Right about now high school seniors are constantly checking their in-boxes as they await word on college admissions. But for many that acceptance and their first footsteps on campus will bring them face to face with a new form of hate. Incidents of bias, intolerance and intimidation have become increasingly common at universities across the nation, where individuals who don’t conform to a specific ideology can experience the suppression of free speech. They also risk getting caught up in the going buzzword, “intersectionality,” a tool used to enlist well-intentioned, human rights-minded individuals into a narrative that is misleading.
A new initiative called Galvanize aims to counter this trend. Its co-founders, Greenwich's Bryanna Kallman and Stamford's Michele Stuart, were searching for a way to alert the next generation of college students to the current toxicity leaching into institutions of higher learning. It was on the train home from an Anti-Defamation League summit announcing its "No Place for Hate" campaign that Kallman and Stuart decided: "We're not going to sit back and be passive--we need to do something now!"
“There’s a new form of hatred on the college campus, and those heading off to college can really make an impact on what they want their voice to be,” says Kallman.
What do tomorrow’s freshmen know about today’s upsurge in vitriol? Kallman believes "it's just not on this generation's radar yet--nor on their parents’--but it will be.” Narrowing this awareness gap looms large on the Galvanize agenda. There’s the story of Lauren Rogers, who as a member of the UCLA student government was subjected to a judicial board hearing. Her crime? Taking a sponsored educational trip to Israel that a campus group deemed a “conflict of interest.” Or how about transgender activist Janet Mock? She was pressured into cancelling her speaking engagement at Brown University, not by deniers of LGBTQ rights, but by student forces who opposed the endorsements she’d garnered from other campus groups.
These events, and hundreds like them, are a growing cause for concern, say Galvanize’s creators. They come at a time when universities have been documenting an increase in hate and anti-Semitic incidents. “It’s precisely this environment that makes familiarity with real cases--such as Rogers and Mock’s--crucial for incoming students,” says Stuart.
Yet as important as news access is, the ability to parse that news takes precedence, the Galvanize team cautions. They cite the research of BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman revealing that Americans believed three-fourths of false news headlines circulated during the 2016 US elections. In the age of fake news and information overload, deciding what’s true and just is a challenge for everyone, but for the cohort that grew up with social media, the pace is especially fast and furious. As Kallman puts it, “They are definitely the most technically savvy and informed generation ever, but who has time to confirm all news stories, especially if you feel they do not pertain to you?”
To fill this lacuna, Galvanize's first goal is to rally awareness. “I have tremendous faith in the next generation of college student's social conscience to take action against bigotry and ideologies that are not at the core of their own values,” Kallman continues. “Galvanize does not ask anyone what to think, but to think.”
A cornerstone of this strategy is to “invite students to ask themselves” five seminal questions:
- Social justice: Is the truth being told on campus?
- Are some groups being marginalized and their free speech suppressed?
- What is fact?
- What is fair?
- What role can I play?
Far from a rhetorical exercise, these queries are meant to “shock the next generation into action,” Kallman explains. The gravity with which she and Stuart have thought through the initiative belies a prevailing sense of optimism. Now the accidental co-founders are immersed in fine-tuning the mission and message of what has quickly caught on around town.
The group’s eschewal of dogma mirrors the diversity of its founders and supporters. Cutting across political viewpoints and religious affiliations, Galvanize brings together the Greenwich community around a shared urgency in readying their children for hostility they might encounter on campus. “Once Michele and I sent out the email, my living room was filled with the smartest, most passionate women we could have ever asked to be associated with,” she recalls.*
At this nascent stage, Galvanize is positioning itself as a “bridge to the many remarkable organizations promoting understanding, discourse and advocacy,” per Kallman. The “bridge” image also figures in their self-styled job description. “Our role is to be a bridge to those who don't know what's happening on campus, but who would care deeply if they did--like my 18-year-old daughter and her friends.”
For now the main bridging underway is between the group’s informal birthing stage and its first baby steps to officially stake a claim in the collective imagination. On January 29, 3 pm, at Central Middle School in Greenwich, Galvanize will hold its inaugural event. Speakers include: Grace Rubin, a student activist at Wesleyan University; Luke Moon, Deputy Director of the Philos Project; Rachel Klein, Executive Director, Hillels of Westchester; and Anthony Berteaux, an aspiring journalist from San Diego State University who appears in Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus. (On April 30, Galvanize and JCC Greenwich will jointly present this new documentary at the Greenwich Bow-Tie Criterion Cinemas.) Having faced his share of bullying as a gay Asian student, Berteaux comments onscreen about his brush with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activists on the quad, “If you don’t agree with them, you’re against them, so they have to shut you down."
His dictum speaks directly to the animus that Greenwich’s graduating seniors stand to experience as they embark on their college careers. To gird them against the current wave of anti-intellectualism at institutions of higher learning, Galvanize has its own mantra: “Be prepared.”
*These include core members such as Kim Athan, Susan Cohen, Marla Felton, Joui Hessel, Laurie Josephs, Silvina Knoll, Randye Kwait, Yael Rosen, Debbie Rosmarin, Kim Sands, Alisa Savitz, Wendy Schreiber, Madeline Simon and Jane Wolansky.