• Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

The Speech That Shook Hamilton: Misaki Funada ‘22.5 Reflects on Commencement Address & Our Hamilton

Misaki (Maya) Funada ‘22.5 is an anthropology major and a double minor in psychology and philosophy from Japan who was selected as the Class of 2022 commencement class speaker. Funada, who was one of the organizers of March’s Our Hamilton protest, wrote their address about Hamilton’s practices of tokenization of marginalized students, resistance to progressive change, and how students have navigated the past four tumultuous years. They publicly campaigned to become the class speaker to speak on these issues. Funada published their speech and a video edit of it in Monitor shortly after commencement. This interview was conducted on June 18th, 2022 and has been condensed to remove filler words and for clarity.


Eric Santomauro-Stenzel: What was your goal when you threw your hat in the ring to become class speaker, and do you think you succeeded in your aims?


Misaki Funada: I think my primary goal was to amplify the marginalized voices that don't get heard usually in general, but also especially on public, official platforms that Hamilton offers. So obviously, most students and faculty were aware of the things that I said during my speech. But I wanted to make sure it stays on the public record. And parents who don't know what's going on campus also hear it. Then alumni and hopefully prospective students who might have no idea what's currently going on on campus still get to learn about the actual lived experiences of minoritized students on campus, and even faculty and staff as well.


ESS: So following your speech, what has the response been like from students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc? And what have you learned from that response?


MF: So I guess, two, kind of big things. One was that my goal was to get a big standing ovation after my speech. And that was kind of partially accomplished. Partially means like, not everyone enthusiastically stood up after my speech. But I think it was good, because if everyone had stood up and cheered for me, that means that I didn't like push the boundary enough. So I am glad that I made some people uncomfortable, but at the same time, I made a lot of people like feel heard. They were excited and very cheerful after the speech, so that was kind of a visible, very quantitative measurement of the proportion of people who actually liked my speech and disliked my speech.


And the second part was the social media reaction. I edited my speech and uploaded it on the Our Hamilton YouTube account, like two days after the commencement. I uploaded it at like 2 or 3am at night, and then next morning, already, a couple hundred views were there. And I was like, "Holy shit, what happened?" The first big wave was a lot of Japanese people sharing my speech on Facebook. So many people were very proud of it. Usually, international students never get selected for any American official events like this, especially like commencement. So I think it was especially a proud moment for a lot of international students, especially [because] Hamilton doesn't have a lot of international students. So I'm glad that I represented that group as well. And another thing was that a lot of Hamilton alumni reached out to me, especially on LinkedIn. I didn't even think of sharing my speech on LinkedIn, but it suddenly occurred to me and then I just shared it. And so many people I didn't know, like I had no idea who they were, shared my video and commented on my video. A lot of people DMed me too. So that honestly gave me hope about how much like the people in the Hamilton community care about the school and the people in the community, so now it's mostly positive… I was following some threads on Jodel [laughs]. That's actually like one of my favorite things to do about Hamilton. I think that it's a good opportunity to learn about people who don't dare to say those things to my face. And it was kind of interesting. Like, it had very interesting discussions about who I was talking to and whether I should have used commencement as a platform or, you know, whether it was really a good idea to talk about those things in front of thousands of people. I don't really care what people, especially those who didn't like my speech, thought about what I did. But it was definitely interesting. I guess as an anthropologist, I was fascinated by how people interpret a specific event and act on it.


It's kind of very, very unrelated, but: on Jodel a lot of people were using like she/her pronouns, and a lot of people were using they/then pronouns [to describe me]. During the conversation someone corrected another person using "she/her". That was really kind of them to do that. And then right after that correction comment, a random comment that [wasn't] related to the previous conversation came in, and then they just used like she/her pronouns! And I was like, “are you just blind?” So that was kind of interesting to see how it really shows how disrespectful [they are] or how they don't even try to care.


ESS: So after you completed your speech, President Wippman responded to it indirectly and briefly. [Funada laughs] He said to the crowd, "It may now be apparent why college presidents have come to believe that today's commencement will show up on tomorrow's electrocardiogram. But our mission is to prepare our students for lives of meaning, purpose, and active citizenship. So even when we disagree, we can applaud their passion." Do you see this kind of response as typical for Hamilton? And what do you think of it?


