As evident with the thousands of protests that have ignited around the world, emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration, grief and fear only briefly touch upon what millions are experiencing as a result of the recent killing of Black individuals. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery lived across the country, but even PCC’s Black community feels the shared loss of their brothers and sisters.
With the deaths of Floyd, Taylor and Ahmaud spanning within months of each other, it became apparent to many that police brutality and racial injustice against Black people have continued for long enough. Resolution 20.5 was recently presented at an Academic Senate meeting to denounce the killing of unarmed Black people, which was approved by an overwhelming majority. In an effort to provide support for hurting students and staff, Ujima and Blackademia have also begun hosting regular Zoom meetings to help them process their emotions.
“As a Black mother, I have a son, but I also serve as a mother to other students sometimes as a surrogate or a substitute mom,” said Dr. Gena Lopez, a counselor and professor at PCC who also coordinates the Ujima and Blackademia programs on campus. “To think of these amazing people, these amazing individuals who have such amazing stories and such broad experiences and they have the world ahead of them, to think that that world could be cut short simply because somebody was afraid of them for ridiculous, nonsensical reasons is hurtful.”
Lopez wrote Resolution 20.5 with fellow counselor, Ujima team partner and Blackademia co-coordinator Armia Walker. Ujima and Blackademia are support programs housed by the Black Student Success Center that offer resources and learning opportunities to enhance Black students’ experiences at PCC. From providing culturally-relevant pedagogy and curriculum as well as Black faculty and staff, students are able to learn in a collective environment.
During an Ujima Club meeting on May 12, students and staff gathered on Zoom to discuss their initial reactions to Arbery’s death.
“When I heard about it, when I hear about situations like this, I feel a sense of helplessness because I know that it’s going to happen again,” said student Destiny Cable. “ … And I just feel like there’s nothing really that I can do, like I can march. I can protest. We can write letters to our legislators and whatnot, but it’s going to happen again. And I think that’s what sucks.”
According to Fatal Encounters, a website created by award-winning journalist D. Brian Burghart that documents all law enforcement-related deaths since 2000, Black Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population but represent 26% of those lost lives. Additionally, they are overrepresented in causes of death such as “beaten/bludgeoned with an instrument” and “asphyxiated/restrained.”
“[What] gets me upset … is how it took three months to have people realize that we need to have a mindset on helping out the black community by arresting [Arbery’s murderers] for shooting an African American, “ said student Micah Clark. “You shouldn’t have to be protested or argued at or yelled at, like that is your job and your duty. You’re told to protect us, you’re told to make sure that everyone’s safe and everything’s fair. But now we have to like protect ourselves from not only the virus but also just other people in general.”
Many people condemned the murders of Ahmaud and Taylor, but the first protests began in Minneapolis only a day after Floyd’s death. Two days after that, protests spread to other cities across the U.S. Streets were filled with thousands of demonstrators, their cries for peace and justice mingling with screams of anguish as policemen attacked them with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
“Demonstrations worldwide reflect the similar experiences of oppression brought on by mirrors of other failed justice systems globally,” said Anthony Ransome, ICC Representative for the African American Male Education Network Development (A2MEND) organization. “Noise has overtaken our environment in the form of hate, violence [and] capitalism traversing to the collapse of systematic policy that institutionalizes racism.”
When Dean of Student Life Rebecca Cobb first heard about the killings, she reached out to Lopez and Walker. After receiving no response from the college, the three mobilized as a Black community to create their own platforms to be heard.
In addition to the resolution and Ujima listening session, Cobb worked with the Associated Students to host an event affirming and standing as allies to Black students. Cobb also sent a letter to her colleagues in the Management Association to provide a better understanding of what it means to be a Black manager or manager of color at PCC.
“So many of our Black students have been suffering due to the pandemic and disconnection from the college, just as other students are,” said Cobb. “But to then have to be continuously traumatized by this type of violence and overall oppression is more than any student should be expected to deal with.”
