Members of the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) asserted their self-determination before the Board of Trustees three different times on Friday, February 28.
Board of Trustees morning meeting with Soka Student Union Executive Council (EC)
Purpose of the meeting: In place of the Q&A session typically held for the entire student body during the Board of Trustees’ quarterly spring meeting on campus, students were invited to anonymously submit questions for EC to pose to the Board’s Student Affairs Committee. These questions were reviewed with final selections sent via email on the evening of Wednesday, February 26, to Dean of Students Hyon Moon, who initially requested the questions, and Hiro Sakai, Executive Assistant to the President and Board Secretary. These questions were then forwarded to all Board members individually in their original form (with context for one question added for clarification).
Update: EC released notes taken for the meeting to all students on March 2.
In attendance were all five members of EC and five of the fifteen members of the Board (as well as one trustee that called in) representing its Student Affairs Committee.
Also in attendance: nineteen members of the SOCC.
Amrita Sood, EC Treasurer, began the meeting by addressing the elephant in the room: “We want you to understand why the students are here silently protesting today.”
Lining the Board Room, SOCC members stood side by side, fists in the air, letting the signs they carried speak for themselves. Some Board members took a moment to read their messages before seating themselves. One large poster declared the students’ purpose: “WE ARE STANDING IN SILENT PROTEST AND HOLDING THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES ACCOUNTABLE.”
A detailed explanation for the demonstration was provided to the Board of Trustees by the BSU and SOCC in a formal address titled “Weaponized Silence”:
We stand here in front of you today, as the embodied silence weaponized against us. We stand here, physically transgressing the hierarchies and top-down structures which this institution has leveraged against its Black Indigenous and students of color. We stand here, reclaiming the autonomy which has been extracted from us as diversity tokens, areas of study, and “violent others”.
We stand here to physically take space. Our silence mimics the silence and lack of action on part of the Board of Trustees during a crisis on the bodies of Black Indigenous Students of Color.
In further explaining the symbolic significance of the SOCC’s silent protest, Jordyn Solidum-Saito, co-founder of the most recent iteration of the SOCC, cited the Board Room itself as a border to transgress. “[The Board Room] is where the trustees are sequestered the entire day, a space reserved for the ‘top’ in this ‘top-down’ hierarchy,” said Solidum-Saito. If the space inside represented the top, the space outside represented the bottom.
“Usually, we are–and are being kept at–the bottom.”
Board of Trustees evening meeting with representatives of BSU and SOCC
Purpose of the meeting: As stated in the Accountability Statement released by the BSU and SOCC during this meeting, on December 13, 2019, the SOCC had requested contact with the Board of Trustees “to address the emergency on Soka’s campus.” Despite the expressed urgency, no members of the Board welcomed the possibility of a phone call, video call, or continued email exchange before their next quarterly meeting on February 28. The BSU and SOCC representatives that were to attend this meeting had no guarantee that all Board members—before their arrival on campus—would have at least reviewed the concerns, proposal, and materials sent to them individually. Thus, a presentation was prepared.
Just as the presentation began inside Maathai 207, student supporters clustered outside the room, bracing signs against the glass doors. The demonstration was briefly livestreamed on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as an invitation for allies to join in solidarity and hold the Board accountable for their inaction.
“This is about our lives,” said Tracy Bartolome, one of the demonstration organizers. She expressed her frustration with the implications of the Board’s lack of adequate response. “They have essentially told us our humanity can wait. Our humanity needs dialogue. Our humanity is not enough.” The insistence on waiting to have an in-person meeting months after initial contact showed just how far removed the Board is from the students that its policymaking impacts.
The meeting continued for over an hour, and students outside held their signs and each other steady, switching positions to rest and listen to the livestream.
Finally, Jordyn Solidum-Saito began her closing words. As written in the Accountability Statement, Board members have until March 2 to publicly communicate their response to the BSU and SOCC demands. With or without the Board, Solidum-Saito said, “We will be moving forward.”
Students moved from the windows to the hallway and building entrance to greet the trustees in their exit. In the hour or so that the meeting went on, they had grown from about fifteen to fifty in numbers.
As the meeting room emptied, these fifty bodies collapsed at once. The students chanted in unison:
“WE! CANNOT! AFFORD! TO WAIT!”
“WE! CANNOT! AFFORD! TO WAIT!”
“WE! CANNOT! AFFORD! TO WAIT!”
This “die-in” demonstration, inspired by the 1980s AIDS activist group ACT UP, was intended to leave a haunting impression for all that bore witness. Bartolome explained, “To ‘die’ like this and look them in the eyes…” The display was a powerfully intimate way to remind the Board of the lives being neglected and undervalued. “They need to know the role they play in our dehumanization.”
Students continued to lay on the ground imitating lifelessness, save for their chants and piercing stares. Dozens of pairs of eyes met the gaze of the Board members as they passed between the fallen bodies; some trustees exited in the opposite direction to avoid the encounter altogether. The chant changed:
“SI-LENCE IS VIO-LENCE!”
“SI-LENCE IS VIO-LENCE!”
Some Board members paused outside to take in the visual and auditory power of the demonstration. As they all trickled away from Maathai, the students continued to lie together and chant. Those that presented in the meeting joined the collective outside:
“THE PEOPLE. UNITED. WILL NEVER BE DIVIDED.”
“THE PEOPLE. UNITED. WILL NEVER BE DIVIDED…”
Approximately twenty more minutes passed before the students rose and regrouped.
Though death would typically imply finality, the die-in would not be the last protest of the night.
Members of the Board, through their repeated apathetic sentiments throughout the day, made it clear to students that they could afford to make students wait. Many students expressed frustration in recalling Board members’ comments that “things take time” in both meetings.
