A Conversation with the Rising Panthers

By David Peck ’22

Staff Writer

Students march in protest on August 24th, the first day of classes.
Photo by Russell Payne ’21

The Herald met with organizing members of The Rising Panthers Gabriele Nieves, Fatim Cisse for an interview.

The Herald (TH): So who and what are The Rising Panthers?

Mercy Sherman (MS): Well we’re not really a club you know? Consider us as a rising grassroots organization. What we stand for and our goals are combating systemic racism. Whether that’s if it’s on-campus or if it’s in the Geneva community, we got to be there. Right now we’ve really focused on the campus because the group started based on President Jacobsen’s parent Zoom when she said systemic racism is not an issue – that kind of pissed me off and a lot of other people so we’re like ‘what are we gonna do about this?’ Yeah so we started from that incident.

(TH): And you mentioned you do some work in the Geneva community. Do you do a lot of organization with the People’s Peaceful Protest (PPP) in Geneva?

(MS): Yeah so we’ve hosted some protest together and they have joined us for our first two protests and we did a protest where we marched down the Geneva police station and met them there to join their protest. So we are involved with the PPP, like they’re always informing us and we’re always informing them. Over the summer I was very involved with the PPP and I know Fatim was too. Before we even started the Rising Panthers we were mainly involved with them and the Geneva Women’s Assembly.

Fatim Cisse (FC): Yeah, we had our ‘creators’, like people who make poetry or just wanted to share things, they went to the Women’s Assembly. Even to give respect, they gave respect to  Breonna Taylor. We’re not part of student government or anything like that but we’re still able to mobilize and shake up government things that are happening on our campus so that really shows our power. And in the summer we attended different protests and we marched.

(TH): How do you think students, faculty, and staff should continue to be active allies and advocates for Black Lives Matter discourse outside of the organized marches and meetings?

(MS): So basically our demands, our meeting with the administration this past Monday, which was very interesting, so I know right now the faculty and alums are organizing around our demands and the DEI office is also pushing our demands. So student’s parents can call asking specifically for our demands to be met or write letters to the administration or even to us so we can show people that we have the support of parents, and students can write letters saying they want this. What this does is it lets us show, in any way, to the administration that the students and parents are on board because at the end of the day HWS is a business. Parents are paying our tuition. Since we’re rarely protesting any more, as COVID is becoming more of an issue on campus, we are still meeting with the administration and putting pressure on them. The faculty are exchanging emails back and forth and are trying to pressure other faculty on the first year’s seminars to be addressing race, struggle, and power, and we want that starting next year. Some of the faculty, very shockingly, are pushing back saying like ‘I’m not racist but I’m not supportive of this.’ So we’re trying to maybe go to the faculty meetings and talk to them about this. For everyone else, if they want to show their support, continue to post on social media our demands. Even if it’s not the full demand list but like even if it’s a favorite one that they love and want to stick by it. Call in and write letters. Attend the Hour of Power because that’s a way to educate yourself on these issues too.

Gabriele Nieves (GN): Yeah so for this question, if you want to contribute on a larger scale to fighting racial injustice not only on a Rising Panther’s scale, a lot of it (happens) questioning your own classes, questioning your teachers, questioning what you’re learning, and just literally not being afraid to stand up. When you see something that you’re not comfortable with, speak up and say something. Don’t just let these things happen. Question if what I’m learning is reflective of the world I live in or reflective of the entire U.S. population. It’s up to a lot of the student bodies to actually sit in their classes and be critical thinkers, not just thinking about ‘oh this is math I just want to go through this math, whatever.’ Instead, think about the black mathematicians who came before us, what have they contributed? Why are we not talking about this in a lot of classes? So I think it’s a lot of taking it upon yourself and questioning about the information you are getting in class and why you are getting that information, and what is the information you are getting.

(FM):  For me with this, I would say to look to the spaces. When people say ‘I never really learned about black history in my four years of high school or college,’ we need to be honest with ourselves and see that you don’t have to have a course on black lives to see all the blackness that surrounds you. The knowledge of life, how to grow trees, and plant food, that is all things black. So sure you can have one course on it but really take it beyond black life and take it to something that is very personal to you. Maybe it’s your computer, your shirt, or even your glasses. Where did that come from? How are you able to use it? So when we really think about the things that are in our space, that we don’t necessarily associate with ‘black,’ we think about those and we challenge space and the space that we are in, then we will naturally create discourse around blackness when we chose to accept our space and really learn about the space that we are in, we create meaningful discourse. It’s honest questioning.

(MS): Yeah and with the Hour of Power, and there’s a lot of resources on-campus that are trying to do the similar things we are trying to do, Fatim runs that on the weekends. It’s a place to educate yourself and be in the room and talk about, ‘what is blackness?’ ‘What does it mean in the 21st century to be black?’ It’s a place to talk about the black discourse. There’s a lot of different things out there too that I think students, parents, and alums can be involved in that is occurring every week.

(FC): I help with Hour of Power every Saturday and we really want to show black people that can be their whole self without white identities being placed on them. At the center of Hour of Power is black lives. We are the center of the narratives that I always share. Learning about black people is not excluding anyone, the subject we learning just focuses on black people. It lets us learn our true history and it’s also about empowerment. We talk about the black nuclear family and what that means. We talk about the five stages of the black identity development.

(MS): One other thing is that, after our conversations with Jacobsen and talking about Sodexo, we are now talking about boycotting Sodexo. We don’t think it’s fair to force students, black and bipoc students, in particular, to fund and give money to an organization that is very oppressive and degrades their identity. All students can start talking to their parents about this and their parents could start writing letters to the institution. They then need to make the HWS community aware of those letters because numbers matter. So honestly right now I think to help the movement, to help to continue to pressure the institution, to really think about systemic changes, parents need to get involved.