Lopez believes that there is a vital need for more resources like Ujima and Blackademia for Black students on campus. Her work as a leader, educator and counselor helps students realize that they have ownership and that education is not only transformative, but it is their right.
“I knew that [joining Ujima] was going to make me feel more comfortable just to go to college, because when I go to classes, I don’t see people that look like me that often,” said Anasazi Grant, student president of the Ujima Club. “To have our own community and know that you belong, for us to see a representative around the campus makes us feel more safe.”
According to Lopez, the need for Black student programs is extremely important to ensure their success. Black students are typically engaged in the learning process by other Black students and people, so for them to be able to see themselves within the curriculum helps them internalize their experiences. Additionally, these culturally-relevant programs and courses bring a different level of awareness for non-Black students. Educating larger audiences about the history of the Black community helps to demystify stereotypes and misconceptions.
“Historically, Africans and African Americans, people of color are collectivist by nature,” said Lopez. “What that means is we think and respond to how the group is thriving and navigating. Ujima, which means collective work and responsibility, tries to realign what we’ve learned outside of the program into what we historically and culturally should have learned from our ancestors.”
As helpful as these programs are, there is still more that can be done for the Black community.
Lopez used to attend PCC and appreciates how transformative and supportive the environment was when she was a student. There, she made lifelong friends and met mentors who still help her today, one of whom being Cobb. Lopez’s goal is to create that same supportive community for students, staff and faculty now.
“I think that we deserve a lot more help and attention on campus, just starting off with little things like giving us a bigger office that doesn’t just fit 10 people,” said Grant.
The Ujima and Blackademia offices are two of the largest programs for Black student support on campus, yet they share a small office hidden in the back corner of the CC building that does not have nearly enough space for its purpose.
Additionally, Grant expressed her frustration at how their events are seemingly neglected by the campus. This year’s Black History Month celebration was held on the same date as the Chinese New Year celebration. While the Chinese New Year event was held in the main quad, the event hosted by Ujima and Blackademia was pushed off to the side by the mirror pools. The number of students in attendance were no more than 50 people, yet there were four police officers stationed at the Black History Month celebration.
“It’s just little things like that,” said Grant. “How do you think that makes us feel on campus? It makes us feel like you guys aren’t sure about us, or like we’re not equal to everybody else.”
Moving forward, Cobb is working on behalf of the Office of Student Life to codify the voices of Black students so that the college has a written record of what they experience on and off campus. Black employees and allies are also coming together to address the structural racism that Black employees face at PCC. This can be improved by reforming the college’s hiring and evaluation practices, bias and discrimination complaint processes, inequitable resourcing and staffing practices and emphasizing the pervasiveness of micro- and macro-aggressions that Black people face.
On a personal level, there are many steps that allies can take to support the movement. Whether it is educating oneself about the extensive history of racial injustices that continue to plague the Black community or using one’s privilege and voice to speak up for those who are not able to, Cobb believes that change starts with acknowledging that this is an ongoing struggle.
“This is a movement, not a moment,” said Cobb. “We cannot and will not go back to business as usual.”
Here are a list of reflection questions that she suggests for people to begin with:
1. How do I contribute to the perpetuation of a system of racism and anti-Black practices and behaviors? Particularly at PCC?
2. What is my role in dismantling the system of racism at PCC and in society? How do I give up the exclusivity to the privilege that I hold?
3. In contributing to the dismantling of a racist and anti-Black structure, what is my perceived risk?
4. How does my perceived risk compare to the effects of the existing racist structures on Black people, People of Color, and other minoritized people?
“So you want to ally with us?” said Lopez. “Treat our students right. Treat your faculty and staff like brothers and sisters. Get involved. By getting involved, I mean help to create equitable policies, procedures, programs—support the things that students do. Also, speak up. Speak up and speak out, because silence is deafening.”