Student of Color Conference Moves, Motivates Students into Educated Awareness and Action

Melissa Nilles
A&E Editor

Photo Courtesy AS UCSB

This year’s Student of Color Conference at University of California Davis was a weekend jam-packed with workshops, speakers, networking, breakout sessions, heated discussions and some controversy.

The UCD campus teemed with diverse students of all colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations and backgrounds, all ready to learn about, discuss and create action plans for combating race and ethnicity related issues. Delegations of students from all UC campuses, including a delegation from University of California Santa Barbara, attended the conference, which was held Nov. 11-13.

UCSB’s Student Commission on Racial Equality organized the entire UCSB SOCC delegation and funded over $7,000 for 90 students to be able to attend and participate in the conference. Students were chosen to attend the conference based on an application that asked about their goals and motivations, what they hoped to get out of the conference, and how they planned to bring the issues and tools they learned about back to the larger UCSB community.

Students in the UCSB delegation lumbered onto charter buses late Friday night, dreading the seven hour bus ride ahead of them while looking forward to the convention itself.

“I’m excited to finally meet new people, and [get] new perspectives. I want to integrate it into who I am and become a better person,” said Laura Gallardo, a first-year UCSB student.

The conference’s rousing opening ceremony on Toomey Field had students from all UCs, along with a delegation from University of the Pacific, huddled together on the stadium’s bleachers, as various enthusiastic performers and speakers reflected on the conference’s chosen theme: “E.D.U.C.A.T.E: Connecting our Struggles so as to Elevate, Dedicate, Unify, Celebrate and Advocate To Empower all students.” Although the lineup ranged from Punjabi rappers to student-based skits bashing the budget cuts, most notable were speeches by Xicana Indigenous activist/artist/educator Felicia Montes, who has taught an art-based Chicano/a studies class at UCSB, and Indian Comedian Rasika Mathur, who gave an unexpectedly serious speech about stepping forward and trying to achieve her dreams while healing from a lack of confidence perpetuated by a lack of support from her father.

After the opening ceremonies, students headed to workshops of their choice. On saturday, four sessions with 13 different workshops each to choose from were held in various UC Davis classrooms. Along with closed caucus spaces for students of specific backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientations, among other identities, most workshops consisted of open space discussion of topics directly or indirectly affecting students of color, as well as some socially conscious workshops that were more broadly focused. Topics ranging from “Wielding Scientific Knowledge to Obliterate Structural Racism,Sexism, and Homophobia”, to “Unraveling Undocumented Student Struggles”,

to “Interracial Relationships and Dating” held most students’ interests and provoked incendiary conversation and problem solving. The workshops provided a safe space for discussion of these sensitive and prevalent issues affecting both students of color and allies.

“I believe that student activism is focused on humanities and social sciences, so very few times do I see science incorporated in conferences and such,” said Lirio Zepeda, a UCD third-year physics major who organized a workshop called “The Scientific Activist”. Zepeda said she held her workshop both, “to show people how cool science is, and to show that Latinos and African Americans are not represented in the sciences.”

Other workshops dealt with more specific issues that particular ethnicities and races

“My favorite workshop was called ‘Do you see me?’” said Christiane Okafor-ize, a third-year biological sciences major from University of California Merced. “It was about different perceptions of African American students or black students, and what stereotypes exist within our own community, like stereotypes about ourselves, and what other groups think of us. We talked about solutions about how to combat those stereotypes.”

Okafor-ize learned an important lesson in her workshop: avoiding taking on the role of representing your entire race.

“We watched a short film called “Black Girl in Suburbia”. Part of the interview [with a woman] she was crying because she says, “I try to feel like I’m a good representation of our race”. People tell her “you’re too white to be black and too black to be white”, and she’s been called “oreo” and all these derogatory terms because of the way she speaks and where she lives. I feel bad for her, but you should not try to be the representation of your race. I know we are supposed to put our best foot forward and our best image forward, because we are underrepresented at a university, but just be you and be the best you you can.”

Caitlyn Alday, a fourth-year women and gender studies major at UCD, co-directed a workshop on gender and sexuality because of troubling observations she had made at her own campus.

“We saw lots of confusion on campus about gender and sexuality identities and issues, so we just wanted to clarify those issues,” said Alday. “I liked talking to people and hearing people’s influences and conversations. We were happy people participated in the discussion and got something out of it.”

Some workshops even included active role-playing. In the “Interracial Relationships and Dating” workshop, students did “speed dating” to discuss their identities and reactions to ideas such as gender privilege, dating someone in one’s own race/ethnicity merely out of convenience and parental influences on dating.

