The Alternative Senior Gift
(or, Making a Difference with the Master’s Tools)
On May 16, an alternative senior gift fund was launched at Brown: the Gift for a Sexual Assault-Free Campus in Honor of the Class of 2014. Situating itself in a specific moment created by the Imagine Rape Zero activism sparked by Lena Sclove’s April 22 press conference and Brown’s 250th anniversary, the website describes the gift as “a way to give back to Brown without compromising their desire to take a stand against sexual assault.”
According to the website, the funds raised through the alternative gift will go towards resources like sexual health, peer education and sexual assault student groups, increased sexual assault prevention and response training for the residential peer leader program, and sensitivity training for University staff and therapists.
These are incredibly important and sadly underfunded resources, and the ability for donations to be earmarked specifically for them will hopefully encourage donations from those who would have refrained from donating at all, knowing that the money would go to the Brown Annual Fund (and possibly led to the creation of another unnecessary dining hall).
But there are several aspects of the gift that prevent me from embracing it fully. To begin with, while framing of this fund as an ‘alternative’ senior gift—the senior gift being part of the Brown Annual Fund, as most Brown seniors who received the frequent solicitation emails will already know—has a certain symbolic power.
As someone who doesn’t have the financial flexibility to make a donation regardless of how much I support the cause, I am disappointed that the organizers of the fund did not take class into account.
Donation-based activism creates a hierarchy in which those who donate can advertise and gain recognition for their dedication to a cause, while those who cannot become constructed, by default, as non-participants.
By primarily targeting seniors, both the official and the alternative senior gift willfully ignore how much money many graduating students have already contributed to Brown by paying for tuition, room and board. The large class discrepancies within the Class of 2014 prevents some of us from being able to contribute. It also fails to recognize the labor many students have already done on Brown’s behalf, like working at BUDS to pay their way through school or, equally importantly, through anti-oppressive activism.
And those who do have the ability to contribute to the alternative fund are paying for resources that the University should have prioritized.
Why are we paying out of pocket for essential services that are the University’s responsibility for making this campus safer?
Given that the current sexual assault activism was sparked by Sclove’s press conference, in which she described the University’s failure to bring her rapist to justice and failure to support and protect her, it is also troubling that the alternative senior gift is a product of a partnership with the University (specifically, its Advancement Office).
The alternative gift website assumes that “Brown students and alumni feel genuine gratitude, respect and love towards the university,” but many of them feel deep mistrust towards the administration, and to partner with the University for this fund erases those people, many of which presumably overlap with the “underserved populations,” such as “communities of color, queer communities, people with disabilities, transgender people and high-risk populations,” that the fund claims it will serve.
Arguably, this partnership primarily benefits the University, who now can claim that they are taking steps towards solving the problem (despite the fact that they did not take the initiative) and will likely pat themselves on the back for a job well done once the fundraising goal has been reached. Furthermore, the University has promised to double donations of up to $5,000, but only donations made through the official senior gift (there is an option to donate in honor of ‘A Sexual-Assault Free Campus’) and any amounts beyond that will go to the Annual Fund.
That the University would only double donations through the official rather than the alternative senior gift fund reflects their desire to maintain control of the process at the expense of the potential to make a material difference on this campus.
And on the subject of who is in control, I find it puzzling that the alternative senior gift website bears the Imagine Rape Zero (IR0) logos, but several people I spoke to who gave significant amounts of time and energy to IR0, some of whom have personal investment in this issue, had no idea that an alternative senior gift was being planned, and only found out through social media once it had been launched.
It also seems that the groups listed as beneficiaries were not informed—as a FemSex facilitator, I was confused to initially see FemSex listed as a group that would receive funding, and none of the other current coordinators or facilitators I spoke to had been contacted or thought that we were an appropriate group to receive this funding.
So while I do believe that increased funding for prevention and advocacy resources on-campus can only be a good thing, I also believe that activism should always take an intersectional approach—in this particular case, class should have especially been considered—and should involve communication and coalition-building between groups, not secrets and surprises. The fund is a start, but it also raises the question: what does it mean if a promise to match donations is all it takes for the administration to gain our trust back? Is money the means to the goal, or has it becomes the goal itself?