“You have to build people power”: An Interview with #OurCampus Organizers

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in November 2016 with organizers of the Brown University #OurCampus student walkout, one of many student actions at universities across the nation. bluestockings was not able to publish the interview at the time. However, we think it’s important to publish now, especially in light of Brown’s recent press release about its decision to challenge the executive order on immigration. Brown’s ability to publicize itself as an institution at the forefront of progressive change is a result of student and faculty activism that has consistently been pushing the administration to better serve its most vulnerable communities.

Several days after the #OurCampus walkout at Brown, I was fortunate to be able to interview several of its organizers, all students who worked tirelessly to coordinate an action involving hundreds of demonstrators in under a week. Here named anonymously as A, B, and C, we talked about the action, what brought us to this point, and where activism goes from here.

bluestockings: Just to start, how did you get involved with organizing at Brown, and who or what has been important to you?
A: One of the biggest catalysts for student activism for me was Ray Kelly, my first year. Brown brought the former New York City police commissioner to have a lecture on “proactive policing,” so I was involved with a bit of the organizing of that. Not a lot – I was still a first year. But I was outside in the protests, and I had a lot of people who were then seniors, the class of 2014, who really allowed me to be a leader in that aspect and really pushed my leadership capacity.

But I don’t think it was until the end of my sophomore year – I had friends who had just created Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex (SAPIC) and I got interested in what prison abolition meant.

I spent this past summer working at an organization in Oakland, California that’s about racial and economic justice and anti-mass incarceration, so that’s the conjecture, the main issue that’s been on my mind for the last year and a half. Prison abolition encompasses racial justice, environmental justice, economic justice, queer and trans liberation, immigrants’ rights – all those things to me are inherently embedded in a prison abolitionist ethic.

B: I think for me, I got involved in “activism,” quote-unquote –

A: [laughing] Quote-unquote, that’s the right word.

B: I guess I’ve been involved in quote-unquote “liberation” ever since… just being a queer Indian American, there’s no communal outlet for feeling liberated. So in high school, middle school I’d just do art and writing, and when I came to college I continued with art and writing as the main sources of activism.

The summer after freshman year I worked for Fight for 15, doing labor organizing in Chicago. Before that I went to protests, the Black Lives Matter protests that happened, but I didn’t really organize stuff until I understood independent ventures aren’t gonna do shit, you have to build people power.

C: Prior to coming to Brown, I was attending a community college, working and organizing. I’ve been involved with local community organizing efforts in New Jersey for about five years now, so it’s something that has become part of who I am. It’s something I do out of necessity and love for the people. It’s about believing that people power is stronger than any other institutional power. As an undocumented immigrant with a large network of supportive friends and immigrant rights advocates outside of Brown, it shocked me to come here last year and find very little to no advocacy or support around immigration issues.

So I revived the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition (BIRC) together with a friend, to create that space that other immigrant students and I needed to advocate for ourselves and others inside and outside of campus. Within less than a year, BIRC’s organizing led to a policy change, where Brown now accepts undocumented students as domestic and meets 100% of their financial need, the creation of an Undocumented Student Initiative with paid staff and, overall, the expansion of spaces and support for undocumented students and students with undocumented family members on campus. Organizing works.

bluestockings: How, if at all, did the organizing and demands from last year inform organizing from this year?

B: I was heavily involved in the organizing last year, specifically the Asian American organizing and the South Asian organizing, not the overall one… I think we learned a lot from last year. Mainly with A’s feedback for the [#OurCampus] demands…we just made it more like – label where you want the money to go, because this all has to be about money, because that’s all CPax [Christina Paxson, President of Brown University] can really do. And specific programs you want, like a committee to oversee it, really focused on what effectiveness we could push for.