Tara Sweatt, a third-year communications studies major at University of California Los Angeles and attendee of the interracial dating workshop, said, “[I heard] a lot of interesting perceptions, and some misconceptions that were battled and brought to light, so I thought [the workshop] was very effective and beneficial for a lot of people.”

“It was brought up a lot, just kind of realizing that other people, no matter what race, social status, economic status… they all have their own struggles,” said Sweatt. “That obviously relates to interracial dating because it’s like, two cultures trying to come together like a fusion and make a life together. You have to take everyone’s perspective into consideration, and sometimes that can be difficult.”

Reflecting on the conference as a whole, Sweatt said, “Just talking to people of other cultures brings so much up, and it’s so beneficial because you start to learn about different experiences and realize the privileges that you actually have that you always took advantage of.”

After a long day of workshops, as emotions, thoughts and reactions to all they had learned and discussed swirled about and digested in their heads, the UCSB delegation headed to the place where they would all be resting their heads: Motel 6. When they awoke bright and early on Sunday morning, UCSB delegates headed to the conference once again for the conference’s last workshop series.
After two workshops, the UCSB delegation had some time to debrief about what each delegation member had learned during the conference. However, most of the debriefing time was spent discussing reactions to a potential hate crime that had been committed during the weekend at Davis itself.

On Saturday, an unknown individual had written on a yellow ribbon that hung around a tree on the UCD lawn “Use this as a noose.” Although the yellow ribbon had been hung in honor of Veteran’s Day, students were unaware whether or not this statement was directed towards the veteran community, which has an increasingly high incidence of suicide, or if it was meant as an allusion to the usage of nooses to lynch members of the black community in America’s Southern past.

After finding out about the incident from the UCD SOCC planning committee, many delegates were personally and visibly upset by the existence of such a message, whatever group its hateful words were aimed towards. Some students wanted to respond to the incident by highly publicizing the event, standing in solidarity as a campus withcommunities impacted by this crime, bringing the discussion back to UCSB, and even creating yellow ribbon bracelets as a way to “take back” the object that originally symbolized support for veterans as a sign of solidarity and awareness about hate crimes. Others seemed to need time to reflect on the incident itself, and advised caution on acting too quickly to “reclaim” an object that could be accidentally perpetuating more hate.

“Sh*t like this really does happen,” said Nikko Reynoso, a second-year chicano studies and sociology major from UCD. “It’s so ambiguous, but it was on the Student of Color Conference weekend. This is an act of hate, and it’s not okay.”

After a frenzied discussion, the UCSB delegation seemed more than a little divided. Hurt feelings were vocalized by the entire group about the incident as a whole, and its ability to divide a group that had been brought together by the entire learning experience of the conference.

However, the final activity of the conference, the action and closing ceremonies, did its job in bringing all of the conference’s participants back together again for the celebration and acknowledgment of the collective intense learning about the various struggles, ideas and tools that every conference participant experienced during the weekend.

The ceremony’s first speaker, Sandy Holman, got the entire crowd moving, dancing, and shouting her messages of love, activism, and awareness along with her. Holman also urged the crowd to look past this one incident of hate at the broader picture and to fight for justice. The combination of the power of her voice, the message of her words, and the soulful beats of drummers playing around her brought some members of the audience to tears.

Individual students stepped forward as well to take the mike and talk about their experience that weekend. One student from University of California San Diego stepped forward. He reflected on his traumatizing personal experience of finding a noose hanging at the top of the UCSD library, imagining a human head and body hanging from that exact noose. Afterwards, he powerfully recited a poem about the value of human life that resounded with many students, bringing some to tears. At the end of his recitation, many students jumped into the center of the circle around him, hugging him and crying in one big, collective mess of people.

After all of the speakers were finished, conference participants joined hands in a giant chain that weaved across the UCD lawn, ultimately creating a giant unified rectangle around the quad as a way of showing their love and support for one another. Students cheered and yelled inspiring messages of hope and action to one another, then reluctantly broke the chain to rejoin their delegations for the long ride home.

As UCSB students got off the bus in front of the Multicultural Center late Sunday evening, SCORE SOCC organizer Megan Foronda, a second-year sociology major, stopped the group for a moment to applaud each student’s significant contributions to the conference that weekend. She reminded everyone of the main purpose of the conference.

“Our work is not done here. The next step is bringing this back to the community, and spreading awareness about all that we’ve learned this weekend.”