Out of the Classroom, Into the Street
Being Black while Black bodies are being murdered at an all time high does not make attending a predominately white college any easier. Coming into college as a freshman, I was used to being put in a box. I was familiar with authoritative figures defining me and the path I should take in life so the idea that I would have time to involve myself in social change and academics was terrifying to me.
I was introduced to student agency through Engaging Education (e2), an organization that runs programs throughout the university that are planned and produced completely by students. Destination Higher Education (DHE) was one of those programs coordinated and planned by students to promote diversity on the campus. I had the opportunity to visit UC Santa Cruz through DHE and the experience changed my outlook on youth having power. This example of student agency in action made me think, “Why shouldn’t students be hosting programs that cater to other students? Don’t they know what’s best?” I remember imagining myself in those same positions of leadership. Throughout my first two years in college I stayed involved through a number of organizations. I even had the opportunity to plan DHE and help my community in the same way I was helped. Now in my junior year I am co-chair of an organization that stands to retain and serve Black students at UCSC, the Afrikan Black Student Alliance (A/BSA).
After a series of racist incidents led Black students at the University of Missouri to protest against their administration the nation responded in outrage. Black students from around the UC’s Black student unions communicated amongst themselves and set a date to be the national day of action across their respective campuses. As co-chair of A/BSA, along with Melissa Lyken, I was eager to participate and reached out to the A/BSA community. Practicing student agency isn’t familiar or easy at first, especially for communities that have been historically silenced in education. Getting our community members to trust themselves and the message we were fighting to get across took patience.
The goal of our protest was to spread awareness about the incidents at Missouri and to shed light on racist acts that have been overlooked on our own campus while also presenting a list of demands that needed to be met to make the college experience a better one for Black students. Through practicing student agency, we learned the necessary tools to discuss, plan, and execute. As student leaders and co-chairs of the organization,we looked into our school’s code of conduct and made sure our plan would not jeopardize any of our community members enrollment at the university.
Our strategy consisted of storming specific classrooms, chosen by their size and subject, and also the two most visited dining halls on our campus. For example, we choose law, math, and science classrooms more specifically because black students are underrepresented in those areas. During the march we had structured chants and the same went when occupying the classrooms. “WE STAND WITH MIZZOU!”, we repeated over and over making sure our message would be understood over what some of our peers would later push aside as “chaos.” As we walked through the campus for eight hours students left their classrooms in support of our action and added to our march.
About 50 Black students participated in the planning and action. During the protest we accumulated 200 students, some identifying as Black and some allies, who wanted to stand with the students of Missouri and our small community. The amount of attention the protest attracted gave A/BSA and the Black community at-large the push it needed to talk faceto-face with the Chancellor of the university. Our confidence in our skill through practicing agency and the success of our message was a huge gain for our community. Developing a vision, engaging in critical inquiry, networking and building allies, and having the ability to develop solutions helped us to reach a new goal—being heard.
Changing the Way We Think
Over the course of working on this toolkit, I have collaborated with dozens of student leaders who are so admirable, whose selflessness and work ethic is highlighted by their responsibility in their student organizations. I have worked with staff who view me as their peer, not a child, and have a deep respect for student work and dedication to helping students succeed in their own goals. It’s these relationships and characteristics that are fostered by the Student Agency Model. Throughout this kit, we reference a key principle of student agency—having a shared purpose in our individual organizations. Yet SOMeCA students and staff also have a shared purpose to foster student empowerment and success through transformative learning environments.
My own experience working on the newspaper at UC Santa Cruz, City on a Hill Press, has been a transformational one. The core value of student agency—students having the full direction and power of their organization—has taught me more lessons than I can list, but most importantly that people have the ability to make change. For me, that was through journalism.
In collaboration with supportive advisers, students are in charge of the direction of journalism on our campus. When we see things in mainstream media that are offensive or perpetuate stereotypes, we conscientiously think how we can be different, and how we can produce media representative of our own student body and diverse communities. The journalism at City on a Hill Press is different than most journalism society consumes. Publications all too often perpetuate harmful and racist stereotypes, so we collectively read stories from a variety of publications to evaluate what kind of media we want to make.
We tackle big problems in media, and try to identify the systemic issues in journalism that cause them. Only 25% of African-Americans and 33% of Latina/os said the news media accurately portrayed their communities, according to a 2014 study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The same year, minority workforce in TV news hit the second highest level ever —at just 22.4%. The correlation between people from underrepresented communities not feeling accurately represented in media, and the people who make that media not coming from underrepresented communities is no coincidence.
Recently our editorial board discussed how white murder suspects received more sympathy in mainstream media as opposed to black people suspected of the same crime. That distinction, and different treatment, is racism perpetuated by journalists who would never be targets of hate crimes because of their race or be wrongly convicted of crimes. When Jared Michael Padgett killed a classmate and himself at school in 2014, the Fox News headline read “Oregon school shooting suspect fascinated with guns but was a devoted Mormon, his friends say,” and when Elliot Rodger killed six people at UC Santa Barbara, Whittier News wrote across its page “Santa Barbara shooting: Suspect was ‘soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman’, exprincipal says.” Yet when 19-year-old Julius B. Vaughn was gunned down in Omaha, the Omaha World Herald headlines “Shooting victim had many run-ins with law,” and later NBC headlines “Trayvon Martin was suspended three times from school.” Our conversation surrounded media dehumanization of people of color, and how society’s distrust of media directly relates to the lack of diversity in media. We challenge what media produces to critically create our own content.
When hiring new students to join the newspaper, we consider their media experience, but more importantly their understanding of mainstream media. We ask how they felt when they consumed news that was not representative of their community, and how they would strive to change that. We value how their experiences and background will shape the media they will produce. By valuing a diverse staff and recognizing our platform, we create and foster educational spaces for ourselves and our readers. As students, we find our own voice to amplify student voice. By using our personal experiences and backgrounds as tools, we strive to transform the way people think.