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More voices emerge in Gettysburg College poster debate

Written by Dustin B. Levy, The Evening Sun | Mar 25, 2016 3:00 PM
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Submitted to The Evening Sun

Isabel Gibson Penrose explained she cannot comprehend how it must feel to be a minority student at Gettysburg College walking past a store window with a Confederate flag.

"That can't be comforting for black people," said the student newspaper's opinions editor and College Democrats chair. "If you don't know the experience, listen and learn."

Race, as well as women's reproductive issues, are at the center of an ongoing, heated debate at Gettysburg College that reflects political conversations nationwide.

The powder keg blew last month after the Young Americans for Freedom's Gettysburg chapter put up pro-life posters across campus, which were promptly torn down. The Young Americans for Freedom are a youth activist organization with conservative ideals.

The posters stirred up controversy at the private college, particularly due to the way they framed the issue in the African American community featuring the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

A new series of posters on the Gettysburg campus, put up by members of the QHouse - one of the college's houses specifically dedicated to raising awareness about social justice issues and LGBTQ issues - provide a different angle on the topic

"I think it's a more balanced poster," said Scott Hancock, associate professor of history and Africana studies. "It has more factual, intellectual content."

The flyer features reasoning, such as socioeconomic concerns, poverty or unemployment, why women choose to get abortions, cited by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice nonprofit focused on reproductive health. The flyer also includes information from the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the American Psychological Association.

"Let's not shame an entire race for institutionalized racism," reads the line on the bottom of the poster. The posters were soon taken down because they did not advertise for a specific club.

As students return to campus from spring break, Gettysburg College continues with a "wait-and-see" environment, from students feeling personally affected by the posters to administration planning how to proceed. Although most of the tension following the pro-life posters is in the rear-view mirror and students are growing weary of the entire conversation, it is not so simple for students of color.

"I think the majority of campus is really tired of hearing the debate because it's the same debate," said Gibson Penrose. "For the people that racism affects every day, they can't just tune it out."

After the fallout from the Young Americans for Freedom posters, Gibson Penrose, in her capacity with the student newspaper, The Gettysburgian, wrote a piece fact checking the posters' claims.

"I figured if we're gonna have debate, it should be informed debate, and I felt like the posters presented a lot of inaccurate information," said Gibson Penrose.

In her piece, Gibson Penrose challenged many of the claims made in the pro-life posters, including the statement that 78 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are in minority communities. Gibson Penrose pointed out that, according to NPR, 60 percent of the 1,700 clinics that provide abortions are located in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The accuracy of the posters was the main issue for many on campus.

"It's about supporting your viewpoint with actual evidence and not being selective," said Hancock.

Gibson Penrose also argued against the posters' invocation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which she described as "despicable." Hancock said students questioned the club's interest in the well-being of African Americans.

"From the point of view of other students, the members of YAF had no track record of being involved in any kind of activity or dialogue with black communities or organizations on or off campus," said Hancock. "So to many students, YAF's apparent, sudden concern over the well-being of black women and black babies seemed disingenuous."

Alissa Lopez, the vice president of the Gettysburg chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, wrote an article in response to Gibson Penrose's piece in The Gettysburgian. Defending the posters, she said, "YAF believes that the Black Live Matter movement does go hand-in-hand with the message behind the posters ... YAF believes that black people are dehumanized through abortion."

Lopez declined to comment for this story.

Much of the conservative group's frustration stems from a Jan. 21 town hall addressing diversity on campus. Lynn Housman, the mother of a Gettysburg College student, took issue with a picture she saw on The Gettysburgian website that featured a group of girls wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Tryna Be Martin But Y'all Makin Me Malcolm."

"It kind of seemed like the town hall kind of took on a different tone to me, looking at those pictures," said Housman.

As a result, Housman said she did not see a reason for the town hall, at least at that point in the school year.

Hancock, conversely, said the town hall was useful. Students initiated the idea for the event, and administration accepted. About 900 people and more than 50 percent of the college population attended the town hall, estimated Hancock.

"Nothing like that had ever happened since I'd been there," said Hancock, who has been a professor at Gettysburg since 2001.

A video called "We Are Gettysburg Too," created by Ashley Fernandez, a senior political science and public policy major, played at the event. The video documents the day-to-day realities of students of color on a college campus.

"Most people were open to it and really excited to learn, and a small group took it very personally," said Gibson Penrose.

The frustration from the town hall inspired the conservative-leaning club's poster campaign. However, this was not the first set of posters that drew ire from the campus community. In the fall, when the chapter was just starting, the Young Americans for Freedom advertised meetings with posters that used the term "anchor babies."

The students that interact with Hancock found their methods sensational and provocative, said Hancock. Housman admitted she understood why the posters were offensive, but views the response of the campus community as censorship.

"I think they felt like their voices were silenced from the beginning of the year," said Housman. "They were just trying to get their chapter going."

Hancock disagreed with the sentiment that this is a matter of censorship. He said he perceives the Young American for Freedom students trying to portray the campus climate in this light. But as an educator, Hancock said he believes faculty should be involved in the debate.

"Whether you agree or disagree with abortion, for me it's not the primary issue," he said.

Hancock, who identifies as pro-life, said he found the images of black people used by the Young Americans for Freedom problematic, as well as the invocation of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Administration stepped in when Jeanne Arnold, the school's chief of diversity, sent a mass email to the campus community entitled "Race to Inclusion" about productive dialogue regarding political and social issues.

"I just wonder if the (college) feels a little of pressure to listen to the minority students instead of the other students," said Housman.

Gibson Penrose said she cannot imagine these bouts of controversy have been easy for administration and pointed out that they have struggled to define hate speech.

"Personally, I want to hold the administration responsible, but I also know that they're just learning like we are," she said.

Hancock praised Gettysburg College's role in allowing students to hold the diversity town hall, but the jury is still out on whether real changes will occur. For his part, Hancock said faculty needs to do what they are supposed to do by educating.

Housman said she expects better of the institution where she is sending her child and spending money.

"I guess I would like to see the school more accepting of all groups and accept them equally," she said.

Gibson Penrose said she has seen a campus more engaged in discussions and willing to learn about racism, sexism and reproductive justice. But when it comes to those with different viewpoints, she said, parties should listen to each other and show respect.

"People that have conservative beliefs are people, and people that have abortions are people," she said.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between The Evening Sun and WITF. 

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Photo credit: Gettysburg College (FlickR)

Published in Adams County, News

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