Written By: Chris Omar, Corrinne Greene, & Zainab Iqbal
The Residence Hall at Brooklyn College (RHBC) has finally shut down. Students have been sounding the alarm on the conditions of the dorms for years. Make no mistake: we won.
Two of us lived at 1 Kenilworth Place ourselves and experienced the hostile environment, outrageous cost, mold, and lack of promised Residence Assistant support. And one of us wrote about it all. Together, we collaborated and created a short award-winning documentary film telling the story of a young woman named Christine DeLisser, who was sexually harassed not once, but twice by an employee at RHBC and the school’s administration told her they couldn’t do anything. She encountered endless bureaucracy when she simply needed an advocate—like so many other students on this campus who run into hurdles when they just need a map with the path forward. In a span of two—yes two— years, we exposed rampant sexual harassment in the building that had gone unanswered for years, a result of unwillingness to act and a reality of the dangerous public/private partnership dynamic that precluded the building from important Title IX accountability. And now, regardless of the reason provided for the closing, RHBC has shut down for good.
We, the students, held the college administration accountable. Some can say it was a David vs Goliath type win against a foreign multi-million dollar corporation by three BC students in a group chat that continues to this day. We forced action where there otherwise would have been none, resulting in the locked doors at 1 Kenilworth Place, and cessation of the contract previously held between CUNY Brooklyn College and the New Brooklyn Development company.
While this is great news, now is the time to reflect, learn, and most importantly: do better. It shouldn’t take private political pressure, rallies, years of failed student government leadership, FOIL requests, media involvement, and an unknown amount of survivors for CUNY and campus administration to do the right thing for Brooklyn College’s students. This win is part of the long legacy of the students of this university taking claim to the notion that CUNY, as an institution, exists to serve those that it was built to educate. Like many before us, we tried to work “within the system” of Brooklyn College’s established bureaucracy, reaching out to those with titles and salaries that indicate they’d been hired or elected to serve students. The same answer always met us like a brick wall: “Our hands are tied.”
The bureaucracy of Brooklyn College doesn’t serve those who make it run, and leadership doesn’t align with position or title. Why did we have to FOIL to get a copy of the infamous contract they always referred to as being their biggest boundary to obtaining justice? Why was the student government unable to get results for constituents living in housing advertised on their campus? As Chris’ documentary, “You Found A Home” highlights, even when it came to direct survivor support, the campus administration did not act without significant pressure, an indication that student housing security was not their concern.
We’ve now graduated and new student leadership is in place. In the middle of a pandemic, how do we make student housing a priority in time for the eventual return of students to our beautiful campus— a place we value now more than ever? How does the university and campus administration protect the diversity it so prominently celebrates? How does a college president with a legacy in championing survivors of sexual assault in her legal career live up to that reputation in her current role? There’s a void now that there are no dorms available for students—a void that needs to be filled right away. It is vital that the campus leadership finally steps up and rights the wrongs committed during the era of their exploitative contract with RHBC. There are steps to be taken to turn this arguably tragic failure into something for CUNY and Brooklyn College to be proud of.
What if CUNY acquired RHBC? What if elected officials pulled together some money? What if the money that is allocated for President Anderson’s, as well as all of the other CUNY presidents’ housing, was used to acquire the building? Now that would be a huge win for the community, wouldn’t it?
We propose the following measures to support students seeking housing:
- Reinstatement of a full-time housing coordinator to assist current and prospective BC students in finding a place to live and people to live with near campus.
- In the absence of any CUNY- affiliated student housing in Brooklyn, we call on CUNY to reach out to aggressively source capital funding to develop CUNY-run student housing in Brooklyn. We propose, as has been raised to the CUNY Chancellor and CUNY University Student Senate in the past, that CUNY build a centrally located dorm to serve the students of Medgar Evers College, New York City College of Technology, Kingsborough Community College, and Brooklyn College.
- Finally, we call for Financial aid reform that considers the needs of students utilizing scholarships and lo to pay for housing costs: specifically, disbursement dates must align with housing payments during the school year.
We also call for a better representation of womxn & the full scope of campus diversity in campus governance. Further, there needs to be a (well) functioning Title IX office on the Brooklyn College campus. We also call on Student Government and the University Student Senate to step up Title IX and housing support advocacy for their constituents. While in large part a commuter school, this university is (proudly) composed of students from across the state, country– and the world. Every stakeholder of the campus community can appreciate the need for housing conducive to study and work after this pandemic, so let’s support our students now.
Is CUNY about selling poor students out to enrich foreign millionaires at the risk of their health and safety? Will CUNY live up to its ideals of being the “greatest urban university in the world,” or will it continue to seek to privatize its essential services and shut the door to those who don’t have the good fortune to have a safe home environment within commuting distance & an ability to commute to campus with ease?
The closure of RHBC is a victory in that it stopped the bleeding; the simple reality is that not every student is equipped with safe housing or financial support to acquire it in a traditional apartment setting, within commuting distance of the borough of Brooklyn. Now, CUNY and campus administration must step up and heal this gaping wound. It is vital to the future health of this valuable institution.
So leaders, what’s it going to be? Your hands are no longer tied. Let’s take the lessons learned and turn them into action in time to make sure CUNY really is a welcoming home for all— before it’s too late.
Zainab Iqbal (‘19) is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Excelsior newspaper, Chris Omar (’20) is the Director & Producer of the documentary “You Found A Home,” and Corrinne Greene (‘20) is a Public Education advocate & former Brooklyn College club president.