(TH): What’s the relationship with the office of  Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and to work with Khuriem Hussien.

(MS): So with Hussien, he’s been to all of our events which is good, but at the end of the day, he still works for the institution. At the end of the day, his boss is Jacobsen and so he’s trying to protect the institution. That’s literally why institutions have a DEI office to begin with. Hussien and I have had this conversation talking about when will he draw the line, when will he say no to the institution, and stick up for what is right. Over the summer he approached President Jacobsen and was calling her out but not to the kind of degree that we are calling her out. Usually, when there’s a situation that occurs, like the Zoom bombing with student government, I can talk to him and let him know that we need to have a conversation about this, and is this true what I’m reading. He is willing to talk which is great. Yet he hasn’t really helped in the way I hoped but at the end of the day, he works for the institution.

(TH): So What do you say to the lack of people who show up to the organizations? When people make the excuse “I’m not or don’t want to get political” why should they get political and join?

(GN): For me, I think that being able to say ‘I’m not political’ is such a privilege. If you look at the people who say those things, most likely they’re white and that’s because they have the ability to say ‘oh this isn’t something I don’t wanna be involved in’ because it doesn’t affect them specifically, it doesn’t reflect on their lives. So I think it’s really important to understand that you can’t leave this confusion, you can’t leave this unrest, you can’t leave all of this policy-making because then you’re choosing to leave the people of color. We are the most oppressed and don’t have as loud voices as white people. People are more likely to listen to a white person talk about race than when a person of color talks about race just because a lot of people think that the people of color are ‘complaining.’ As a white person, it is your job, your duty, to stand up for any sort of oppression that you do see and any injustices that you do see because if you just sit here and say that you don’t like politics or you just don’t wanna involve yourself, you are allowing these racist acts.

(MS): Silence is violence!

(GN): Yes! By saying that you are not political, you are making the hugest political statement right there. you’re showing your privilege and your unwillingness to actually help BIPOC.

(MS): And the thing is, everyone is political. It’s hard not to be. When they say stuff like that, they are political. The political statement is that they just don’t care about Black Lives Matter. You are comfortable with white supremacist ideas. You’d be political about other things, like feminism.

(GN): Oh yeah, white feminism in particular. White feminism is so big on campus where you have white women on this campus who are so quick to comment on anything that may be sexist or anything that may be Title IX related, and then they turn their back on things that affect black women. You cannot call yourself a feminist if you only look at one side of the spectrum. If you are going to stand for women you have to stand for all women.

(MS): Or even with the LBTQ community. If you support the LBTQ community make it extends to black people because there are black people there. It’s all about intersectionality. So basically they are political when they make statements like that but they just don’t care about blackness. And even when they get involved it seems performative. Why are you not at the protests? Why are you not emailing President Jacobsen and doing the hard labor? Even the faculty and professors who are posting these things are the same ones who don’t feel comfortable with implementing a curriculum that includes people of color. So, in that sense, they accept white supremacy and are comfortable with the status quo.

(FC): Yet as a Panther, we can’t focus on those people who don’t want to get political. We are focused on the people who are willing to learn, willing to be on the team, and help create change. If you say you don’t wanna join a march or event then nobody will force you to. We want the people who can support us, if you can’t or don’t want to, then don’t attack us from afar. In the beginning, there were some white allies who joined then things got a little complicated and they said ‘oh I can’t join anymore I have a time issue’ or this and that. They left! Then there are people who try to attack us, write fake lies, post videos, and we just have to keep going because we started this for a reason with that reason being black people as being seen and implemented. As a grassroots entity, we try to organize events to help our mental health where we socialize and come together and be one. This is needed for a balance of being out there fighting and taking care of yourself and each other. It’s a family here. We have Panthers who have been in the fight for years and we also have Panthers who are coming in who never went to a protest in a day in their life but they are committed and driven to advance and protect black lives.

(GN): This group is also very resilient. We get a lot of hate. Such as the Geneva community blaming us solely for the increased Coronavirus cases. We try not to focus on that or the politicalness. For us, this isn’t political this is our lives. We are at HWS to help make this place a better place. We’ve seen generations before us at HWS try and try again, and so we want to continue that momentum and push forward that change.

(MS): Yeah we at HWS have an obligation to do something about this within our space and within our community. It’s our duty. Just because I graduate from HWS I’m never gonna stop fighting systemic racism because the community might change but the work will always stand. I’ve been fighting on the scene since high school and elementary school. The fight never stops. Just being human, it is our duty that when something unjust or someone is hurting for us to stand up. You think it would be innate to help others but clearly, it’s not and it should be. White people gotta work on the cognitive dissonance of black people. 

(TH): And then can you speak on the resilience that comes with being a BLM grassroots organization made up of women?

(FC): The resilience is a rooted one. Years-long before I was even created. Rooted in our ancestors. Our ancestor’s strength is still within us. The woman of the Kush, the Kush women, fought empires and they were the ones who went to go fight the wars and the men didn’t fight. Black women have always been fighting.

(MS): To go off that too, when you think about how society is structured, in the hierarchy, black women are literally at the very bottom. Because we get the most abuse by society, we’re always the last for privilege, and that’s included in trans women as well. In a way, it’s up to BIPOC women to do this work and history had really shown this. The capital of Kenya is named after Nairobi, a warrior.

(GN): There’s also a burden to being aware of that power and aware of the knowledge of what is going on in this world. When you grow up and realize what is actually going on in your world, having the type of personalities we have you can’t sit back.

For more information on The Rising Panthers, follow their Instagram account @rising_panthers or email them at rblackstudentslivematter@gmail.com

For more information on Hour of Power, follow their Instagram account @hour_of_power_chats.

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