Three years after the Amherst Uprising, the three women who started it all sat down to reflect, as luck would have it, three days before their graduation.
On Nov. 12, 2015, Katyana Dandridge, Sanyu Takirambudde and Lerato Teffo staged what they thought would be a one-hour sit-in at Frost Library. These members of the class of ’18, then sophomores, wanted to show solidarity with students of color dealing with structural oppression at the University of Missouri, Yale and universities across South Africa.
“We didn’t feel comfortable just posting a Facebook photo of us saying, ‘We’re in support of you guys,’ when we are kind of safe in our own college,” explains Teffo.
That one hour sparked a campus-wide four-day protest, with hundreds of Amherst students converging in Frost, as many testified about their own pain and frustration around racism and marginalization on campus. The Amherst Uprising was spontaneous, candid, impassioned and controversial. It shook up the campus. It also shook out a number of genuine transformations.
“Amherst really has changed a lot,” says Dandridge. “There’s a definite before and after regarding Amherst and the Amherst Uprising.” Takirambudde chimes in: “The aftermath of the Uprising made me realize that people here do actually want to fix the issues. It’s just that people don’t always know how to. But Amherst is a great place, and I feel like it’s going in the right direction.”
The most visible outcome became the Mammoth mascot. Whenever Teffo is asked if the Uprising was a success, “that is something I always bring up. I thought the unveiling of the mascot was great, and people have really leaned into it.” Another significant change came in 2016, with the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “That was huge,” adds Teffo. The ODI has produced a strategic plan to recruit, support and retain diverse faculty, to craft a greater sense of belonging for students and to help build a more diverse staff.
Takirambudde, a pre-med who also majored in French, was especially affected by a science course inspired by the Uprising. In the Special Topics course “Being Human in STEM,” taught by Associate Professor of Chemistry Sheila Jaswal, students and instructors investigated issues surrounding diversity and inclusivity in STEM at Amherst and beyond. Versions of the course are now being offered at Yale and Brown too.
Teffo and Takirambudde went to high school in South Africa, and Dandridge is from Memphis. They are close friends who met at their first-year orientation. Each insists that the College still has far to go in some areas. They think there should be a staffer whose sole focus is cultural competency training, for instance. Takirambudde also cited a study done by other students in a psychology class she took in 2016. It found inequities in student resource funding, with more going to older established clubs and less to newer affinity groups.
This summer, Takirambudde is doing research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Teffo, a double major in sexuality, women’s and gender studies and black studies, is looking for a marketing job at a tech company. Dandridge, also a SWAGS major, hopes to work for an arts
All three attest to feeling more assertive and confident since the Uprising. Says Dandridge, “It sounds corny, but you can actually stand for what you believe in and change things, and make people realize that you deserve to be in the place as much as they do.”
Teffo concurs: “Even though there’s still so much to be done, I’m just so appreciative that it all happened at Amherst. And that we were able to do what we did.”