The Black People Making History committee was established to answer a question that Black members of the Northwestern community had been asking for a long time: Why isn’t Northwestern’s Black History Month addressing issues Black students face today? Fifteen students and faculty formed the committee in Feb. 2015 to create programming for every week of Black History Month that brought attention to the experience of Black students in a mainly white university, and, out of this committee, the NU chapter of Black Lives Matter grew.
The committee’s intention was never to stop at changing Black History Month, according to Sarah Watson, one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter Northwestern and recent Northwestern graduate.
“It was more of a catalyst for the movement, and a way to take that power back to the Black students that Northwestern is supposedly celebrating,” Watson said.
The newly formed Black Lives Matter Northwestern transformed their efforts to politicize Black History Month into a sustained movement creating awareness about being Black at NU. Black Lives Matter Northwestern began to connect with the larger Black Lives Matter movement, through events such as The Fight To Breathe, which brought in activists from Chicago’s Black Lives Matter organization to talk to students.
One of the first members of Black Lives Matter Northwestern, SESP senior Zane Waxman, said events like this helped students place the movement in a national context.
“It gave students the opportunity to get involved on a deeper level, and a greater awareness of the broader struggle they’re engaging in,” Waxman said.
Black Lives Matter aims to hold Northwestern and its students accountable for their role in perpetuating racist systems. Watson said she believes one of the greatest obstacles facing Black students isn’t lack of awareness among their peers, but rather a misguided sense that they don’t play a role in systems that exclude or diminish the value of black lives. To this end, Black Lives Matter created a Tumblr page called Suffocating at NU, which posted excerpts from social media and anecdotes of microaggressions against Black students at Northwestern.
Black Lives Matter Northwestern member and Communication junior Sarah Oberholtzer said the movement seeks to emphasize the difficulty of navigating majority white spaces that don’t always acknowledge the struggles of minorities.
If anything it pressures students to think more critically about anti-Black racism in the context of the university, and of the world that we live in,” Oberholtzer said. “I think there’s a lot of co-opting student efforts as administrative efforts to change things, when that’s not the case.”
More recently, Black Lives Matter Northwestern has focused its efforts on raising awareness about Northwestern’s participation in the prison industrial complex with its Unshackle NU campaign. The campaign urges Northwestern to divest from companies that participate in the prison-industrial complex, which disproportionately affect people of color. Black Lives Matter Northwestern has in the past highlighted the school to prison pipeline and the criminalization of Black people, and Oberholtzer said that this campaign is an extension of those efforts.
Unshackle NU began because “students are realizing that our money is going toward issues and companies that are dehumanizing,” Oberholtzer said.
The movement may currently be focusing on the prison-industrial complex, but the heart of the campaign remains efforts to transform the experience of Black students on campus.
“To be a Black student at Northwestern can be very suffocating at times,” Watson said. “You can go a whole day without seeing another person who looks like you, unless you go into a cafeteria and someone’s working there. There are a lot of things that are coded messages saying that black students don’t belong at Northwestern.”