A young man holds onto a stranger’s arm to guide him as they run, the pepper spray still burning his eyes. A high-pitched siren wails, giving only seconds to warn the crowd of the oncoming tear gas. The sounds of yelling, a chorus of coughing and hundreds of feet hitting the concrete decorate the stagnant night air. Most people can only is imagine this scene. But for some, these situations are a reality.
College students are most often the catalyst for change in many of this nation’s greatest social movements. Throughout events surrounding Ferguson and sexual assault awareness on campus this year, Webster students have had a profound effect on Webster Groves, the St. Louis community and history.
Junior human rights major Hattie Svoboda-Stel is just one of these many Webster students who have been pushing for big changes.
On New Year’s Eve, protesters and police went head-to-head with fists and pepper spray flying at the St. Louis Metro Police Department. As police arrived with riot gear, Svoboda-Stel knew that it was time to join the group of protesters volunteering on the frontline, accept her responsibility as a student and willingly be arrested for civil disobedience. An officer approached her from behind and put his hands on her neck, attempting to use her pressure points to force her to avoid resistance. Svoboda-Stel was able to maintain control of her body and immediately let it fall limp. She was dragged across the room and thrown onto the concrete outside. She soon found herself behind bars, where she was kept overnight.
“It is very overwhelming to go into an institution and not be treated like a human,” Svodoba-Stel said. “On a conceptual level we know what jail is. But we just lock people in tiny rooms when we’re mad at them. That’s messed up.”
Svoboda-Stel’s experience was one of many involvements she’s been apart of as part of her journey to help create change. She is among many students at Webster who have spoken out. But fighting for change hasn’t always rested solely among the students — Webster faculty have also given their time and voices.
Sister Barbara Ann, Ph.D, a Sister of Loretto and former Dean of Students, joined Webster’s History Department as a professor in 1963. She was noted for pioneering non-traditional learning experiences and her activist involvement in the 1960s and ‘70s. During the Vietnam War, Sister Barbara Ann used her background in South Asian culture to help nourish Webster students’ desire for change by leading workshops during a day at Webster. These workshops, in association with Washington University, were dedicated to anti-Vietnam War education and discussion. Students from both universities also joined in anti-war protests together, unafraid to express their desire for change in the world.
Activism doesn’t always have to mean being shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of strangers, chanting and marching down the highway, nor does it have to mean occupying police headquarters or getting arrested. These types of activism that create headlines are sometimes necessary for change, but Sister Barbara Ann says there’s one kind of activism we could all pay a little more attention to — awareness.
Chi, an advertising and marketing communications alumnus, described the incredibly positive and upbeat energy that radiated from the participants at the conference. He was asked to speak at the conference as a member of the St. Louis transgender community.
“It’s happening everywhere. Organizations claim to be LGBT, but they do little for the trans community,” Chi said. “But the crowd was very receptive and supportive of what I had to say.”
A week later, on February 14, Chi was arrested while blocking the intersection of Kingshighway and Maryland Plaza as a part of a demonstration to pay respect to the 11 transgender women that had been killed to date this year. The group of demonstrators marched to the intersection, where eight people were arrested, three of which were let go. They were charged with failure to disperse around 7pm and released around 4am with the help of jail support and Svoboda-Stel, who happened to be working the hotline at the time of Chi’s call.
By becoming a coordinator for the hotline, Svoboda-Stel has helped countless people, formed strong friendships and became a part of a movement that she found to be a life-changing experience.
“It’s been really beautiful and rewarding getting to know the soul of this movement,” Svoboda-Stel said. “I’ve hugged more strangers in the past six months than I probably have in my whole life.”
This sense of community is something that all activists can attest to as being a gift.
“Community is a privilege,” Chi said. “Everyone doesn’t have the opportunity or access to places where they can be themselves.”
Unfortunately, this side of activism isn’t prevalent in the news or on social media. When asked what advice he would give to those who are ready to sigh at the next mention of these social issues, Chi didn’t hesitate with his reaction.
“Right off the bat, I want to say, ‘When you tell me that you are sick of hearing about this, you’re telling me you have no interest in my life.’ I’m not trying to make this about me, but when people in my community are dying it becomes a bit personal. It becomes about me,” Chi said. “The organizer and activist side of me wants to then ask ‘Why? Why are you really sick of hearing about this?’ People really don’t want to think about these things because it’s uncomfortable, and they come from a place where there’s a lack of understanding of the issue. People are scared to question what they know to be true.”
“There’s the kind of awareness that you have about the world you live in,” Sister Barbara Ann said. “It’s the kind of thing we try to teach kindergarteners and preschool kids. Looking around the room when you first walk in. Looking around the block to see what’s there; to see the trees, to see the grass, to see what kind of flowers they plant next door. That’s the kind of awareness that’s important to have to enrich your life.”
Awareness has played a part in a number of student-led movements. On October 29, 2014, Webster University students carried pillows and mattresses from class to class in support of “Carry That Weight Day,” a day dedicated to raising awareness against campus sexual assault. On November 24, the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was released. Days later, students held a protest on campus, led by Jeremy Coleman, with support from the administration against the decision. On December 12, Webster students Kalani Seaver and Bridgette Kluger published a petition on Change.org challenging Webster University’s administration to take a stronger stand against sexual assault. On February 6, 2015 at Creating Change, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference, alumni Eli Chi spoke as a representative for a group of Ferguson activists promoting the awareness of 11 trans women and gender-nonconforming persons who have been killed this year.
Story by Chloe Hall