Happy New Year, Neighbor,

The beginning of every year is ripe with opportunities for change. In 2021, we’re going to keep highlighting New Yorkers organizing to leave our city better than they found it.

“Without community, there is no liberation.”  – Audre Lorde

Hunter College students want to rename a building for poet, civil rights activist and feminist Audre Lorde. Her life and work are part of what defines New York City: creative, passionate, unapologetic. She also happens to be among the school’s most famous alumna, graduated in 1959. Now her fans are exerting pressure on CUNY administration to approve and start the process of dedicating the West building to Lorde.

The force behind the Audre Lorde Collective of Hunter College is Jacqueline Brown, associate professor of anthropology at Hunter. She spoke with Epicenter-NYC writer Jade Stepeney about the vision of the collective, the weight of Audre Lorde’s work and the power of symbolism as a vehicle for active reform within the CUNY system.

In September, Brown began a letter-writing campaign to gain traction for the idea. Soon after, she began hearing back from scholars, poets, writers and faculty members who were supportive.

“Audre’s work touches people in all of the humanities and most social sciences. Everyone knows her work,” Brown said. “When I raise this to a new set of faculty members the response is always positive.”

Last month, activist Angela Davis wrote a letter to CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and other administrators urging them to uphold a commitment to anti-Black racism on campus and beyond. Brown hopes the letter will be circulated more widely. In it, Davis writes:

“I imagine that Lorde would find great significance in the naming of a building after her, not so much for how it honors her, but for how it furthers the critical work that she did over the course of her short life. Among the many reasons to name a building after Audre Lorde, perhaps the most compelling one is that it would affirm and inspire Hunter students, whose own identities and life experiences, in one way or another, resemble Lorde’s.”

And today, just minutes before we hit send on this newsletter, came the news that writer and scholar Roxane Gay has added her support to rename the building on Hunter’s campus. Gay released “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde” last year.

Hunter student response “has been amazing,” said Brown. “Some students at Hunter created an organization called CUNY for Abolition and Safety. One of the student leaders reached out to me and I told her about the initiative, and she added it to their list of demands.”

With an active social media presence (check out CUNY for Abolition and Safety on Instagram), the group has reached out to student government at Hunter and across other colleges to raise awareness for the Lorde initiative, and also to sign petitions and educate students about anti-Black racism and what investment in Black students looks like.

Dr. Jacqueline Brown

What if Lorde’s name is memorialized on the West building? What would that mean? While Brown says symbols are important, they aren’t everything.

“It’s not only about honoring Audre. It’s about forwarding her work and letting the students know that Audre is their legacy,” she said. “Hunter College should be so proud to name something huge after Audre Lorde. To say that Audre and Hunter College are connected, we should be screaming that from the rooftops!”

Renaming the West building after Lorde connects her work to that of her successors in art, literature, activism, and racial justice, says Brown. Part of those efforts including proving to Black students, current and future, that Hunter College and the CUNY system wants them there.

According to Brown, the Black American student population at Hunter has declined over the past few years. (The school’s data shows enrollment was 13% in 2016 and has fallen to about 12%.) Down the road, she hopes that hiring and recruitment efforts are strengthened to increase application and acceptance rates for Black students.

“We have to look at the structures that work against Black young people’s inclusion at the center of society as opposed to margins of it,” she said. “That includes going to whatever schools they want to go to and getting the education they deserve.”

She outlines the cultural impact the initiative will have on Hunter and CUNY students, faculty and staff, and New York City as a whole.

“Once you have to say the ‘Audre Lorde building,’ the next question is ‘who is Audre Lorde?’ And then it becomes exponential. The students at Hunter spread the word, and it becomes part of society.”

Brown’s petition to rename Hunter College’s West building is here.

The Audre Lorde Collective of Hunter College’s vision statement is here.

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