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Be Better Belmont uses debate to protest CoreCivic

This article was updated Friday morning to include a statement from CoreCivic.

The national spotlight was on Belmont University Thursday — and a group of Belmont students and alumni are using it to shine a light on the university’s ties to CoreCivic, a for-profit prison corporation.

“We want to have a national spotlight on us at a time when Belmont has simply refused to acknowledge us,” said one of the founders of Be Better Belmont, Alexis Smith.

Be Better Belmont lined the streets surrounding campus right before the presidential debate to protest the university’s refusal to remove board members with connections to the private prison industry.

The activist group cites CoreCivic’s history of facing civil lawsuits for negligence as evidence of the corruption of the for-profit prisons.

Director of Public Affairs Amanda Gilchrist considers these claims to be defamatory.

“Unfortunately, much of the information about our company being shared by activists is wrong and politically motivated,” said Gilchrist.

They weren’t the only demonstrators, but rather shared the corner of Wedgewood Avenue and Magnolia Boulevard with crowds of supporters for each presidential candidate as well as others.

At the demonstration, Be Better Belmont called for the removal of Damon Hininger, current CEO of CoreCivic, from the university’s board of trustees.

“I’m here today because I think it’s really important that Belmont is an anti-racist institution, and in doing so, we need to divest from CoreCivic,” said student Claire Hennigan.

Many students and alumni attending the protest used their voices to criticize the nature of private prisons.

“I think there’s a whole system that we have to dismantle and this is a good start. I think Belmont needs to better represent its values and the wishes of its students and faculty in divesting,” said alumni Sarah Champion.

But, it was more than just the Belmont community that came to protest Belmont’s connection to CoreCivic.

Be Better Belmont invited organizations from the greater Nashville area including Equity Alliance, Our Revolution and March for Justice to raise awareness on how to create a more equitable future in the city.

“These people are folks that see a better future for the community. And they’re the ones putting in this insane grunt work, of trying to get the community together into voice and to make a collective voice,” said Safara Parrott, the demonstration’s organizer.

“And these are also voices that quite frankly, up until this point, Belmont has ignored as well.”

An organization devoted to getting Nashville musicians involved in community change, Musicians for Change, came to the protest in support of Be Better Belmont’s mission.

“Be Better Belmont has obviously filled a gap that was needed to call Belmont out,” said Musicians for Change founder Alayna Renae. “We’re really happy to support the work they’re already doing.”

Community activist Allen DeBerry showed up to the protest because he believes the private prison industry directly contributes to the oppression of Nashville communities.

“I’m out here protesting because we need justice for all people, we need equal rights for all people, and we need a better government,” said DeBerry.

For many protestors, the hope is that the demonstration will open a conversation between the university administration about its board members.

“Hopefully, if you speak the truth long enough, people will talk to you. And that’s still what we’re hoping,” said Parrott.

Smith says they won’t stop raising their voices until something changes.

“What choice do we have? We’re not going away. As much as they try to ignore us, we’re there.”

Article written by Kendall Crawford.

Contributory reporting by Jackson Brady, Sarah Maninger, Anna D’Amico, Holly Vonder and Riley Belt. Photo by Anna D’Amico.

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