MF: Yeah, that was like the most typical, most Wippman thing to say in my opinion. But I was glad. Right after the speech, I was too tired and exhausted to understand what he was saying. But after the commencement when we were gathering outside of the science center, so many people came up to me and commented on Wippman's comment. [They were] saying how condescending and patronizing it was. That's when I realized, "oh, that's what he was saying, OK." I am glad so many people understood and interpreted his comment that way. I'm almost glad that he said such a thing, because it really represented what the Hamilton administration has been doing to the activist community on campus.


ESS: Gotcha. So let's take a bit of a look at Our Hamilton. In the days following the protest in March, Our Hamilton's Instagram page announced that the organization would be releasing a manifesto. There had also been some discussion about specific policy demands. Where's that process now? And what actions would you like to see Hamilton or portions of Hamilton take?


MF: So we worked on the manifesto over the Spring Break. And I think it was almost done. And I don't know what happened. So I guess, this comment really shows how it died out eventually. I think it was a combination of people getting burned out with regular coursework and people who got a lot of unexpected added work in their schedules. [There was] a lot of change in priorities in each person's life. It was very representative of how difficult it is to maintain student activism on campus, especially towards the end of the semester. It is very pitiful that we couldn't maintain the energy and actual work going. But at least the things we did still remain on Instagram. And hopefully, probably, students who will still be here next semester and next year will continue and get the momentum, like revitalize momentum.


ESS: What would you like to see as far as policy or changes from Hamilton College itself?


MF: Oh, boy. One big thing that a lot of students have been working on is transparency, especially from the Board of Trustees and regarding money-related decisions. I think a lot of [Student Assembly] and active students have been demanding that transparency, but there is so much uncertainty and so much lack of information. Especially when I was doing Our Hamilton stuff, I never felt I was making informed decisions about anything. And that kind of created some sort of doubts, like self doubts about, "oh, is this worth it? Is this gonna do anything?" And that was very frustrating, especially when people are putting in so many hours and we were asking other people to put certain efforts and energy into it, but we couldn't guarantee what's going to happen. So, I think transparency would be the basic, like bare minimum that needs to happen.


ESS: The protests occurred in March during the Board of Trustees meetings on campus and attracted about a fifth of the student body. It was the largest protest event at Hamilton since at least 2019, if not longer. And as you mentioned in your speech, Hamilton College didn't issue any statements in response to the protest. While they later published an investigation specific to the faculty resignations, The Spectator's coverage of the event also seems not to have solicited statements from administration, and left out key details like the role of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) played in causing Professor Durrani's resignation. Neither Student Assembly nor faculty governance announced any actions they would be taking in response to the protest. So despite the huge public support for Our Hamilton, it appears that little has changed, at least publicly, besides increased public awareness of these issues. Do you think that's an accurate assessment of the situation? And what do you think needs to be done by organizers and activists to elicit more of a response from our campus's institutions?


MF: To answer your first question about if it's accurate, I absolutely think it is accurate. We are, and at least like I am, super aware and super sad that it didn't create any systemic lasting change on campus. But to answer your second question about what should have happened and about what should happen in the future: [it's] to actually have long term plans, like not just semester long or annual plans, but more like multiple year plans that includes succession, training, and recruitment of new members. [We need to be] inheriting the old wisdom that previous students have accumulated. Especially Saphire's research [Saphire Ruiz '22's Senior Fellowship entitled "The Settler Colonial and Plantation Politics of Hamilton College"; recording of presentation and 303 page PDF available in College Archives] was a good example of how much archiving and knowledge, like historical knowledge, matters. I think a lot of the reason why Our Hamilton's initiative didn't succeed as much as we hoped was that we didn't have any concrete plans after the protests. We didn't know how or have the plans to sustain the momentum throughout the semester, throughout the summer, and beyond that. By the time we wanted to get going again, people already lost their passion. So it was very difficult to revitalize their energy.


ESS: On that note, directly, at the end of The Spectator's article covering the protest, you shared that Our Hamilton would be setting up its organizational structure during Spring Break, and that you and your organization's priority was to create a group that would be sustainable for a long period of time. You cited that in the past student activism has not successfully tackled this issue. And indeed, since the pandemic began, several activist groups at Hamilton have gone defunct or significantly reduced their size and influence. How have you and Our Hamilton approached the issue of organizational sustainability? And what do you think is important for student leaders to keep in mind on that issue?


