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Interview with Alison Fischer, ACCESS

Defending Affirmative Action in North Carolina

"The Civil Rights Movement Is Not Over Yet"

Chapel Hill, North Carolina


Alison Fischer is a fourth year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) (near Raleigh and Durham, also known as the Research triangle). She is co-manager of a group called ACCESS, the Alliance for Creating Campus Equity and Seeking Social Justice. ACCESS is primarily a student organization, with a membership including graduate and undergrads at UNC-CH. She is also the Blue Ridge Regional Director for the United States Student Association. As such, she’s the regional contact for North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. She also sits on the Board of Directors of USSA, which has the responsibility of carrying out the directives of the larger membership of the USSA. The interview was conducted (by phone from San Diego) for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke.

ACCESS in North Carolina

In Motion Magazine: What happened to bring about this campaign?

Alison Fischer: The catalyst for the group’s formation was the flooding of the Chapel Hill campus by anti-affirmative action speakers and propaganda, in the fall of 1997, and a promise by state legislators to bring to North Carolina, by the end of 1999, the same types of legislation passed in California. Since then, our activities have taken a pro-active approach. We are educating about the importance of affirmative action programs in higher education and beyond in an effort to prevent anti-affirmative action legislation and policies from occurring in the first place.

In Motion Magazine: How long has the campaign been going on and is their a timeline for resolution?

Alison Fischer: Our conscious acting as a group, under the name ACCESS, started in the fall of 1997, though students began organizing around affirmative action issues as soon as we heard that the Ninth Circuit court had upheld Prop 209 in California. We knew North Carolina was ripe for similar legislation -- and we knew the disastrous effects that legislation would have on our community. The percentage of African American students at UNC-CH isn't even half that of the state's African American population -- can you imagine if our enrollment levels fell by half? It would be segregation all over again. Of course, I think that's what anti-affirmative action proponents really want anyway.

The Legacy of Jim Crow

In Motion Magazine: What are North Carolina characteristics of this public debate?

Alison Fischer: North Carolina is a state still living out the legacy of Jim Crow. As I said before, we aren't even at the point yet where we have numeric representation at all levels of higher education -- let alone real equality and respect for diversity. This makes the prospect of losing affirmative action especially terrifying. By the same token, I don't think you see the same ignorance here as in other parts of the country where people are saying things like racism and prejudice don't exist any more. People here are more willing to discuss real racial problems, and in that way, I think are more willing to accept the fact that we still need affirmative action programs. There are still those who would rather go back to de facto segregation . . . but I have to believe they're in the minority. The thing about organizing on this issue is to show people that.

In Motion Magazine: How does this campaign fit into the national struggle over affirmative action?

Alison Fischer: Affirmative Action is going to be won and lost on the state level, so we fit in as part of that whole domino process. I also think North Carolina is important because we are one of the first Southern states where this sort of think is being debated. If we can show that the South is committed to diversity, and maintaining diversity programs -- I think that will send an incredible message to the rest of the country. And I think that message has to start with young people -- college students. It's our future that's being determined here, and we have an obligation to participate in the course of that future.

All ages, all religions, all ideologies

In Motion Magazine: What impact has the debate had on the lives of students?

Alison Fischer: Wow -- what a question. Across the country, I think this debate has raised student's awareness that the Civil Rights movement is not over yet -- attacks on equality and diversity are still being made and we have to carry on the fight for those who started it all in the ’60s. On a local level, I have seen this debate mobilize students like nothing else. Chapel Hill can be a pretty socially segregated place, as I think a lot of college campuses are, but when it comes to affirmative action, there are all kinds of faces standing up together to support it. ACCESS is the most ethnically diverse group I have ever been involved in on campus, but that's not all. We have all ages represented, all religions, all ideologies -- and when it comes to a protest or an event, the range gets even broader.

What I think is funny is comparing the nature of the camps on this issue .When we've protested anti-affirmative action speakers on campus (we always let them speak -- we are very committed to free expression -- but we protest before and after to show there IS support for affirmative action, no matter what they may say), we always have this vocal, diverse mass of tons of students, while the ten or so anti-affirmative action students counter-protesting are almost without exception white and male.

On other levels, I think this debate really scares students. You get to think you're at a place where society has really gotten somewhere and started working toward really being equal . . . then some loud-mouth bigots manage to threaten it all. It can be disillusioning for a lot of people, and always frightening. I think the difference is whether that fright motivates you to action, which, in most cases I have seen I think it has.

In Motion Magazine: Has the campaign had any impact on the surrounding city, county, community?

Alison Fischer: In the past year, I have gotten calls from all over the state on this issue -- students facing specific attacks on their campuses, or worried about what's happening at the state level. Chapel Hill students were even mentioned during one of the Presidents’ Town Hall meetings on race. I think we've been a good example that students aren't waiting for anti-affirmative policies to threaten them before taking steps to protect it.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 10, 1998.

Also link to:

  • Interview with Jennifer Lin
    United States Student Association
    Re-thinking the Way We Organize / A National Movement for Affirmative Action
    Washington, D.C.