The SUNY New Paltz community came together on Sept. 12 to remember and pay tribute to the victims of the June 12, 2016 attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla, many of whom were members of LGBTQ and/or Latinx communities.
The memorial service served as a powerful example of the community organization and advocacy driven by student groups including New Paltz Pride, the Latin American Student Union and the residents of Rivera House, the College’s LGBTQAI+ Living-Learning Community.
Dozens of student participants stood with faculty and staff before a wreath of remembrance, donning black and reading aloud the names of the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub tragedy. For each person remembered, a memorial ribbon was affixed to the red maple tree at the southwest corner of Old Main Quad.
“Devastation, despair, loss, frustration, anger, helplessness: these were the immediate feelings of myself and my queer family after hearing about the loss of those lives that night,” said Catherine Keefe-Harris ’19 (International Relations / Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies), student representative for Rivera House steering committee. “But we must not let this moment in time cause us to revert back to hiding, passing. Rather we must motivate our community to produce systemic change. Each person here today has the power to sculpt the future through social activism, and I encourage you all to do so.”
During the memorial, students and faculty spoke about the impact the Orlando attacks have had on their sense of personal safety, and how it reinforces the importance of marginalized communities uniting to assert their right to safe spaces at New Paltz and in the broader society.
“The sense of safety and the working toward safety can only be achieved through community and connection, through support from within our community and the support of our allies,” said Jessica Pabón, assistant professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and faculty director of Rivera House. “Many of the students who participated in our Living-Learning Community’s pilot year last year used the language of safety to explain their experience of Rivera House, and I hope that our new residents this year continue to share that feeling.”
Keefe-Harris attested to the emergence of Rivera House as a resource for New Paltz students seeking a safe refuge from persecution based on identity.
“I had the opportunity last year to be a member of Rivera House, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be returning as a member again this year, as a mentor to new students, especially after the tragedy of Pulse,” she said. “This safe space has allowed me to discover myself and my identity, make lifelong friendships and start my path to activism. I would not be the person I am today without that space here on campus. Let us be grateful to have this space today to memorialize people who we will never get the opportunity to meet.”
The tribute event drew an audience of more than 100 witnesses and supporters, including a number of College administrators, faculty and staff. President Donald P. Christian was on hand and spoke about the joint effort that will be required of the entire campus community to ensure the creation and preservation of a comfortable and equitable campus climate.
“On our campus, we have to talk honestly about events like this that occur beyond our boundaries, and recognize their impacts on members of our community,” President Christian said. “Our collective work must continue to create a diverse, inclusive and safe campus, and educate a next generation of citizens to have the knowledge and tools to live in and contribute to a just and fair society, and future way of life. I’m confident in our ability to work together successfully at this very challenging time.
The Pulse memorial tribute was organized through collaboration between the Office of Student Activities & Union Services, New Paltz Pride, the Latin American Student Union, the Latin American & Caribbean Studies Program, Rivera House Living-Learning Community and the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program.