MHN 101: Student activism from cultural houses to fighting hunger

Image courtesy of Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections  Amanda Sapir ’99 speaks at a 1997 rally outside Blanchard in protest of the lack of funding for cultural houses and the Eliot House, among other issues.

Image courtesy of Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections

Amanda Sapir ’99 speaks at a 1997 rally outside Blanchard in protest of the lack of funding for cultural houses and the Eliot House, among other issues.

BY MADELINE FITZGERALD ’21

It is often said that journalism is the rough draft of history and nowhere is this more apparent than on a college campus. Institutional memory is naturally short and information is held in the memories of students who are only on campus for four years before leaving forever. But what remains at the College forever is the Mount Holyoke News.

In 1997, after months of fighting with then-President Joanne Creighton, the Lesbian-Bisexual Alliance and Asian students on campus had finally had enough. The president’s Strategic Plan for 2003, which outlined the goals and spending of the College for the next six years, included no funding for cultural houses for either group, the most prominent in a long list of slights felt by minority students during Creighton’s administration. Students eventually released a list of eleven demands including requests for a need-sensitive financial aid policy, cultural houses and a chaplain for the Eliot House.

According to an April 1997 issue of the MHN, after releasing their demands the protesters occupied Mary Lyon Hall under the threat of suspension from the College. This followed a week of protests, walkouts, rallies and several conversations with the administration. At the time, the protests dominated campus life and the MHN. Almost the entirety of the News section in the April 24 issue focused on the protests in some capacity. Additionally, every issue that April included front page stories regarding the escalating tensions, and op-eds on the issue were published nearly every week. On April 24, the MHN published a timeline of events, information about the relocation of offices in Mary Lyon Hall, a summary of demands and, above the fold and on the front page, an article by Sarah Gamble ’98 reporting the outcome of protests — students leaving Mary Lyon Hall after the sit-in.

The news quoted Fabiola Taffola ’97 who said, as she left the building, “We are not leaving because we trust they will honor their word. We’re leaving because we are women of courage, we are women of honor, we are Mount Holyoke women and we have to continue the fight.”

This protest was part of a long tradition of student activism covered by the MHN through both news articles and opinion pieces. In a 1979 issue of MHN, (then “Choragos”) a corner of the op-ed page was devoted to letters to the editor regarding sexual assault and harassment claims made against male visitors to Mount Holyoke.

A Williams student named Shawn Hancock had written an op-ed in Choragos condemning sexual violence against Mount Holyoke students, provoking a flurry of responses in the next edition. A group of students calling themselves Women Against Sexual Harassment, or WASH, wrote about their organization’s gratefulness to men opposed to sexual harassment and reporting their own meetings, striving to eliminate this issue. These included discussions in Ham Hall, putting on workshops and awareness campaigns regarding consent and reporting assaults. “Mount Holyoke students must pool their energies and conquer their fears,” wrote Laura Paquette, the coordinator for WASH, “thereby using them towards constructive change.”

The MHN has also been used to spread awareness of both campus issues and major news stories through their coverage of student activist groups. Just last week, the MHN covered environmental groups on campus and their efforts to make the College greener. In the early 1990s, a similar article showcased student groups aiming to alleviate hunger in local communities.

On March 28, 1991, Features devoted two pages to coverage of the Hunger Awareness Project. This included an article describing the organization’s activities, including visiting local soup kitchens and shelters, and cosponsoring the annual Oxfam fast with the Eliot House.

On the opposite page the issue included a column addressing the realities of hunger in the nation. “When I was young I never realized there were starving people in America. I thought we lived in the land of the wealthy, where everyone ate three meals a day, as I did,” the article read. The writer criticized the growing numbers of homeless and hungry people in the United States, blaming the Reagan administration for exacerbating these issues.

Further information on hunger and poverty could be found later in the same issue, with an info box titled: “Were you aware?” “One B-l bomber costs $400 million and lasts for about 4 years,” the MHN reported. “That same amount could feed school lunches to a quarter million hungry kids for a decade.” Further coverage in this edition was devoted to the problem of food waste on campus and efforts of the Democratic Socialist club to end the tradition of waitresses serving dinner to Mount Holyoke students. They believed this policy added to the amount of food thrown away on campus, while poverty was rising in the Valley.

In the last year, student protests have filled the pages of the MHN — from letters to the editor demanding more diversity in the history department to articles covering campaigns for better conditions for student workers to op-eds decrying the College’s investment in fossil fuels. The pages of the newspaper have immortalized the demands of a politicized student body, long after the rallies end and last flyers are buried under new leaflets on residence hall bulletin boards.

MHN 101 is a recurring column celebrating the newspaper’s 101 years of student journalism.

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