"Decolonize Val," a student-led sit-in aiming to break down what organizers called the “toxic culture” of the back room in Valentine Dining Hall, took place during the evenings last week from March 27-31.
The organizers, who first publicized the event on Facebook, called for students to sit in the back room space during dinner in order to combat the culture perpetuated by the “predominantly white male athletes” who normally sit in the back room, said organizer Alyssa Snyder ’19. She and organizers Trenton Thornburg ’20, Adrian Chen ’19 and SabriAnan Micha ’19 began planning the sit-in at the beginning of the 2017 spring semester.
On the first day of the sit-in, about 30 people came out to support the movement. The goal, Snyder said, was not to make noise or protest in the traditional sense. The organizers opted instead to occupy the space quietly, inviting students on the Facebook event page to bring homework and join “the company of the diverse students that often do not feel comfortable in the back room.”
It was a conscious decision on the part of organizers, who said that many of the problems associated with the Val back room involve noise.
“It’s what we were upset about in the first place, that people are yelling across to their friends in a way that’s not very appropriate for a place where people are trying to eat,” Snyder said. “And there are a lot of people with sensory problems at Amherst that have to come down [to Val terrace room] to eat or have to go the very, very back of the front room to eat because they’re physically unable to be in that space.”
Snyder said that people in the back room have purposefully spilled drinks on her friends and that silverware have been thrown across the room. People often yell in the room, and when tables are pulled together to accommodate a large group, it becomes “physically impossible” to move around the area, said Snyder and Micha.
According to Snyder, female athletes of color as well as professors have told her that they are uncomfortable in the back room of Val.
“It’s important to not forget the fact that it’s not all athletes [that] are involved in the problem,” she said. “It is predominantly male athletes, but it’s also their friends who are not athletes.”
An incident on Saturday, March 25 involving student athletes reinforced organizers’ belief in the necessity of a sit-in, Thornburg said. AC Voice, a student-run web publication, covered the events on March 25. In an article titled “The State of Athletics,” Marc Daalder ’18 wrote, “From a number of reports, it appears that there may have been two separate incidents, an earlier one involving a women’s team and a later and greater disturbance with a men’s team.”
All three organizers were present in Val on March 25 and attested to the actions of student athletes in the back room.
“There was a lot of noise,” Snyder said. “People could hear people yelling and singing from outside of Val. People had open bottles of alcohol, cans of alcohol, were actively drinking, were very, very drunk. People had stood up on tables.”
The controversy of the night spread on social media and throughout campus. When reached for comment, President Biddy Martin wrote, “Student Affairs is currently investigating the reports of inappropriate conduct at Valentine that led to the Decolonize Val activity, so I can’t say much more about that until we are able to confirm the facts.”
“What I can say is that I oppose behavior that does not meet community standards of decency and respect, and I support behavior that encourages thoughtful, open, critical, evidence-based reasoning and respectful conversation that moves us forward together,” Martin added.
While Snyder said that it is difficult to articulate why some students’ discomfort is salient in the back room, she believes the issue is partially perpetuated by one group of people’s feeling of entitlement to a public space.
“People are so comfortable with owning a space, the way that people just spread out, move the tables together so you physically can’t get to where you want to sit sometimes and leave stuff on the table,” she said.
Micha said that the largest number of people came out on Monday to support Decolonize Val. “There were a lot of faces that I knew and trusted, and I felt more comfortable than usual for the first time in that space,” she said. But as the week went on, fewer people showed up, and “that uncomfortability came back.”
One aspect of the back-room culture is that the divide between athletes and non-athletes is also “a gap in terms of a stark racial divide, a stark class divide, gender, the whole nine yards,” said Thornburg. According to “The Place of Athletics at Amherst College,” a report released by the Committee of Six in January, white students made up nearly three-quarters of athletic teams from 2011 to 2015 but only 47 percent of all students. The report stated that only 3 and 4 percent of athletes are first-generation and low-income students, respectively.
Organizers said they have received support from both athletes and non-athletes. While they have not directly faced backlash, they recognized the controversy of their movement on campus.
Snyder, Micha and Thornburg met with the dean of student affairs, chief officer of diversity and inclusion, director of athletics and directors of Valentine Dining Hall on Wednesday, March 29 to discuss the movement’s goals. Moving forward, they hope to work with student-athlete leaders, set up a meeting with Student Athletic Advisory Committee and speak with coaches.
“There’s definitely a divide between athletes and non-athletes, whether people want to recognize it or not,” Thornburg added. “I don’t think that’s always a nefarious sort of thing, but in some instances, it is, and we should have conversations about that.”
Sam Chen ’17, a varsity lacrosse player, said his immediate reaction to news of Decolonize Val was confusion. “Personally speaking, if that’s what people needed to do to feel comfortable, eating in the backroom, that’s totally fine,” he said. “The general sentiment from the people who sit back there is that we’re not telling anyone they can’t sit back there. Though I understand there is an implicit barrier where back room is for athletes, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy that people create — the more you talk about it, the more it becomes real.”
Chen said that he recognizes the problems with the divide between athletes and non-athletes but attributes it in part to athletes spending most of their time on training and academic work. They are less able to commit to other extracurricular activities, which is how students typically become acquainted with people of different social circles, he said. He added that he could not imagine anyone in the back room telling a non-athlete that they don’t belong in the space.
“I understand that it’s an intimidating space because it’s very much where large groups of athletes sit … but I’ve never seen anyone in the back room look at a non-athlete and say, ‘This is an athlete-only space,’” he said.
When his team of 45 lacrosse players comes in together after practice, he said, they want to eat together, and it is easier to sit in the back room and pull up tables.
Decolonize Val, said Chen, did not create outrage among athletes, but many of his athlete friends did question why the movement was created.
“There was a sense of confusion,” he said. “More of a ‘What’s wrong about the place I choose to sit with my teammates?’”
Both Chen and the organizers acknowledged that they do not have detailed solutions for the divide between athlete and non-athletes. Micha, however, encourages athletes and non-athletes alike to engage in dialogue.
“I think that one of the goals of this whole thing was to get people to come and actually talk and to say, ‘Okay, if you don’t understand what the problem is, come and talk to us,’” Micha said. “I don’t know exactly how we’re going to proceed, but we have talked to administration about facilitating conversations or figuring out some way to continue this going.”
According to Martin, Student Affairs is currently developing programming to address the divide on campus. The college has enlisted the help of professionals to create a program “aimed at promoting engagement across entrenched boundaries,” Martin said. Representatives from faculty governance groups continue to discuss the athletics report.
“Ultimately, we all need to own the responsibility that we have to each other,” Martin wrote.
Update: Snyder has added that Adrian Chen ’19 was also an organizer of the event. The earlier version of this article did not include Chen. The current article reflects this information and was updated at 1:16 a.m. on Friday, April 7.