The Rally for a Peaceful Planet occurred Wednesday, with hundreds in attendance on the University of Connecticut’s Student Union Lawn. The rally was planned and organized by multiple on-campus organizations including the Undergraduate Student Government, UConn Praxis, UConn Collaborative Organizing, Fridays for Future, PowerUp CT, Sunrise Movement Connecticut and the UConn Human Rights Symposium.
The aim of the rally was to push for three demands, including abolishing the 1033 program, removing refugee caps and declaring racism a public health crisis. Multiple speakers from students and administrators to activists spoke about the importance of these measures. Other speakers brought up additional issues that affect individuals in our community, such as making the one-credit anti-racism course mandatory, climate change and other inequities on campus.
Irene Soteriou, the USG speaker of the senate, spoke before the rally about the importance of collaborative activism and its ability to achieve big goals.
“Effective collaborative activism such as this is imperative in an increasingly polarized society because it necessitates bringing together creative, diversely opinionated community leaders to engage in thoughtful exploration of the nexus of the most pressing issues we face today. In this way, we can combine our resources, ideas and skill sets to achieve far greater impact,” Soteriou said.
Soteriou said the rally could be a starting point for communities including UConn, as well as more broadly to introduce reform and create a more peaceful planet.
“As a steering committee, we hope that this rally can be a starting point to inspire conversations among students at universities across the country, as well as policymakers and community leaders, that ultimately serve to steer legislation in the direction of peace-oriented reform,” Soteriou said.
Soteriou added that the rally has already seen an impact on campus and across the country, with administrators voicing a commitment to work with students and other rallies taking place at other universities.
“I would say that it’s working: students from universities across the country, from Wyoming to Iowa to Illinois, have been inspired to rally with us on their respective campuses; university administration, from Interim-President Agwunobi to Provost Lejuez, have responded enthusiastically in solidarity, voicing a commitment to work with us to achieve the change we seek at the university level,” Soteriou said.
During the rally, USG introduced a resolution about declaring racism a public health crisis at UConn, which passed at a special USG Senate Tuesday night. The document was co-authored by many of the organizers of the rally including Michael Christy, USG chief diversity officer and co-executive director of PowerUp UConn; Lily Forand, USG external affairs director; Neha Sistu, USG student development director and vice president of HRS; and Sena Wazer, co-director of Sunrise CT. Sotorieu certified the resolution at the rally and Student Body President Mason Holland enacted it. Interim-President Agwunobi expressed support of the resolution, officially declaring racism a public health crisis at the university.
The speakers that followed the signing of the resolution commended the university on taking this step but warned this should be supplemented by actions that support what the resolution stands for.
“I’m here to remind our president, all administrators, faculty and staff that substantive declarations don’t end with words,” said Hannah Ravenell, executive board member of UCCO and the vice president of the Black Students Association. “There are material conditions that need to be addressed and changed at the University of Connecticut, particularly involving public health and racism.”
Ravenell proceeded to explain that issues such as faculty diversity, increased support for the anti-racism course, food and housing insecurity and police response to mental health emergencies are a few of the many problems that require action on campus. Lack of response from the mental health services on campus is also an alarming issue, she said.
“One thing we’ve done really poorly is engage with you as students about what we are doing,” said Provost Carl Lejuez regarding past efforts to promote racial equity.
Lejuez attributed this issue to a history of the administration having trouble being transparent with and engaging with the student body in the past.
Wazer addressed the importance of climate change in the demands. She said climate change creates more of a need to remove the refugee cap and to declare racism a public health crisis due to the undeniable connection between them.
“We have seen very clearly that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are affected first and worst by climate catastrophes and environmental injustices more generally,” Wazer said.
Wazer added that the increase in climate refugees also increases the need for the United States to admit more people into the country.
“I believe that the US has a moral duty to admit refugees and do everything in our power to make them welcome here,” she said, explaining that the countries experiencing the worst effects of the climate crisis are disproportionately affected in comparison to wealthier Western countries.
Prakash Kashwan is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the research program on economic and social rights, specializing in the intersection of the environment and politics. He spoke about why issues such as climate change have become more prevalent among students over the past few years.
“Considering the greatly increased frequency and intensity of climate-related hazards – fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves and storms – the world over, it seems the public at large is recognizing how serious the impacts already are and how much more serious it could get,” Kashwan said.
UConn Praxis had tables available for attendees to find their state representatives in order to contact them about the demands from the rally. Templates for emails and other messages were available for students as well to voice their concerns.
Additionally, UConn Praxis handed out signs, created by members of the organizations involved in planning the rally, at these tables.
Finally, Soteriou emphasized the importance of grassroots student activism and how students can affect change not only at their university but also throughout the world.
“I think this rally really exemplifies the importance of student activism. Student-led grassroots movements have the potential to do so much good in the world … After the rally, I want students to remember that change starts with us. We need to work together for a brighter future,” Soteriou said.