MF: One thing was to really document what we were doing and what we hope to do. So for example, right after our protest, we wrote down all the steps that needed to make that happen, like including writing emails, or printing posters, designing posters, distributing posters. All the small tasks that had to go into the big event. We also had a feedback spreadsheet, where people made comments about what was good, what went wrong, or what could happen better next time. It doesn't have to be like a very clear and clean document to present to the public, but at least, like internal knowledge sharing, that was something that we still have and we should definitely share with the future organizers on campus. But again, I really think activism, the core of activism, is the people who actually do stuff. Not just people who say they're interested or if you say, "Oh, they will do it, they can do it." Like, we don't trust you until you do it, you start doing it. So I think the biggest planning should go into making sure that people are happy and actually willing to do the work and get things done.


ESS: To switch gears a little bit, a theme in your work this year, has been utilizing the image and branding of Hamilton to demonstrate the dissonance between their stated goals and principles and the reality of day to day life at this institution. For example, Hamilton's official social media hashtags like #BecauseHamilton are filled with posts criticizing the school for not appropriately supporting marginalized students. You and others have also spoken at length about how Hamilton uses the very students criticizing it, especially marginalized ones, in its marketing campaigns. You yourself appeared in a marketing video that was shot long before Our Hamilton was conceived and you decorated your graduation cap to say "Not Your Marketing Tool." What is important to you about shedding light on Hamilton's marketing practices? And how should that be brought into students as activism?


MF: I think my motivation about that really comes from how disillusioned I was as an incoming freshman because I couldn't visit Hamilton before I applied or before my freshman orientation. So all the information I got was mainly from social media and some people like alumni and current students at the time. But if I had known all this information as a high school senior choosing my colleges, I don't know if I still would have chosen to apply here. And I think Hamilton's marketing is really good. I really saw Hamilton was progressive-looking on the website and social media, I guess I didn't have enough critical eyes at that time. But I felt failed, like, personally. So that's why I use the same hashtags that also show up on Instagram, that when searched or whatever, [when] people who don't know about the issues on campus, look up Hamilton College, I really hope that they thought that they will find our information and what students have been doing. Like, for example, I just went to a Commons discussion thing with a new candidate for the Dean of Engaged Education. And he, you know, we were talking about these issues on campus, he was really surprised to hear that. Because he said, "Oh, I thought I had done enough, like, research about Hamilton. But none of these things showed up." [This included] Professor Durrani's resignation and all the other issues. Yeah, like so many things, but he had no knowledge about any of that. So that really showed how Googling about Hamilton isn't really exposing all the issues that should be exposed.


ESS: Gotcha. And the second part of that, how should students bring that understanding into their activism?


MF: I guess Professor Durrani's linguistics class really taught me how communication works because it was literally called Communication and Culture. And the course will still be offered so people should take it! I think it showed what will be a memorable [moment], how people share things, and how messages come across on social media. So, really think about who your audience is and how they're receiving your message, like, what's the context? Like what's the tool, the means, the mode that they use to read your message and what is the other information that they're also getting at the same time? That kind of specificity is so important. Not necessarily technical but linguistics skills, but be very, very specific about what you're saying and who you're talking to. Contextualizing your message is very important. And I think for our case, contextualizing our messages by using Hamilton marketing tools was a very good strategy.


ESS: So that was all my questions. Is there anything else that we didn't get you that you wanted to share?


MF: I think one big takeaway for me throughout this Our Hamilton movement and commencement speech was that there is a lot of energy and a lot of public support [for] minoritized students and staff and faculty on campus. But that's not necessarily communicated or that's not always practiced. Something that I want future organizers to think about is to offer ways to do very low key activism. [But] like that's not to say that, like performative or like a selective slacktivism, but [rather] something that actually matters, but still people can participate and support other people in a not time intensive way. Because I understand the biggest obstacle for actually doing activism is the time consuming aspect. I feel like in order to change things, you have to just, you know, spend hours and hours of time and just do it. I still think that's the reality, but I can't expect or force people to prioritize activism work over other things that are maybe more important to each individual. So, I hope that people who want to support the movement can contribute in a meaningful manner without sacrificing their own lives. I don't know how that's gonna be possible, but I think that's something that has to happen.


Our Hamilton’s Instagram is @our.hamilton


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