In 2017, the Emergency Fund met for the first time in a Reg room with a group of no more than six students. Every week for the next year, we set out to create a revolutionary organization, one with no blueprint.
At the time, the University’s most popular source of emergency funding at the Center for College Student Success (CCSS) offered only emergency loans, and the decision to provide funding was entirely arbitrary. The other major source of funding through the Center for Identity and Inclusion (CII) had no website and was largely presumed inactive.
We wanted to be different. First and foremost, we wanted to fund every kind of student emergency on campus, and we wanted the funding to be presented as grants and not as loans. Second, we wanted to create a transparent system of applying for funding, instead of it depending on an individual’s discretion. Most importantly, we wanted to create a fund with the explicit goal of funding “political” emergencies, like DACA renewals and abortions.
The process was not easy. For over a year, while creating the application and writing the bylaws, we faced criticism and significant obstacles from every direction. Some administrators we met with believed there was not sufficient demand for the Emergency Fund. Others argued that no one would want to apply for a fund run by students. Still others believed that the CCSS’s loan program did enough to provide financial assistance. Eventually, we were begrudgingly given permission by the school to start our fund, with the understanding that we would not receive any institutional support or help.
We worked for months to raise every dollar we could. In 2018, we officially opened the fund and quickly realized that we were filling an important gap. As chair and founder of the Emergency Fund, I worked around the clock to keep raising money so that we wouldn’t have to turn anyone down. In a matter of a year, the Emergency Fund became the premier funding organization on campus.
Suddenly, the largely apathetic and dismissive University administration seemed to understand how important emergency grants are. In the summer of 2018, I was shocked to find out that the CII’s emergency fund had ended its inconvenient hiatus; several thousands of dollars of funding now existed under the name the Student Emergency Fund. It was so similar to the organization we worked tirelessly to create that multiple students reached out asking if this Student Emergency Fund was the Emergency Fund.
Then, on January 30, 2020, we heard from the Office of the Bursar that the University of Chicago now, “provides student access to emergency assistance funds.” Amazingly, there is a new website for emergency assistance programs, and an online application for emergency assistance, providing grants in addition to loans!
After years of pouring our own labor, time, and money into filling a gap created by the University, the University of Chicago has caught up to what the Emergency Fund has been doing for years. They’ve co-opted our revolutionary model, with no recognition or even a thanks to the students who did their job for years.
This is how things are done at the University of Chicago. Students of color fight for changes for years. We’re called crazy, entitled, or unrealistic. Then, years later, the University co-opts what they were against for so long. Anyone familiar with the University’s relationship to activism can notice this disgraceful pattern.
With the University’s immense wealth and institutional power, it probably won’t be long before the Emergency Fund ceases to exist. How long will it be before everyone forgets that the Emergency Fund, and the students behind it, were here at all?
The Emergency Fund’s memory and work can exist for much longer, but this will require fundamental changes to the University’s relationship with activism on campus.
Most importantly, the University should work with students to archive and honor the legacy of student activism and efforts on campus. Memorials honoring successful and transformative student activism should be on public display just as readily as paintings memorializing past University presidents are. CARE Executive Slate actually proposed enacting a public plaque memorial honoring student activists to members of the administration earlier in the year. This is just one way the University could honor student work.
Second, the school should award and honor successful student activists and student organizations in a public ceremony. The school already offers student awards. An easy but important change would be to create a new award or set of awards specifically for student activists who have been indispensable in influencing University actions. The Emergency Fund, UChicago United, UChicago Student Action, and Student Government’s new Health and Wellness Committee are just a few organizations that deserve public recognition and celebration from all members of the University.
Third, the University should financially and institutionally support students and organizations who successfully lobby the University to make changes. In the Emergency Fund’s case, the University should provide money to the Emergency Fund and create a partnership with the organization so that it can remain viable.
The University can and should be innovative when responding to student needs, but should do so without trampling on the important work that has been done by students. The best parts of this University are the creations of students. The least the University can do is honor that work and pay credit where it’s due.
Jahne Brown is a fourth-year in the College and the president of Student Government.