Wednesday night the Illinois Student Senate (ISS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign focused on the recent debate in the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita. University leadership spoke at the beginning of the session, and over 75 students made up the public showing. After hours of external and internal commentary, the ISS reached a standing in support of Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision and leadership.
The lamps cast a golden glow illuminating the room and individuals, setting a serious and somber tone. The 75-plus students’ energy is contagious, seemingly radiating off of their Greek letters and orange-and-blue spirit wear. The senators’ aurora is calm and collected, ready for what the evening would bring. The Chancellor stands before us, assertive and understanding of what had come before us.
What would the next two and a half hours bring?
Four years ago I was sitting in the upstairs meeting room at the Northwestern Hillel. I was in the company of 20-some juniors in high school from around the Chicagoland area. These were my “fellow” Fellows in the Chicago Jewish United Fund’s (JUF) Write On for Israel program, with whom I would travel to both Washington and Israel. That particular Sunday we had the privilege of meeting a DePaul student who led his pro-Israel community’s advocacy against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)’s Sabra Hummus Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign. As a junior in high school, I did my best to understand his Israel advocacy leadership and stewardship in working with his student government. I did my best to picture myself in his position navigating the policies and building the relationships necessary for success.
Was I up to the task?
The Chancellor spoke. She spoke of our Inclusive Illinois initiative, the effort to help students transition into our campus culture, and her recent decision regarding Professor Salita’s “un-hiring.” She foresaw what the public would say and ask; she responded in respect and understanding.
Will they understand?
Two years ago I was embarking on a journey to Washington in company with 14 students from across the Chicagoland area, all civic activists and all excited to attend President Obama’s second Inauguration. We came from different neighborhoods, cultures, and backgrounds; we came from different viewpoints, beliefs, and personal narratives. I walked home from a dinner in conversation with my Latina friend, engaged in a conversation in Spanish about our experiences playing soccer for our high school teams. I shared a room with a friend, whose namesake was a quality she embodied, who told me about her home—what she saw walking back from school and heard outside when going to bed. I split hand-warmers, amidst the shaking of my frame and legs before the sun arose the morning of the inauguration, discussing policy and advocacy and government with a fellow intellectual. That week, we built a foundation for our relationship: respect. Respect for our differences, respect for our conversations, and respect for ourselves.
Will they understand?
They called us up to the microphone one-by-one. I had submitted a small white piece of paper with my intent to speak to the room—the 175 plus student senators, student attendees, and outside media—and knew my talking points. My name was called, and the microphone stood before me.
I would not share facts … I would share a story. A story about a time I both encountered and engaged diversity, a time that would set a precedent for my experiences with Inclusive Illinois. A story about a time I traveled to Washington and understood respect.
The facts and anecdotes went back and forth. My fist tightened and jaw clenched at times. My smile grew and heart warmed when seeing my community … supporting one another … standing together. We went to that ISS meeting representing a campus united in support of our Chancellor, Inclusive Illinois, and respect.