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This is About Us: Students of Color Conference centers student activism

Many questions, both voiced and implied, hung in the air throughout the day Saturday at the first Students of Color Conference at Soka University. The overarching theme posed the question: How do we build a world without empires? 

The activists, educators, students and scholars who served as panelists, workshop leaders, and keynote speakers, raised many other questions.

But the biggest, perhaps, were these: How can we create lasting change? And how can we overcome the barriers set up deliberately in front of us?

The Students of Color Conference, spearheaded by the Black Student Union (BSU) and Students of Color Coalition (SOCC)—led by many students, but in particular Kristen Storms and Victoria Huynh, both class of 2021—is part of a larger movement on campus to hold the university accountable to its Black students and students of color. A consistent theme at the conference—the importance of bringing African and Ethnic Studies to campus, a fight which has gained steam in the past year, but has been ongoing for years—was driven home over and over again by many presenters.

Four students from California State University Northridge (CSUN), who have been involved in an activist movement on their campus to keep ethnic, gender and queer studies in the general education curriculum, led a workshop for Soka faculty, administration and staff about the importance of ethnic studies for students.

“Ethnic studies saved my life. You really see how it validates you and other communities you’re in struggle with,” said Kelly de Leon, a senior at CSUN and Chicanx and Central American studies double-major. 

The impact of Ethnic Studies isn’t just on students of color who are able to see themselves in history and in their curriculum, but also to see the struggles of other people of color. The underlying importance of these classes, the students emphasized, is their ability to foster empathy—both between differently identifying people of color and also for white students to better understand their role in oppression and overthrowing power structures.

“It’s easier to love each other when we take these classes,” de Leon said. 

But the stumbling block for many—namely those with the power to make or break these classes—is that these classes challenge the white-washed history many students are taught in public schools throughout the United States. Ethnic Studies classes threaten the status quo, de Leon said, and “that’s why Ethnic Studies is always under attack.”

The status quo benefits those who create it, as Yaba Blay, a Black scholar-activist and cultural consultant known for her work on Black women and girls, pointed out in her keynote as well.

“Students recognize education as a form of nationalism. That through education, we learn how to be good citizens,” she said. “That’s why education doesn’t look the same in every country, nor does every country teach the same histories. We teach particular histories of particular people, which of course is going to inform our relationship with those particular people.”

That’s why student-led approaches to reconstructing education are essential, the conference attendees affirmed throughout the day. 

“The person throwing the rope is often the person who dug the hole in the first place. We need to be mindful of that,” Kevin Graham, a panelist who conducts research related to undocumented students at UC San Diego, said. 

Rethinking Everything 

The specter of the institution hovered over the entire conference: Soka in the concrete, academia in the abstract. That’s what the conference and broader student movement was in response to, the student leaders reiterated—the role of institutions in oppression.

“We taught ourselves and we taught each other because we knew our institutions were never meant to,” SOCC leader Victoria Huynh said in her opening remarks.

Yaba Blay furthered this point in her keynote speech. Student activists have always “understood that education itself is political,” she said. “What does that mean? Well, to say that anything is political is to highlight that there are negotiations of power at play and in the case of education, there are power dynamics involved when we think critically about not only who is teaching or who gets to teach or what they are teaching and who gets to learn it.”

The phrase education is power is thrown around in a zealously positive light. It’s even painted in several languages on the wall of a living room in one of Soka’s residence halls. But it begs another question—who wields that power? Often, it’s those who designed the system, and those who designed the system are not Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC).

“Academia is a colonial institution,” Rocío Rosales Meza, a former professor who now practices as a Chicanx healer, said. 

Soka is not an exception to that rule, as Aneil Rallin, one of the university’s writing professors said. “Our university is not that just, egalitarian place it claims to be,” they said. “We have to rethink everything.” 

And the rethinking is less complicated than we think, the panelists noted. It’s not just a matter of destroying oppressive systems—it’s about reclaiming supportive systems and affirming lived experience, as was echoed throughout the day.

When Andrea Vazquez, class of 2020, came to Soka, she realized, “You learn things you already know in an elitist language. My community has already educated me.”

This is About Us 

BSU leader Kristen Storms opened the conference with a statement of purpose: “This space in and of itself is a space of resistance.” Student activism remained centered throughout the day, and that was a deliberate decision on the part of the organizers. The chosen hashtag for the movement, #ThisIsAboutUs, is a reaction against the hierarchical system of academia, where student voices—especially BIPOC voices—are often ignored and silenced. 

“For many communities of color, we have not been writing our own narratives,” said panelist and Asian American feminist Jenn Fang. “The first step in making change is to wrest back power over our own stories.”

Fang continued that despite the marginalization of BIPOC student voices, theirs are the ones that add the most to conversations about change. “We know what it’s like to be indoctrinated in the way things are,” Fang said, referencing members of academia. “Students are the ones who haven’t yet fallen into ‘this is the way things are’ indoctrination.” 

As the Soka BSU and SOCC have reiterated time and again, student activism is not a new phenomenon nor has it been unproductive in the past.

“Only radical change could bring social justice,” said Tomás Crowder-Taraborrelli, a Latin American Studies professor at Soka. He referenced his young adulthood as an activist in Argentina during that country’s dictatorship in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the pivotal role students played in bringing light to the extent of government abuse. 

A central theme of the keynote speech by Yaba Blay was the student activism around African and Ethnic Studies in the late 1960’s, which ignited a movement to bring these programs to universities across the U.S. 

“At the height of the antiwar and Black Power movements, students understood that they could be miseducated,” Blay said. “That what they were learning or … what they were being presented with as options for learning was at the very least problematic, if not flat out racist.”

And these students fought for change. Not individually, but by building coalitions among BIPOC student organizations and coming together as the Third World Liberation Front. At San Francisco State University, students went on strike for five months before their administration not only heard, but implemented their demands for Ethnic Studies—including American Indian studies, Asian American studies, Black studies, La Raza studies—and greater representation university-wide. 

“This was 52 years ago, before I was even born. Twice as long as any of you have even been alive,” Blay said, addressing the student activists in the audience gathered at the Performing Arts Center. “I say all of this to remind you that your efforts are in line with a long and powerful history of student activism. Student activism, which ultimately led to measurable changes in university policies, structures, and curriculum.”

She added: “If it was possible 52 years ago, it is possible now.” 

blay 3 cc
Keynote speaker Yaba Blay presents on student activism, Ethnic Studies, global white supremacy, and other topics in a wide ranging speech on February 1, 2020. To the left, SUA senior Trey Carlisle records her speech. Photo by Casey Chaffin

A hopeful statement. And while the air at times felt bleak, a streak of hope underscored the testimonies of the speakers and student organizers. The hope of solidarity shone through at different moments, but especially brightly when a panel of activists of color addressed the student movement at Soka directly.

When Fang told Soka administration not to wait the students out—because another generation of activists would inevitably follow—the room filled with snaps of approval from the audience.

“To the students: Don’t stop. We got your back,” Norah Sarsour, an education activist, added. 

 And then Sarsour reminded the administration that the students are not alone.

 “We like to think these are isolated spaces,” but really Soka, just like any institution, is part of a bigger community, she said. Besides, she added, “the students are going to take their freedom and liberty.” So, what’s left for Soka administration to do?

 Sarsour put it simply: “Surrender.”

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