Howard University freshman Kymora Olmo has been camping out in a tent for more than two weeks to protest the conditions at some of the resident halls on campus.
“Movements don’t happen in a day, revolutions don’t happen in the day,” Olmo said.
Students like Olmo have taken over the campus's Blackburn Center to protest the conditions of their dorms for more than two weeks now, after reports of rodent infestations, Wi-Fi connectivity problems and mold.
Olmo has been an active member of the protests, often using a bullhorn in videos and images that have circulated online.
“I decided to get involved the first night,” Olmo said. “I decided to come back in the morning and see how I could help, and then people heard me speaking. I got handed a bullhorn and the rest is history.”
Even though the students were energized, she says, the first few nights were not easy.
“We started out sleeping on the concrete with sleeping bags. It was cold. We woke up stiff, the first night was really rough,” Olmo said. “But our community took care of us and now we have tents. We have sleeping bags, we’re getting heaters. So the nights are getting more comfortable, but they’re not getting any warmer. You know, we don’t want to be out here until November, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes.”
As for any changes on campus since the protests began, she said, “The only changes have really been in the weather and the fact that they started cleaning the dorms, but at first they wouldn’t even acknowledge that there was mold in the dorm.”
Earlier this week, the university confirmed to NBC News that the school had detected mold in 38 out of 2,700 dorm rooms on the Washington, D.C., campus.
A statement from university President Wayne A. I. Frederick last week read, “While there have only been a small number of documented facilities reports relative to our entire inventory of residence rooms, we are actively inquiring about unreported issues that may be in the residence halls by going door to door to interview and assist each resident. The results of our inquiries to date affirm that the issues are not widespread and the vast majority of our students are living comfortably in their rooms.”
The list of demands have been stated at several of the protests and press conferences students have held on the campus.
“We need a housing plan for the future generations of Howard,” Olmo said. She’s calling on Howard administration to provide more resources for upperclassmen and undocumented students who aren’t able to afford off-campus housing after their sophomore year.
“Secondly, we want an in-person town hall with President Wayne Frederick, where students can discuss their grievances and their experience as the Mecca,” she said, referring to Howard's nickname and reputation among HBCUs.
Olmo said so far, Frederick has only met with student leaders and not the full student body, as outlined in the demands. “We asked for a town hall, where all students can be heard,” she said.
Their third demand is to have student and alumni positions reinstated on the board of trustees with voting power, Olmo said. The seats were removed during the pandemic.
“We have a board of trustees where basically the governing body for the school, they decide tuition, they decide selling. They basically control all decisions that affect their lives, and they removed our voting power off of that board,” Olmo said.
Lastly Olmo said, “Our final demand is legal and academic amnesty for everyone involved in this process.”
Olmo said demonstrations reached another level of intensity during a recent protest when campus police tried to physically move students as they attempted to lock down the student-occupied Blackburn Center.
“I had someone’s arm around my neck ... and then my Blackburn family pulled me to the inside, and I was basically being choked as I was being pulled by campus police,” she said.
Neither Howard University nor the campus police responded to a request for comment on that incident.
Frederick released a statement earlier this week about the protests more broadly, saying, “the University is willing to continue engaging in substantive conversations with student protesters and leaders regarding their expressed concerns. The occupation of the Blackburn center must end. The truth remains that all of our students deserve a best-in-class dormitory experience at Howard, and we will continue to do our best to ensure that they receive it.”
Still, Olmo said some students are worried about being a part of the movement.
“Not everyone feels comfortable speaking out on the issues, the intimidation, retaliation, gaslighting and everything else we have faced for speaking up — the whole student body has watched that and it has affected our students,” she said.
All of this has led Olmo and some of her friends to consider where they want to spend the remainder of their college career.
If things don’t change she said, “I will be transferring. I do not have $48,000 a year to keep being mistreated. Now if Howard can get it together, I will continue to call the Mecca my home.”
Regardless of the challenges, for now, she will continue being a voice for her student body.
“I fight for this cause for my peers who cannot,” Olmo said, “I come from a long line of strong Black women. I do. And they have instilled in me the tools to use my voice and use the power that is within me to help others.”