“What happens when we forget?” Commemorating Ford Hall 2015

January 29, 2020

Alex Montgomery
Alex Montgomery, MPP’17

By Karen Shih

“What happens when we forget?”

That was the question posed by PhD candidate Rev. Jarvis Williams to the Heller community in January. “Not remembering can be dangerous,” he said.

That’s why Heller’s Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (EID) organized a two-part event January 21-22 called Ford Hall: Closing the Disparity Gap, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Ford Hall 2015 protests. During that time, students led a 13-day sit-in to advocate for racial justice and a more inclusive, equitable and diverse student experience, inspired by the 1969 campus protests that led to the creation of the Department of African and African American Studies (AAAS). 

EID Associate Dean Maria Madison—whose position was created in the wake of Ford Hall 2015—and her team brought together alumni who had participated in the protests to share their experiences with a new generation of students.

Kicking off the evening event, Madison said, “The dynamism they showed through their leadership and tenacity demonstrates our motto, knowledge advancing social justice.”

The panel featured Alex Montgomery, MPP’17, Callie Watkins Liu, PhD’16, Shayna Jones, MPP’18, Chari Calloway ’19 and Kwesi Jones ’21. The event started with an audio clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1957 lecture at Brandeis and a viewing of Jones’ video about Ford Hall, created for the AAAS 50th anniversary.

“As a public policy student at Heller, I thought to myself, why can’t I question Brandeis policy?” said Montgomery, who recounted their own experiences with racism on campus.

Shayna Jones
Shayna Jones, MPP'18

The students' demands to Brandeis’ administration included increasing black faculty and staff to 10% across campus, mandating yearly diversity and inclusion workshops, increasing funding of black student organizations, and appointing a campus Chief Diversity Officer.

“Our dignity wasn’t being honored,” said Shayna Jones, who now serves on the Heller Alumni Association Board and continues to push for improvements. “We were asking for basic necessities. Having 10% black faculty? That’s not a lot.”  

Joining the sit-in wasn’t easy. They recounted the challenges of missing Thanksgiving with their families, keeping up with classes and feeling unseen by the rest of campus, for whom life continued as usual.  

Another Ford Hall participant in the audience, Christian Perry, MA SID/MBA’17, urged the Heller community not to stand on the sidelines. 

“You have the opportunity every day to act on your values,” he said, citing current examples like protesting potential war with Iran. “Are you going to sit in class like nothing is happening in the world?”

The next day, Heller welcomed Smith College History Professor Elizabeth Pryor to discuss her research on the n-word, particularly its toxic effect in educational environments. 

“Classrooms are the most treacherous spaces for a point of encounter with the n-word,” she said. Since today’s students often lack history and context around the word, both the slur and the euphemism, it’s important to explicitly teach those things before students encounter it in popular culture or in literature, such as “Huckleberry Finn.”

Williams closed out the events with a powerful speech about the importance of remembrance.

“It matters that we take time, like now, to collectively remember Ford Hall,” Williams said. “We can’t fail to remember the people who led the way.” 

Please visit EID's Ford Hall page for more information, including ongoing EID efforts at Heller.

Jarvis Williams speaking at Ford Hall commemorative event
PhD candidate Rev. Jarvis Williams
Elizabeth Pryor
Smith College Professor Elizabeth Pryor
Martin Luther King on a screen
The audience listening to a clip of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at Brandeis in 1957
Callie Watkins Liu speaking at Ford Hall commemorative event
Kwesi Jones ’21, Alex Montgomery, MPP’17, Callie Watkins Liu, PhD’16, Chari Calloway ’19, Shayna Jones, MPP’18
Kwesi Jones speaking at Ford Hall commemorative event
Kwesi Jones '21
Chari Calloway speaking at Ford Hall commemorative event
Chari Calloway '19
Callie Watkins Liu speaking at Ford Hall commemorative event
Callie Watkins Liu, PhD’16
Christian Perry
Christian Perry, MA SID/MBA’17