There’s something incredibly refreshing about being present in a room where people of color are expressing some of their deepest insecurities through testimonies while simultaneously calling all the shots, exposing truth to power, and making demands with not one sign of hesitation towards a room full of their academic faculty, staff and peers.
Last night, students of color at UIC led a public, student-led forum in the UIC Urban Elementary program to discuss unsettling experiences in their program surrounding racial dynamics, white privilege and accountability. The event began with reflections from several students of color that immediately moved me to tears as I could fully relate to many of the experiences expressed. The path to college (or any desired educational goal) for brown and black folks is a perilous, strenuous path, brimmed with self-doubt, anxiety, and systemic obstacles that make many folks run the opposite way, understandably so. You’re not alone if you’ve ever been told growing up that you’ll most likely turn out to be a “teen mom statistic” because you’re a young, working-class brown girl, or if you’ve felt like you weren’t suppose to be “here” anymore (as in alive) because you’re a young, brown boy in Pilsen. One powerpoint slide the students presented included the quote “You know people of color in this program don’t have to work as hard”, made by a UIC College of Education Cohort* Student. Another powerpoint slide included the quote “N***as are dumb”. This quote was found written on the third floor men’s bathroom in the College of Education just days prior to the forum. A few students shared their experiences with the “Privilege Walk”** in which they witnessed their white peers laughing and joking as they continuously hit the wall of the room because they had to step forward so much. One POC student, filled with visibly painful guilt as she spoke, expressed how she lied and stepped forward on a statement that wasn’t true out of sheer embarrassment, followed by her then witnessing another POC student rush out of the room in humiliation because he had to step backwards so much.
These experiences are raw and run deep. They are hard to articulate and once the words are finally excavated from the depths of our bellies, it is as if our worlds are laid bare but our ground made a little more secure. Testimony after testimony, I could feel the consensus in the audience; heads nodding, fingers snapping, noses sniffing, tears shedding. I could feel the indestructible strength growing larger between the students of color at the front of the room from my seat in the audience.
Six demands were declared, directed towards the UIC College of Education, UIC Financial Assistance Office, UIC Admissions Office and the UIC Office of Diversity. Demands included meetings with previously-stated offices and departments, 8 Urban Elementary Education full-ride scholarships to black high school seniors or transfer students, a holistic mentorship program specifically for students of color in the Urban Elementary Education cohorts, and fully-funded monthly colloquiums, just to name a few. Students in the audience were then invited to speak out if they wished, and we heard even more shared experiences of feeling isolated, doubted, shamed, and longing for more accountability and transparency in the department.
I tend to often find myself in spaces where white folks are organizing events around systematic oppression, getting angry or fired up in discussions over racism, or reading books by people of color and having study groups over them. While these are all really awesome things that should always be happening, I don’t always feel the most comfortable or content in those spaces. I feel like an observer, an outsider, nodding my head in agreement but knowing that my purpose or undertaking is not the same as theirs and so I am just present. And so last night, when this classroom space was transformed by people of color and I listened to their stirring testimonies, their urgent concerns for action, and the demands declared, I couldn’t help but just cry. The creation of these spaces are critical to our survival.
Sarah Gonzalez ended with a poem by one of her former Spencer Elementary 8th grade students, Hakeem Fleming. It summarized the sentiment of the forum perfectly, questioning interpersonal and systemic oppression, privilege and the fears that come with living as a person of color in our racist society. It ends on the following quote:
"The police want us bad, the judge hate us more,
The jury think we guilty before we walk thru the door
but our biggest fears we die before we turn 24
Now every law that’s passed is gonna sink us more
And every time we go to jail, ya’ll get paid tho
But when we ask for help, ya’ll just slam the door
They say our president is Black but we only got
ourselves & that’s real tho
I know ya’ll hate our guts, that’s how you feel tho
But ya’ll ain’t got to like us, just let us live tho,
And cuz we black don’t mean we steal tho,
and cuz we from the ghetto, don’t mean we dumb bro,
We just as smart as ya’ll
but ya’ll don’t want the world to know”
Much love and strength to Brown & Proud Press collective member Sarah Gonzalez and the other strong students of color that organized this forum. It has inspired and shifted the earth more than you can imagine.
- Monica Trinidad
*A cohort is a core group of students that you will work and study with as a group for the entire course of your program of study.
**Privilege Walk is an activity that examines unearned privilege and power. Statements are made and folks either take a step forward or backward depending on whether the statement pertains to them or not. Some examples of statements include “If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward” and “If you were ever stopped and questioned by the police because of your race, take one step back”