‘Otelia couldn’t live here’: The student campaign for affinity housing
Sid Joyce-Farley ‘20
At the Otelia Cromwell Day keynote last Thursday, students dropped two banners from the balcony in John M. Greene, one with the painted statement, “Otelia couldn’t live here,” and another promoting a meeting on the issue this past Saturday.
Smith is the only member of the Five College Consortium and the Seven Sisters that does not offer any affinity housing options on campus.
Affinity housing is a system which allows students who self-identify within a marginalized group to live together in a community. Smith’s decades-old, student-led movement focuses on achieving housing for students of color.
Roxane Gay, the keynote speaker, acknowledged the students and voiced support for affinity housing before her address.
During the Q&A, Gay touched on how the spirit of Otelia Cromwell Day celebrates her strength and tenacity but does not speak much to her loneliness. In that moment, that legacy of loneliness hung in the air alongside the banners, which boldly spoke to how students of color at Smith continue to be affected by racism over a century later.
Later, Yacine Fall ’21 and Meg Kikkeri ’19 asked Gay for her thoughts on affinity housing. Her reply identified it as a necessity, especially in Northampton.
“Affinity housing allows people to have a safe space to come home to after a long day of living in a hostile world. […Space for common cultural practice] doesn’t have to be carved out every single day because it is permanently there.[…]I understand administratively why it might be challenging, but in terms of humanity, if students want affinity housing, and if they need it – it’s not just a want […the college] should be a safe space to live,” Gay said.
Gay’s unhesitating support was deeply appreciated by students who organized the banner drop.
The Office of College Relations referred The Sophian to the NEASC self-study, which mentions plans to develop “theme housing,” in collaboration with SGA, Unity organizations and HPA “to host dialogues and seek student input.”
Professor Susan Etheredge plans to convene a group study of the issue when she starts as interim dean of the college in December. No plans were indicated to collaborate specifically with the student movement for affinity housing as an entity.
On Saturday, Fall pointed out that using “theme[s]” whitewashes the intent of affinity housing, and the language trivializes the ways racism works on campus. “My race is not a theme,” Fall said.
Smith’s student movement currently centers around Hopkins House, one of two cooperative houses on campus. Student-control over the admission process within co-ops allowed students of color to begin building a house community without definitive administrative action.
Although they were not allowed to advertise Hopkins as affinity housing, those involved in the selection process say they attempted to prioritize students of color, only to be undermined by upper Residence Life staff, who justified letting in younger white applicants over people of color by saying they were focused on the house’s longevity.
Despite setbacks, students are determined to create protected spaces. Emma Harnisch ’18 and Miche Hu ’18 emphasized that Hopkins, with only 18 residents, is more of a springboard for affinity housing rather than its ultimate goal.
Harnisch said, “We want something larger than [Hopkins] [… ]We need an official ResLife page […] This is a house and it is reserved for students of color [… ]because [co-ops] don’t work for everyone and you shouldn’t have to do work to live in a space you’re comfortable.”
Affinity housing is often framed in terms of “comfort,” but Hu critiqued this term. They explained that home is an unguarded space, which results in white students feeling able to act in ways they would not in the classroom.
Living spaces are intimate spaces, especially considering access to students’ bedrooms, and “the clash of intimacy with unthinking people leaves students of color vulnerable in Smith houses,” Hu said. “Comfort implies casualness, and as much as our housing system pushes for casual living environments, they’re anything but[…]It’s a luxury to relax, especially when you’re living with strangers, and that constant mental on-ness is exhausting and degrading.”
Julieta Rendon-Mendoza ’21 elaborated on the social and emotional pressures felt as a person of color living in a community dominated by white students.
“Even the person who’s the most […] unapologetically who they are needs a place where they don’t have to feel like they have to stand their ground,” Rendon-Mendoza said. “Even if you’re like, ‘I don’t care what people think about me,’ you still need that sanctuary.”
Whether Smith administration will collaborate with student organizers to create sanctuary housing spaces, the need for a change remains to be seen.