Sarah was about to begin her senior year as UVA Student Council President.
But then the tragic events in Charlottesville put Sarah and her friend Adam
in the crosshairs of a bitter, divisive and continuing national argument.
August 29th, 2017. Hundreds crowded into the conference room for Student Council’s most consequential town hall in recent University of Virginia history. Earlier that month, members of the alt-right had assembled in Charlottesville’s streets, wielding weapons, anger, and vitriol. James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car through a crowd of counter-protestors, leaving 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer dead. Two Virginia state police officers, Berke M.M. Bates and Jay Cullen, died later that afternoon when their plane crashed on their way into Charlottesville.
In the wake of the rallies, the Black Student Alliance issued a list of ten demands to UVA’s President – demands that drew on decades of university history that activists drafted with the input of several multicultural organizations. Student Council’s representative body had scheduled a vote on these demands for this evening of the 29th following a Public Comment section open to all members of the community. Sarah sat at the front of the room to guide the debate as Student Council president, and Adam sat in the audience to represent his views and those of his organization, the College Republicans. Read Sarah and Adam’s story – and find out what happened next – below.
Writer, runner, coffee-lover, politics enthusiast, spunky, upbeat, sister, dancer, feminist, progressive.
Adam on Sarah. I respect Sarah a lot because of the way she was able to make sure that conservative voices were always heard, even though many times we would not agree personally on the issues. On the legislative advisory board that Sarah created, student council was able to be more effective at identifying and tackling key issues by bringing many of the political leaders together in a way that hadn’t been done before. Sarah was always very responsive to concerns our organization had, and the precedent she set in making sure we could always go to student council with concerns has continued into this year.
Traveler, Activist, Conservative, Outgoing, Hamilton enthusiast, liberty-lover, sports fan, Wahoo, brother, voter.
Sarah on Adam: Adam and I may not agree politically, but through all of our interactions as student leaders and friends at UVA, he has been kind, friendly, productive, and positive. While our views put us in conflict at times, he never saw our differences as insurmountable obstacles to dialogue and constructive solutions.
Their Talk: “Leading in the Aftermath of Hate: Free Speech and Equity on UVA’s Grounds.” Sarah and Adam talk about the relationship between free speech and equity, civility and mutual respect, safe spaces and snowflakes, student activism, and – wait for this – bipartisanship. They’ll talk about all these ideas not as theoretical abstractions but how they live and breathe them in the face of tangible community crisis. You may never again have such a timely opportunity for an intimate look inside the events in Charlottesville that roiled a town, shook a campus and changed a nation – in ways that are still unfolding.
More on both their Subversive Friendship and their talk: Sarah and Adam got to know one another through their respective involvements with University of Virginia politics. With Adam leading the College Republicans, and Sarah leading Student Council, they ran in the same circles and cared about similar issues pertaining to civic engagement and the student body. They collaborated on a few projects through the Legislative Advisory Board, a biweekly convening of students on the left and right that informed Student Council’s political and legislative agenda.
As Sarah and Adam were about to return to campus – Sarah to begin her 4th year as Student Council President, Adam his 3rd year as President of the College Republicans – the weekend of August 11th and 12th dominated international headlines, shocking the world with this display of intolerance and violence long since absent from public places and spaces. When President Donald Trump proclaimed that there was “violence” and “blame on both sides” of the demonstration, he cemented the “Unite the Right” rallies as a sociopolitical turning point in modern American history.
… Back to August 29th, with hundreds of students gathering after the Charlottesville tragedies…
An hour of highly charged commentary ensued. The President of the Black Student Alliance warned, “What you do right now is part of your legacy… so stand with us, stand with black and brown students, stand with the thousands of students who marched on Monday;” the President of the Minority Rights Coalition promulgated, “We are here today in solidarity with the black, brown, queer, students of color, people of minority identities, to tell them they belong here at UVA, and that they feel safe here. This is a part of Student Council history, and let’s get on the right side of it.” Statements such as these dominated the debate. Furthermore, the activists who voiced their support for the demands quickly demonstrated that full-fledged support of the document was the only way to appease the righteous fear and anger that overwhelmed the masses of concerned students gathered that evening. Adam stood before the crowd to offer suggestions on implementation and practicality of the demands but was booed and written off immediately because of his position as a conservative student leader. Further right-leaning remarks and critiques sent a handful of students storming out of the room with indignation that such views could have a platform.
The representative body passed the demands unanimously, but the lead-up to this consequential vote illuminates a battle over equity and free speech that is raging across campuses and communities across this country. Left-leaning activists did not treat those on the right side of the ideological spectrum (or those who had any critiques of the demands up for debate) with mutual respect or civility. Such treatment continued into the year to come. Students on the left spoke of emotional trauma and a lack of safety they experienced due to certain comments. In the aftermath of violence that shakes a community and nation, what does democratic discourse look like? Does it need to be civil, or are certain exceptions necessary for those experiencing trauma? How can a leader respond when an individual claims to feel endangered or traumatized, but the courts only condemn speech that presents imminent and pressing threats to one’s physical well-being? This debate gets at the heart of free speech issues that scholars, students, and leaders are grappling with from coast to coast. The relationship between free speech and equity is at a tenuous crossroads.
According to a March 2018 Knight Foundation study on the subject, a majority of students view these tenets of liberal society as diametrically opposed. Furthermore, “the majority of college students say that protecting free speech rights (56 percent) and promoting a diverse and inclusive society (52 percent) are both extremely important to democracy. But when asked which was more important, students chose, by a narrow margin, diversity and inclusion over free speech, 53 percent to 46 percent.” How do we promote both values in harmony on our college campuses and in our conversations? Sarah and Adam support different positions on many issues, but their interest in full and open debate brings them to more or less common ground on this salient subject.
The time-space continuum to consider: Both Sarah Adam are Virginians. Wahoowa!!
What they would need to come to your school: Travel and hotel and an honorarium of $500-1000 each; they’re happy to negotiate depending on what works best for you to make it happen!