernandes was Provost and there was plenty of opportunity to take on her decisions and actions, but that did not happen. Now the students have been joined by Faculty and staff members to form the FSSA. Who knows what resentments or history faculty members and staff are bringing into the mix.
A University is not a democracy. The Board of Trustees has absolute power, and the Administration is conferred power by the board. Strictly speaking students are way below the power line. So one issue would be to change the entire structure of the University and how power is distributed. As far as I can understand, the Board of Trustees is controlled by Deaf people, and Deaf people were involved in the selection process, as well as students. From the perspective of the BOT and Administration, they may feel they have bent over backwards to take student views into account, when strictly speaking, they did not have to do this.
Is the underlying issue how “Deaf” the incoming President is? I recall that when King Jordan became President he had the support of the Deaf community even though he is late-deafened and can talk. There were murmurs in the Deaf community that he wasn’t Deaf enough, but maybe many saw him as a successful transition to someone they would consider truly Deaf. Once again the incoming President is not a native ASL user. But all deny that this is the issue. Still as I look at the protest, many outside Deaf people are torn and are supporting the students (who by the way are not all Deaf, ASL users either) because of the Deaf issue.
As I observe the protest, I see the students (and their advisors) applying organizing methods which were defined in the ‘70s by Saul Alinsky and others. But I have the nagging feeling that this time the organizing is misapplied. Recently the grapevine announced that there would be hunger strikers among the students. I was outraged to hear this. Ghandi used a hunger strike; the Irish prisoners struck and died for their beliefs. Something has gotten all out of proportion. What exactly is it that the Deaf students see as a principle worth dying for? It feels more as if they will use any trick in the book to get their way. Are they thinking of the good of Gallaudet University, really?
Recently the students had as many as 23 demands. That’s far too many to organize around as any organizer will tell you. I understand these were reduced again to two, which are non-negotiable. What is the fall-back position-- where is there any room to negotiate? Added to this are really ugly personal attacks that would demean all 18 years of King Jordan’s presidency, and nitpick at every decision Fernandes ever made. Blanket statements that Fernandes lacks leadership skills only raise questions about the leadership skills of the protesters. And who are the leaders? It’s pretty hard to identify them.
This protest seems to be generating negativity and a sort of crowd mentality that does not allow for critique or differences of opinion. In this sense, while it appears to be about empowerment, it may actually be disempowering, driven by a very short-range definition of purpose.
In order to organize effectively, it is important to identify the social change that is required. As this is analyzed, underlying causes are distinguished from effects. The most successful organizing addresses the structural causes, and not just the results. If the issue is Deaf control of a Deaf institution, reflected at every level of the institution, then analysis will reveal many strategies for change. If the issue is the further powerlessness caused by race, level and type of hearing status, gender and class, then intense analysis is required so that these can be effectively addressed. As I understand it, Fernandes has committed the institution to intense work on these issues, with the goal of changing the institution. She has in fact demonstrated her commitment to this work with her history of support for diverse people and groups.
I’ve certainly seen organizing efforts deflected by setting up committees and commissions which include the protestors and in some cases buy them out while the issues remain unaddressed or only superficially dealt with (i.e. the KDES Parent Advisory Group which was set up when the parents really had the goods on the failure of KDES to educate Black children in particular).
However, in this case, a genuine commitment on both sides to define the key issues and develop and implement strategies for change might be the only way out.
With lack of clarity on the real issues, the student actions to close the entire campus seem out of proportion- throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The university from its perspective withheld action and waited out the students as long as they could. The students promised to allow the sixth street entrance to open so that people could come and go (while threatening to fill up the garage and prevent parking). However, they reneged on this promise, so the university had to have recourse to arresting the students for blocking the entrance. At the same time, the university only asked for one gate to be opened. They would be within their rights to remove the students from every entrance. The arrests were anything but violent. The students applied non-violent strategies and the arrestors were very careful The fine imposed was minimal. The entrance is now open and classes and business are supposed to resume today.
This is a crisis moment for the University- a moment of danger and opportunity. I hope the student leadership will be identified and be willing to sit down with the University leadership to work through what the real issues are, and how to attack them. Instead of creating a no-win situation, backing the BOT, the administration and themselves into a corner, there is an opportunity for figure out a win-win, which leaves everybody’s dignity intact and allows for real structural change to benefit everybody on and off the campus. This level of change work will require true initiative and leadership, and not just imitation of organizing tactics from the past without a clear vision and purpose for the future.