Because last year we did all this work. At one of the meetings there were at least a hundred people involved in all the organizing…And hundreds of people ended up doing very little, because demands were nice things to have in theory, but they weren’t things that we could accomplish with the power and positions that we had. So I think that this time we learned more about organizing quickly – like, we did this in a week – and we also really concentrated on bringing everything back to the safety of students of color on campus, and their ability to live and feel protected here, and focusing on what the university actually can do and accomplish. And I think focusing on those two things, and really laying it out legibly and digestibly…that’s what we learned.

bluestockings: How do you see that organizing knowledge being passed down from class to class? Because people are cycling in and out so fast, you know?
A: I think it usually happens informally. Folks who have done organizing before Brown and do organizing outside of Brown tend to informally become teachers, in a way, and pass down their knowledge. Like “okay, this is how you de-escalate a situation.” I don’t know if there’s necessarily been an archive of institutional memory in the formal written way, which I do think would be amazing for us to do. Because recently, as I’m leaving Brown, I’m thinking that fundamentally student activism has to be rooted in the fact that we have student power. That’s where the power lies. And so our organizing has to be pushing the university from the standpoint of students who this university is meant to serve.

Even with the action on Wednesday, the criticism has been like “what’s a protest going to do?” But it gets public pressure on the university, like we have mainstream media outlets who are talking about these #OurCampus walkouts. That’s important; people are talking about Brown and calling Brown.

bluestockings: Speaking of media, what do you think of the recent media coverage that’s been coming out? There’s lots of local media coverage, the BDH [Brown Daily Herald] article…
A: That was interesting. At first with the BDH, I thought it was going to be horrible, but it wasn’t as bad, you know? It was pretty good.

B: The Brown University one, that one…

A: That was PURE cooptation. Like how is it that Brown University has not met the 1968 demands of Black students that walked out, and you’re going to co-opt the language and work of organizers to continue this narrative that Brown is a liberal institution, when it can’t even meet demands that are over forty, almost fifty years old? That doesn’t make sense to me. That’s how these institutions run.

And I forgot where this quote came from, but I’ve been thinking about it recently – “The only relationship that one can have with the university is a criminal one.” That we can’t have a relationship with the university that’s not redistributive, that’s not taking up these resources, that’s not subverting this space consistently. That’s how we push for power. Thinking of this university as a positive relationship isn’t going to work anymore.

bluestockings: So given that we always have to be redistributing resources from the university, how do you see this action as connected to struggles and organizing in the Providence community or outside of university spaces?
C: One of the key aspects of our walkout was to stand in solidarity with Movimiento Cosecha and the #SanctuaryCampus Movement. Our action was connected with over a hundred other colleges and universities who also took action on that same day, asking for their campuses to become sanctuary campuses – it was the largest coordinated college protest we’ve seen in over a decade. Cosecha Providence is a group of immigrant community members in Providence, Pawtucket, Olneyville and Central Falls who are also connected to this movement and are working with students from Brown, RIC, CCRI, URI and PC to coordinate actions together outside of campuses as well.

B: With this protest specifically, given the time that we had, plus the fact that we’re students organizing it, we did invite some Providence community members. But we worked mostly for national organizing with Cosecha. They had #SanctuaryCampus, which converted universities to sanctuary campuses, and multiple colleges have already done it. Brown says it’s impossible –

A: Reed has done it.

B: It’s obviously not impossible. Cities have done it… So in terms of that, that was the national organizing. We worked with Cosecha to do that, we coordinated meeting times, like how can we support your movement, what can we do, what messaging? We worked closely with them. And given the time constraints, that was the main organization we were able to work with right away. We hope that we can build #OurCampus to subvert the university in terms of organizing, or be an opening up of the university’s resources.

bluestockings: What are your general feelings about the walkout?
A: That was one of the biggest actions I have ever seen in my time at Brown. I’ve never seen that many people be in solidarity, and so that, to me, gave me some sense of hope, because I’ve been feeling so pessimistic lately. But it gave me – okay, there are many people who feel the way that I do about the injustices of this world, and that’s beautiful to me. And I think that that’s what student activism continues to do – continues to apply pressure to universities to show the world injustices are going on, to use whatever safety and privilege we have here to create a platform for people who are much more vulnerable, or much more marginalized. That’s happened long before this walkout, and will definitely happen long after, because injustices will be still there.

