Speak Out and Listen In: Hundreds of Students Openly Discuss Discrimination in a Social Justice Context

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Angela Markwith & Katie Ward
Staff Writers

Clapping, weeping, laughing, snapping, hissing — students, faculty, and audience members did not hesitate to make their opinions known at last week’s day-long event, Speak Out and Listen In: A Teach-In On Building Community Power.

Speakers including Clarence B. Jones — former political advisor, counsel, and draft speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. — stepped in front of an audience of hundreds of students, faculty, and community members on Feb. 24 to speak about the injustices African Americans currently experience. He was accompanied by fellow commentators from the San Francisco Police Department, founders of community organizations, USF Faculty, and student leaders.

Professor Candice Harrison spearheaded the day’s events, held in the McLaren Conference Center, and felt an obligation to educate on the topic at hand. “Personally, as the Director of African American Studies and a member of Critical Diversity Studies Board, I felt I had a responsibility to act and become involved in the planning of the teach-in,” she said.

The day had an extremely successful turnout, but to Harrison, this was no surprise. “The office of Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach handled all of the event publicity and clearly did an extraordinary job,” she said.

One common theme throughout the day’s discussions was police brutality in the United States. Dr. Danny Gascón, a panelist for the “Race, Violence, and Power” session, spoke in detail about the ineffective implementation of costly, malfunctioning police body cameras. “No camera has ever stopped a bullet.” He also commented on the historic nature of American police brutality: “Cameras do not change that culture.”

Harrison added, “We had spent the entire day discussing the loss of human lives at the hands of police and working to educate and empower students to speak up and out against injustices.” The debate on police brutality rose again during the final session, when senior Alejandra Mojica challenged Police Chief Greg Suhr to discuss police abuse and discrimination in the Bay Area.

The teach-in was composed of five different segments, all of which were created so that the USF community could come together to freely speak out against the injustices against African Americans.

A notable moment of the opening session was a remark from University of San Francisco President the Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J.: “Let us be bold to look at the ugly side of our society.” The rest of the opening session consisted of speakers who reflected on the racism and discrimination evident in America, such as the shootings of John Crawford, Alex Garner, and Michael Brown.

The second session, a “Student-Led Speak Out,” consisted of several speeches and a discussion where students were urged to voice their personal reactions to the systemic violence committed against people of color in both broader society and our local communities. Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter and Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was running late for her session. To fill time, Alejandro Covarrubias, Assistant Director of the Intercultural Center at USF, gave an impromptu speech to warm up the audience.

After the student-led speak out, Garza continued the discussion of injustice and the importance of speaking out against it. “I started #BlackLivesMatter in order to reaffirm my own humanity,” stated Garza.

Garza explained that although all lives do matter, her hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created because unfortunately we do not live in a world where black lives do seem to matter.

What Garza made very clear to the USF community was that her mission and purpose was not to fight the police, but rather to establish full and fair employment for everyone, education for all, and fulfilling the basic needs of everyone.

“My mission is to create a world where everyone can thrive,” stated Garza.

Between Covarrubias and Garza, student speakers volunteered to discuss either injustices that they had personally experienced, or injustices that they were enraged to have seen on the news and social media. Each student spoke regarding the common theme of injustice and our duty to put an end to it.

President of Queer Alliance and junior Nico Cabanayan, was the first student to speak about his own personal struggles with injustice.  Although he himself was a victim of injustice, he was hopeful for change. “I am hopeful that we can come together as a community and fight out against injustices in our community,” stated Cabanayan.

Junior Kay Nilsson, spoke with passion regarding the injustices that students face each day in the classroom.  Nilsson made the claim that when students who face adversity are not included in history books, students are not being taught about equality. “When I am not in the book, you are telling me I cannot write the book,” he said.  Nilsson also urged teachers to be more expansive and thoughtful about the diversity of their students in the way that they teach. “When we put each other in the curriculum that we are being taught, we change the way that we see each other,” remarked Nilsson.

Throughout the whole day students felt a sense of school pride.  “My school pride comes from being able to speak out against injustice,” said Junior Patrick Rabago.

During the third session, a series of panelists gave speeches on their views of the subject at hand. The segment followed a similar break-out style format, with varying speakers and topics in different areas of the McLaren Complex. In one of the sessions, entitled “Race, Violence, and Power,” seven professors spoke powerfully on the central topic of the day. Politics Professor James L. Taylor received significant audience feedback with his profound remarks: “The dream has been rejected. The dream was answered with a bullet in [MLK’s] right cheek,” and in relation to the evolution of African American oppression, “I argue that slavery had babies.”

There were several “Activity Hour Programs” during USF’s dead hour, which varied in mood and subject. During USF Word: Student Spoken Word Performance, students such as senior Alejandra Mojica “utilized poetry as a means to engage in dialogue and healing with each other.” These sessions used emotional poetry to open a discourse on discrimination of all genders, races, and orientations. Attendees could also participate in the Cultural Centers’ “Tree of Life: Honoring Those We Have Lost and Finding Hope For the Future” session, during which they could pin leaves on a large papier-mâché tree in the lobby of the McLaren Complex. Participants’ messages related to the overall theme of the day’s events, such as “Liberty and Justice for all.”

The day’s events were ultimately considered a success.  The USF community was able to come together, and the discussion served as a healthy gathering with diverse faces and opinions. Harrison concluded, “As an educator, I knew I had to help create a space for members of our community to unravel fact from fiction in the media, learn more about the systemic roots of the problems that had led the deaths of men like Michael Brown, Alex Nieto, and Eric Garner, and begin to craft solutions to these persistent problems. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues such as Pedro Lange-Churión, Mary Wardell Ghiraduzzi and Fr. Fitzgerald who felt the same sense of responsibility and urgency to create this event.”

Photo Credit: Shawn Calhoun

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