X Gonzáles and Derek Black slam conservative changes at their alma mater, New College of Florida

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New College of Florida in Sarasota. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Apr. 2023).

On Tuesday Café, we continued our look at changes happening at New College of Florida.

In January, Governor DeSantis re-made the Board of Trustees of the small public college by appointing a conservative majority.

Since then, students, faculty and alumni have fought back against the changes.

One of New College’s most famous alumni is someone who doesn’t give many interviews. X Gonzáles was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 at the time of the mass shooting there. And they became a high-profile advocate against gun violence. But Gonzales became more low-profile during their time at New College.

But low-power FM Community Radio Station WSLR in Sarasota recently interviewed X Gonzáles along with another famous New College alum. Derek Black was a White Nationalist when he started at New College. But he moved away from racism during his time at the college.

Listen to the show here:

Here is a rough transcript of most of WSLR news coordinator Johannes Werner’s interview with X Gonzáles and Derek Black.

X Gonzáles rose to fame in high school, tragically after a shooter killed and maimed many of their classmates at [Marjory Stoneman Douglas] High in suburban Broward County. They and some of their classmates started a gun violence prevention movement March For Our Lives that still makes ripples. X Gonzales became something of a global icon Their minute of silence in front of hundreds of thousands on the Washington Mall is unforgettable. Then came four quiet tears, which X Gonzalez spent low profile at New College. They graduated last year and I’m sure we will hear more of them soon.

Derek Black would also have liked to keep a low profile at New College studying European medieval history. But when students found out that the heir apparent of a white supremacist dynasty and godson of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was on their campus, a firestorm broke out. What happened next, however, changed lives. Despite protests, a group of fellow students and teachers insisted Derek Black had the right to pursue their education. And that made a big difference. Derek is now a national figure after turning away from their white supremacist upbringing and beliefs. And they are now pursuing a PhD in history and Chicago. So again, welcome guys.

One question first. Have you ever shared a microphone before the two of you?


No, honestly, we only met yesterday for real and in person. We we’ve been talking on Zoom and stuff previously, but it’s cool. It’s nice to be in front of a microphone together.


I’ve been experiencing that everything that’s been happening seems to be bringing new college people together and continuing now. That’s cool.


Yeah. Love every opportunity that we get to hang out and converse.


It’s definitely the upside to the terrible last few months.

Yes, the benefit is that you know, tragedy brings community together. And fascism really does ignite a fire in us all. Once again, I want to say thank you so much for having us on the show today. We’re huge fans. We have friends who come on the radio all the time, and we really appreciate the opportunity to be here today.

And so, you know, some of you might know that new college graduation is upon us and today is the day of the formal graduation for current graduating students. The class of 2023 who have had a hell of a ** time excuse my language trying to graduate trying to just move through the world. Hurricanes, COVID, and now a hostile takeover. They have been doing their best and they are finally graduating, this class of theirs and they are going to be free, free of this. They’re going to be adults. They’re going to move forward with their lives.

Going to a graduation makes you remember your own and you know, the friends that you made and stuff and I have the opportunity of being friends with most of the people graduating this year because I graduated last year. But yeah, I guess you know, I don’t know Derek, you wanna? You want to take it from there?


It’s such a class. Like when we were at alternative graduation last night watching them make their own moment like be able to plan their own night it just really hit me. How many world-changing things had personally hit them in their years while they were there. And I graduated almost a decade ago now. And so my experience of coming back to New College was it was I was watching you like see everybody and you know, when you’re out for a year it’s like you’re still a student. And I had this is the first time I’ve been back to campus where it’s really finally dawning. There is nobody who you know, like dated a friend of mine or who has this sort of like interpersonal stuff that happens a new coach. Finally, we were far enough away that not only was there other no classmates, there’s like friends of classmates. It’s really a class of students for whom like, I am one of the alums from the history that like are coming back to campus and like meeting people seeing campus in this very weird moment and sort of realizing how much it’s consistently still here. I don’t know it’s just really, I knew what we’ve been trying to protect, but seeing it really thriving actually, it almost surprised me.


Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. It’s, it’s really incredible to see how far so many people have come. And the incredible things they’ve done to like, obviously, in spite of the hardships that everybody has been dealing with. Like just the breadth of things that people have been able to accomplish, you know, graduating with a senior thesis.

And that’s something that’s funny to me is so many people will ask me about my college experience nowadays, and you know, they don’t know who I am. And I like to keep a low profile, as we mentioned, and I’m like, Yeah, I went to the school where you know, my thesis and blah, blah, blah and they’re like, thesis? Did you go to grad school? And I forget that not everybody does have to do with thesis in order to graduate college. But new College of Florida is an Honors College and it is a school full of incredibly excellent, academically minded people.

Full of some of the smartest people, most intellectually engaging and academically forward thinkers that you could find. You know, we’ve been talking like Derrick and I’ve been hanging out for this past day. We’ve been talking nonstop about new college, new college culture and the phenomena that has been occurring.


I feel like the extension of the upside of like, I don’t know, sort of bringing everybody together is realizing how much we all have in common. Yeah, like, up up until now. i It’s not that I felt alone. Like I’ve maintained my relationships all my all of my closest people are new college people. They’re negotiable from my ear, though, are peers around me? And we’ve been through a lot, you know, I mean, just like, even beyond my own personal way that we like, met and went through everything. We’ve just been through a lot of life. But we felt a little bit like adrift and alone.

We were strange people who went to a college that nobody had ever heard of all of us had the line memorize were like, Yeah, I went to a small liberal arts college. It’s a public university in Florida. It’s on Sarasota. Yeah, there are no grades. It was really and then just people having no idea and maybe sort of trying to explain it and that’s changed people tend to know what my school is now, which is not for the best reasons but like people do, and alums that I didn’t even know lived in my city.

I live in Baltimore now, coming out, hosting events, putting together responses to the assaults on the school. And it’s really made me realize just how much we all have in common. It’s not that my friends and I had the unique experience of being at this college and seeing each other and growing together. It’s that we all were nurtured by the same college in ways that are almost spooky. I meeting people who graduated 30-something years ago, and we share the same language. Yes, it’s very weird.


We all talk in a very, very similar way. I met somebody from the first graduating class at the first board of trustees meeting with the new Board of Trustees for New College in oh god was that I think it was February. I don’t remember what month it was probably January. You know, when I don’t know if any of the listeners know or have forgotten but the original the first day of the hostile takeover, the beginning of it all was January 6, which many of us do not feel as coincidental. But yes, there is. There’s a lot here kind of lost my train of thought for a second there.


I mean, I guess just the only point that I really make is there’s so much about New College that changed my life. And in some ways, like I’ve gotten, this is not the first interview I’ve done where people ask me about New College and up until now I’ve always said, described as a small liberal arts college in Florida. Now people care about New College in a different way. But there’s a part of me that always experienced it as like, wow, I had a very unusual experience at a college at New College.

It was very weird and I have been coming to grips with the fact that we all had really transformative experiences in college that there’s something about mine that sort of people find very shocking or surprising or unusual or weird. But the thing that always happens when I talk to new college alums, whether they’re people I have known myself from there, or just all these people I’ve been meeting the last few months. First thing that always comes out of their mouth is some version of well, you know, like not exactly the same, but I too had a radical experience where I went and experienced no thinking something and then I came out really like can’t believe I just changed.

And I’ve started to realize that this school is a little bit of a magic space of pressure and joy and love and explosive experiences. That I’ve talked to a lot of people from a lot of different places all over the country and academia in sort of intentionally transformative spaces and there’s something about New College that I am much less unique than I think I get credit for. New College changes us all.

And the kind of fear that we hear from these members of this board, people who are trying to make some kind of spectacle we make a big deal about like explaining, oh, maybe you don’t understand it’s not an ideological place. But like the real truth is this place completely transforms people and I think maybe that might be what they’re actually afraid of. There’s it’s not ideological, it’s not that anybody’s being told what to believe or what to think. I wasn’t told what to believe or what to think I came to my own position.