B: That’s what was interesting to me, because we structured the walkout to be anti-white supremacy. We didn’t mention Trump, we didn’t mention Hillary, we made it very clear, like if you’re going to be coming to the walkout, you’re not going to be saying this stuff – we’re going to talk about the deep-rooted structures. And people came out to that! We had a whole bunch of white accomplice meetings in order to get a team of white people who could engage with other white people to de-escalate, and there were like fifty people who showed up. And obviously people still have learning to do, yet the fact that they were willing to show up meant a lot to me. Of course, never depend any of the actions on them, but…

A: Yeah, I found that really powerful. That’s what I hope continues to happen, having subversive relationships with the university. Working against what this university has stood for in the last 250 years, being an institution that’s literally built off of the money from enslaved labor, and the lands of Narragansett peoples.

bluestockings: Walkouts and protests are obviously very visible manifestations of student organizing, and get a lot of coverage and attention, but they’re not always accessible to everyone – and definitely not the whole picture of what goes on behind the scenes with organizing. Can you say a little bit about other forms of activism and what roles they played in this action?
B: Emotional and physical support!

A: Yeah, community care. That’s activism to me. Making sure that the people who are on the front lines are eating and showering – that, to me, is a form of activism. There’s so many other ways. People who aren’t able to stand for four hours who are on Twitter battling with trolls, that is activism – doing that work. People who are writing stuff up and distributing it and sharing it, that’s activism. Because I think it’s very easy to do walkouts and protests for the people who are able to be on the front lines. It doesn’t get at the folks who weren’t able to come out today because they were having horrible mental health days, just weren’t physically able. And I think bringing light and saying thank you to those folks who continue to survive and exist and push is also important. And even people who are subverting their syllabi in classes, and pushing for radical thought to happen, or fighting against white supremacy in the classroom day to day, even if they have nobody around them helping them.

This is probably the first organizing at Brown University where community care wasn’t an afterthought, like “oh, after the fact let’s have community care.” It was beforehand and leading up constantly, calling on various people, people stepping up when other people had to disengage.

bluestockings: Yeah, that’s incredible. Like the very last thing I wrote down was what keeps you in the struggle, what do you do to keep yourself from burning out? Especially since it’s so much sustained labor, and lots of people who organize then end up burning out. What does that look like for you?
B: What keeps me going is that this is what I love, these are the people I love, these are the communities that I want to be in for the rest of my life. So it’s not like activism is a purpose. Activism is a reaction to wanting to be with the community that I want to be with, or being with the people I want to be with… I also just want to find more queer Indian Americans, tell them “hey, we’re out here,” we’re doing activism, you don’t have to live a life of heteronormativity in these rigid Indian roles, there are people out here being queer. I just want to find more of them and be like, get on the streets!

A: I honestly believe that struggle is so beautiful. And the fact that both blood ancestors and people I’ve claimed as ancestors have continued in the face of so much violence to imagine freedom and imagine liberation – to me, it really does feel like my duty to do this work. Because we just can’t give up, like we have no choice. There is no choice to give up in the face of the hella racist rhetoric that’s up today.

And also to me, identifying as a prison abolitionist, identifying as anti-racist, anti-homophobia and transphobia et cetera, is constantly imagining a world where our people are free and able to live without fear. And that, to me, is beautiful and honestly makes me feel the most alive. Being in these spaces surrounded by people who are angry, and walk in love with that anger… I get a rush more than anything else. It’s one of the most beautiful feelings to be at an organizing meeting. There’s nothing like it. It feels like life work at this point.

Edited by Kristine Mar.

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