Silent protest focuses on inequality at Penn State
Some wore bright pink strips of tape over their mouths. Others held signs proclaiming “INTEGRATION NOT SEGREGATION” and “Indifference to oppression is oppression.”
All remained quiet as they walked single-file from Penn State's Pennypacker Hall to Old Main – snaking through crowds on Pattee Mall and in the HUB-Robeson Center – as part of the PSU For All Student Equality Silent Walk on Dec. 14.
Make no mistake, organizers said, this was not simply a reaction to a controversial photograph that surfaced online earlier this month. The image showed members of Penn State’s chapter of the Chi Omega sorority wearing sombreros and ponchos, with two women in the photograph holding signs saying "Will mow lawn for weed + beer" and "I don’t cut grass I smoke it."
One participant in Friday's walk wore a sombrero and poncho, carrying his own variation on the signs from the photograph: "(Tenured) Ph D. (and Mexican)" and "Will teach you for your parents’ money."
Penn State’s chapter of Chi Omega has since been placed on probation because of the photo, while officials from both the greek community and the Penn State administration have denounced the behaviors of those involved. Meanwhile, the image also prompted outcry from students, faculty and others who felt it both inappropriately stereotyped Mexican culture and represented deeper issues of intolerance on campus.
The picture was a problem, Penn State student Sloane Shearman said, but it's not the only one. Shearman is a member of the weeks-old PSU For All Student Equality, or PSU-FASE, and helped to organize Friday's walk.
"This is a response to what a lot of people feel is systemic discrimination on this campus and in this community," Shearman said.
PSU-FASE adviser Grace Peña Delgado said a series of other incidents – including a "Cinco de State" celebration and blackface costumes seen on Halloween – contributed to the group's desire to take action. But Delgado, a faculty member in the history department, said inequality also extends to the classroom. She believes there’s room for more resources and more tenured faculty in the Latino/a studies program, and the silent walk was one of several efforts to urge Penn State administrators to pay more attention to these areas.
And so far, Delgado said she’s been pleased with the administration’s response. She's already had a meeting with Penn State President Rodney Erickson and other officials, and she also pointed out that Vice Provost for Educational Equity Terrell Jones and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims were present at the beginning of Friday's walk.
"We have an open door,” she said. "We have a very welcoming environment to discuss our needs."
Still, Shearman said there can be a "very anti-activist sentiment" on campus. But she knows what she's up against.
"Really, that’s just being afraid of change – people fear what they don’t understand," she said. "And that’s OK. If they come around today, if they come around tomorrow… the day before they die, even. That’s what’s important."
Changing minds can be a daunting task, but Shearman's up for the challenge. She quoted Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker to explain her own devotion to speaking up against injustice: "Activism is my rent for living on this planet."
And as for continuing to call attention to inequality or intolerance at Penn State, Shearman said she and the rest of PSU For All Student Equality aren't planning to disappear anytime soon.
"Hopefully people will take this as a learning experience – I doubt that – so you might see us back out here again," Shearman said. "You’ll see us here until you’re sick of seeing us."