I came to a point in my life where I had to really dramatically alter what I was doing, what I thought. And it’s not because somebody told me I needed. Nobody ever would have been able to convince me to do that. If they were like, here’s what’s right, here’s what’s wrong. It happened because New College doesn’t do that. And I’m starting to realize that’s what they’re actually afraid of like they want it to be a place where people tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.


And they cannot stand the lack of structure and the informality that we like to bring to academia. They have really been afraid of the power that the students have. Like every year, students will get together and do some sort of protest because, you know, there are always things going on at New College. There are always problematic things happening where somebody’s like, well, that’s a problem. And I as a student and impacted by it, and I would like to combat this change. And as this is my home, I would like to protect my home at the same time.

And so there’s so many protests that have happened and by the time you leave you kind of just I have learned how to throw a protest. You know, a lot of people understand like, interpersonal social situations, in an activist sense in an active way like that, like far more. I wish you could put it on your resume. And it’s something that’s kind of not quantifiable.

But yeah, I feel like a lot of the things that have come under, you know, scrutiny about New College, for example, the lack of grades, or the contract system that we have where instead of like being assigned courses for your major you pick courses that you are interested in for your area of concentration, and your advisor says, ‘Okay, well we’re going to agree that you’re going to pass at least three out of four of these. And if you do or you don’t then you will not complete the contract, etc, etc.’ legalese.

But anyways, it’s one of the best structures for education that honestly should be modeled in universities and colleges around the country. And I was a student tour guide and a student ambassador in my senior year so I answered a lot of parents questions when they were like, well, my child would like to go to law school after this. What are they supposed to do with no grades? And every time I would tell them because it’s true. Law schools prefer narrative evaluations to grades because they do not know what type of a student is, you know, just on this page that says A A A A.

But they know what type of a student who that they’re hiring or who they’re who are they’re accepting into their college when they read a narrative evaluation that a professor has written has taken time to write multiple narrative evaluations, evaluations on papers and on the courses itself.


Yeah, I remember applying to grad school and submitting, I don’t know, 30 or 40 pages of evaluations, which had a lot more information than a series of As would have had. And I will also point out you know, if you work hard, you get an A, that’s great, and it’s nothing but praise. Yeah, you work hard, you get a really strong satisfactory evaluation, that thing is going to end within here’s the five places you could really improve.


There’s always gonna be constructive criticism.


They always end with some, you could get better. As are more peaceful my friend. Grades are much, much easier.


Yeah, I mean, like, as somebody who loves being on top of things and being seen as a good student by my professors, if I got a B, oh boy, the panic attack that would have ensued. What did I do wrong. But getting here’s where I feel like you could have improved, your sources weren’t so strong. I feel like you’re very passionate and you could, you know, channel this passion into something more specific, blah, blah, blah. Like that type of information is wildly helpful for a student and, you know, with New College and it’s low faculty-to-student ratios, where the class sizes are very tiny in comparison to most other institutions. You know, we get a really personal connection with our professors . Which you know, I don’t have to tell you, Derek, there were like, you know, for this alternative graduation and the graduation tonight, we’ve been hanging out with so many professors that we have become friends with as we were alums. We get to just like text them every now and again and be like hey, how are you doing? How are your kids? It’s just really endearing, how close we get to become as a community.


It’s been really nice being back in town and seeing professors. We’re not quite peers yet, but you know. I don’t know if we need to, you know, defend the narrative evaluations of people or not, but I’m trying to attempt to do because I do think it’s one of the things when I looked at it at New College and I say, you know, we’re in a precarious moment. We really are being under attack. I have actually a lot of trouble saying what is it that would be my definition of like, we’ve lost because there’s so many pieces to it. We have such a tradition.

It’s a huge mosaic.

When you show up you might not realize it the first day but you kind of realize that the second and every one on that we have decades of culture and tradition and you learn the names and the heroes and the moments and the urban legends. And every single one of those things is a piece of the tapestry. And I have come some trouble deciding what are the ones that are absolutely key. And, you know, narrative evaluations I think are super essential. But it’s also not the moment of New College. It’s not like the kernel. It’s not the thing that makes it doesn’t make New College. The contract system is absolutely breathtaking, life-changing really amazing can meet with your advisor.