They were very aware–they had waited months just for February 28 to come. Some students spoke to the Board’s obvious lack of preparation for their specially-arranged meeting with representatives from the BSU and SOCC.
“It was frustrating to hear them talk about not knowing about what we have been demanding,” said Andrea Vazquez, Class of 2020. “As the Board of Trustees, it is their responsibility to become aware by all means necessary. The fact that they have not done so is unprofessional on all accounts.”
Disappointed but remaining filled with conviction, students gathered on Friendship Lane, the only street guests can go through to leave campus from the Athenaeum where the Board’s special dinner is held. They laid out mats across the street and positioned themselves in the middle of the road. The blockade was not intended to be indefinite, but it would serve to communicate, yet again, a reiteration of the students’ humanity.
SUA Public Safety arrived after receiving a call and requested that the students move from the street. They would not, they said, until all of the trustees on the Board came and spoke to them first.
“I think there was definitely confusion about what we were still doing around,” said Ayoola Akinlana, Class of 2022, referring to a lack of understanding on part of the Board in the purpose of the deadline. “Like, what did we want? We didn’t want them to think we were pressuring them into swearing to meet all eight demands. It wasn’t like, give us a deadline for all that by Monday or else you can’t go home.”
The students were not demanding immediate answers and solutions to the morning meeting’s questions and raised problems; the Qualtrics questions were submitted not by the BSU or SOCC but by the entire student body. They were also not demanding a green light for an Ethnic Studies concentration; while they asked for the Board’s support, they did not need the Board’s approval to move forward.
“With or without them,” Solidum-Saito reiterated. “The purpose of the ‘blockade’–I use this term lightly since [there were] less than twenty BIPOC students, all very young–was to speak to the Board one last time.” The students wanted to remind the Board of the March 2 deadline and to rearticulate the severity of the crises at hand.
However, not all went as hoped. Although Public Safety successfully informed the Board of the students’ wishes to speak to all Board members, only the Chair of the Board, Stephen Dunham approached the blockade. “We saw a wave of [trustees] quickly approaching us,” Vazquez recounted. “We did our best to hold hands to block the road and sidewalk as fast as we could, but we were not able to reach the end of the sidewalk on time, leaving an opening that the members used to leave. They walked or jogged away without looking at us.” The students were forced to speak with Dunham alone.
At this point, it was obvious: they feared the students.
Leialani Santos, Class of 2022, recalled her disbelief. “What’s so scary about less than twenty students, the great majority being petite BIPOC women, holding hands and requesting for a conversation?” she asked. “Why are they so unwilling to listen to us, the students of the institution they oversee?”
Dunham offered to speak with the students, but he asked that Board member Gene O’Connell first be allowed to leave. He referred to O’Connell as the Board’s “disabled trustee,” doing so repeatedly and accusing the students of intentionally disrespecting her. The students, although many struck by the tokenization of a person with a disability and its use against them, agreed to part the line. However, while waiting for O’Connell and her escort, Maria Guajardo, to approach in the shuttle, they looked on incredulously as headlights flickered on in the parking lot and an entire line of cars began forming to follow them.
“Just the shuttle. Just the shuttle!” students repeated, relinking arms in preparation to only narrowly let the shuttle bus through. Once O’Connell and Guajardo passed, students gestured for the remaining cars attempting to leave to circle back into the Athenaeum parking lot.
As the last car pulled in and only Dunham remained before the students, emotions ran high in light of what they had just witnessed. Solidum-Saito called out this massive effort to completely avoid them and their request.
“We never wanted to be here,” she said, addressing Dunham but also those standing by including Vice President Edward Feasel, Dean of Faculty Bryan Penprase, and officers from Public Safety. “We never wanted to block [O’Connell]. We never even wanted to begin to protest, but we’re here because we had to and because this crisis wasn’t handled.”
What ensued, rather than the insisted-upon dialogue, was further misunderstanding about why students decided to carry out this final protest. At one point, Dunham suggested making changes to the Board’s committee and meeting structures. “I think it would be a good thing,” he said, “if we built into them, on a regular basis, at every Board meeting, opportunities to address issues of–”
Students grew hopeful with this suggestion, but it ended in another missed point.
“–diversity and inclusion.”
Yet again, buzzwords like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” forced their way into the all too familiar rhetoric.
While the students felt discouraged by the redundant nature of the exchange, they also felt belittled by the Chair.
William Carroll, Class of 2020, had hoped Dunham would “realize that we are not just children acting up, whining until we get something,” yet the Chair felt the need, when he first approached the students, to point out that they were “laughing it up and having a good old time.” Many students felt this was an unfair criticism given that in their earlier protests, they afforded respect to the meetings taking place by conducting silent demonstrations. In those meetings, Dunham told the students, “I treated you completely as adults.” Outside of that formal setting, it seemed, he did not.
“We have not been taken seriously,” said Solidum-Saito of the interactions with the Board over the course of the day, but also referring to the long timeline of the student movement being met with dismissal and indifference. It was time to end the exchange and clear the road.
“We will move,” Solidum-Saito told Dunham, “but that’s not the issue at hand.”
The Black Student Union and Students of Color Coalition will be releasing a General Statement regarding what took place on Friday, February 28.
Students that participated in the “blockade” demonstration shared their individual experiences.
The students are still here. Still tired. Still going.
And the students still, as they have articulated, cannot afford to wait.
–With reporting by Sophia Greco & Aline Nguyen
This is a story pending additions to help contextualize the events that took place on February 28.
Disclosure: Pearl staff participated in all three February 28 demonstrations.