Think structurally about your education where you would want to go embracing the things you’re interested in, even though they might not necessarily be your main focus.


I would have Socratic debates with my advisor about like, why this is the thing that is going to change my intellectual trajectory, and I need to do it. And he would be like, I don’t know about that there. And I would say, I stand upon this mountaintop, and I will have you sign this contract. And like, I don’t know I have not done that in academia since then. I’m just like, sign up in the course registry. You know, we’ll see how it goes.


And there’s so much more active engagement, you know, on a person-to-person level in New College, there’s so much active consent and like, power over your own agency over your own self.


And even things like ISP — independent student projects. Every January we have the entire month before the spring semester starts to do a project. You figure it out. You know, you also have a big debate with your advisor about what that’s going to be but you figure it out and some people it’s you know, they randomly have a January to you know, show up and do an internship somewhere where no other college students are breaking down the door. Some people write a crazy essay, some people you know, decide they’re going to start an on-campus cafe.


We had a friend who baked a different type of bread every day, because they were very interested in learning how to make bread really good. And then every party after that they would like bring a fresh ciabatta. Like how is that not community building?


Thinking through on the ground: How do I define we save the school and also how do I define like we’ve lost the school. I haven’t come to a solid answer like I have the solid answer of these people may close the school. I would say we’ve lost it if that happens. They may lose accreditation. I could start listing worst-case scenarios and all the traditions, all the culture, there’s a million of them and I would fight to to the end for the contract system for narrative evaluations.


For the student-run spaces on campus — for the independence — for the nature that exists on campus for the for the systems. The parts of the campus that students have put forward like organizationally, there’s like the Student Success Center where students help other students schedule their stuff there, help them like break down essays so that they can get them done in a timely manner. Help them figure out how to deal with very stressful things going on in their lives. Like all of that stuff is like not only our students like working on campus, and so there are student jobs, but they’re students helping other students helping build the community that way, which also is empowering to the students receiving help and to those students giving help. The list goes on and on when it comes to like student-activated things on campus that are helpful as opposed to hurtful that have absolutely nothing to do with indoctrination. Like that word does not come to mind.


Now, I can’t help but point out that you’re very positive New College there are weaknesses of that campus as well. Yes, and one of the areas where it’s being attacked is DEI –diversity, equity and inclusion. Yet ironically, Derek, I remember you saying in a in a Zoom meeting some months ago, that one of the reasons you picked New College, it’s one of the whitest campuses in Florida. So I’m wondering what your reaction is to DEI being under attack and that choice?


There was no intentionality behind them attacking New College as the home of DEI. I did a talk at New College 2021 I think it was a little bit more than a year and a half before this trustees situation happened. You know, it’s interesting and funny in retrospect, because one of the main things I was there to do was to say, you know, this is my story is you know, people take it as very inspirational, like New College really changed my life. The administration didn’t necessarily, you know, I had a lot of critiques of the administration. They didn’t in my experience, they didn’t intervene. They didn’t speak up on behalf of students who felt unsafe having a white nationalist on their campus like they never spoke publicly.

And so when all this first started happening and they attacked this administration as this — I hate to repeat the stupid stuff that they called it — as just this ideological campus. I could very easily say, oh, you know, so you’re gonna make New College that kind of place that would admit and defend the right to an education to like the most hardcore Nazi right like that’s what these trustees are here to do? And like, I’m sorry to say that New College has been that apparently for a decade.

And like I say that a little bit facetiously. But I don’t know, there’s a there’s a sort of a consequence of New College being a place that has embodied the idea of standing away and letting the students govern their own lives more than anywhere. I went to grad school after New College. I’ve been at several different universities. I’ve been big private universities. I’ve been in large public state universities and other states, and nowhere has ever just trusted that the students, even if they are having an incredibly difficult time, has just allowed the students to govern their own lives and figure out what they wanted in the world. And theirs. That is not an unadulterated praise of an administration that often stood too far back. Often allowed students to be in a situation where they felt like they had too much responsibility to defend themselves to bring make their own spaces and protect themselves.

But at the same time, you know, we’re in a moment where people are calling this college an ideological school and to think that I have never been anywhere where the administration was more hands-off in a way that I had to show up and critique them, you know, a year and a half ago. It’s just the reality of New College is so different from the way that it has been presented that you anyone who’s observing it can’t come to a conclusion other than then they’re not telling you the truth about the intentions. The meaning of what all of this is around New College is about stating power. You know, it is about trying to assert power, both on campus.


It’s about a land grab. They want the land for developers like it’s so transparent you know.


They want the belief that New College tries to create as a place as a little microcosm, I’ve heard the word microcosm so many times in the last two days. And it is a microcosm and they’re legitimately are models of society that come out of that microcosm. And they don’t want that model. They don’t and by that, I believe a little bit more explicit. Like the model of society that comes out New College at the microcosm, when it’s doing its best when there’s what the students create, is a world where people respect and trust each other where …


We treat each other with care and kindness.


Where an Us versus Them gets broken down into you’re a member of this community and you have harmed me and I need you to recognize that. And that is the model of society that they do not want to exist. That is the model of society that comes out of the school. I had an amazing education. I learned a lot of things that really challenged my worldview. But fundamentally, what really happened to me at New College was people showed me a different version of the world and made me answer for like, what was my contribution to it?

And that’s also the thing that everybody who comes up and says, like, Oh, I was transformed at New College. That’s what they that’s what they’re saying. It’s that they saw a vision of the world they’d never seen before. And we’ve got a gang of people coming in who want to crush it.


That’s such a beautiful and true way of saying it. I couldn’t say it better. You’re absolutely right. It’s pretty devastating to see what’s happening going on. We’ve been talking mostly about the positives of New College because as novos or alums, we take it upon ourselves to do our best to not critique the school in a way that outsiders would feel themselves entitled to also critique the school in that way.

Although we do have complaints and let me tell you, we air them, but we do love keeping our dirty laundry in our laundry rooms. Because that’s where laundry is dealt with. And we’ve been talking about this, you know, as well, Derek and I throughout the day, about how you know, protests go on. And on when Derek was at school, like everybody tried to keep things out of the local news because that’s not going to help the situation.

However, in this situation, national news and local news can do a lot of help. It can warn people, that this can happen nearby this can happen in their hometowns. Because this is not something that is just happening in Sarasota. The person who is leading all of this is quote-unquote, treating this as an experiment to try to see if this can be replicated at other schools. Which to me sounds very much like a threat and I cannot interpret it any other way.

Especially as I am trans and I am queer. I am Cuban, and I am white. I have a shaved head. Well, I don’t have a shaved head. I have a bit of a mohawk right now. But it’s pink. And I am a visibly not polo-wearing khaki-wearing white man. And the school that they’re trying to make would help that type of person far more than me.

And by help, I mean very much that they’re trying to force us out trying to get rid of any and all trans and queer students any place of comfort that anybody who is feeling othered or is a minority. Any place that anybody who needs a safe place they’re trying to squish it out, make us leave. And at a certain point, it’s important to ask yourself whether or not you can stay and keep fighting or if you have to leave and protect yourself. And there is no shame in leaving to protect yourself, not a bit. But there is power in staying and fighting as well. And it depends on every person involved. You know, some people do have the luxury of being able to pick up and leave. Some people do not have the luxury. And those people who must stay and deserve our support more than ever. And as alums and as Sarasotans it is our duty to help them in any way that we can. …

Richie Floyd on Tuesday Café

Also on Tuesday Café (May 30, 2023) we interviewed St. Petersburg City Council member Richie Floyd about tenants’ rights, housing affordability and state preemption of local ordinances.

WMNF’s Tuesday Café

Tuesday Café airs weekly on WMNF beginning at 10:06 a.m. ET.

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https://open.spotify.com/show/311qfxLFcO8F7ZvnjgZogD – WMNF’s Tuesday Café with Seán Kinane.

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