Reimagining Change Through Activism

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Eleven years after its founding, the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) is bringing its annual conference back to its birthplace, UC Santa Cruz, to welcome around 500 UC and other university students for a weekend of community and activism.

For many students, ABC is an avenue to advocate issues affecting the black community. Wisdom Cole, an organizer of this year’s conference and co-chair of the African Student Union (ASU), emphasized the value of meeting other students who are interested in activism and enacting change on their campus and in their community.

“ABC conference is important because it’s one of the only times a year for black students to come together from all of the UCs,” Cole said.

The creation of ABC in 2003 as one of the only systemwide collectives for black students, inclusive of African-American students, students from the African diaspora and African Caribbean students, formed in response to low admission and retention rates, as well as incidents of hate and intolerance across the UC — issues still prevalent today.

Total enrollment for the UC during fall 2012 reached 238,686 students. Four percent were African-American, compared to 33 percent Asian and 30.5 percent white, according to UCSC admissions.

For UCSC, the academic year average for 2012-2013 for the graduate and undergraduate population was 2 percent African-American/black, compared to 40 percent white.

The conference invites student leaders from the African-American/black student organizations in the UC system to collaborate from Feb. 14-17. This year will also include a number of California State Universities and private universities, including CSU Monterey Bay, CSU Long Beach, University of Southern California and Mills College, an all-women’s college in Oakland, Calif.

Organizers of this year’s ABC conference said unifying black students across campuses is increasingly important considering the underrepresentation at the higher education level and the lack of black tenured faculty.

“Our diversity is not in true numbers,” said registration coordinator and ASU co-chair Shadin Awad. “[Black students] are not being retained. It’s telling when we can go days without seeing another black person. ABC changes that for one weekend.”

Recent statistics show of 111 African-American/black freshmen who entered in 2008, 46.8 percent  and graduated before the fall of their fifth year. On the other hand, of 1,895 white students who entered in 2008 graduated within four years at a rate of 58.8 percent.

According to a 2013 report posted on the UCSC undergraduate education website, students of color are retained at the upper division and graduate level at lower rates than white and Asian students.

Meanwhile, 2 percent of UCSC faculty is African-American/black, compared to 61 percent white, according to the July 2013 report by the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

ABC opens up dialogue about these types of issues at all the campuses, vital for campuses that desperately need it such as UC San Diego, Cole said. With a black population of 2 percent, UCSD has the lowest enrollment of African-American/black students of all the UCs.

“We want ABC to expand across the nation,” Cole said. “It brings so many communities together. UCSD has a black population of [2 percent], but ABC sparked involvement in that community.”

This year’s theme, “Re-imagining Black Activism,” gives students a chance to redefine what it means to be an activist by evaluating the history of black activism — both its present and future.

There are few black activists for students in this generation to look up to, which is why creating a strong community is so vital, said ABC organizer Jocqui Smollett.

“In our generation we don’t have people to look up to,” Smollett said. “We’re forced to look up to our peers. Those are our mentors. People in our generation have no presence of black activism. ABC is a place to reignite black activism.”

Workshops focusing on innovation regarding black activism, a panel of new and past activists, keynote speakers, a graduate and professional school fair and many other networking and community building events give students a chance to refresh their ideas about activism and create change within their communities. Students may focus on retention, outreach, health disparities and the school-to-prison pipeline, which is the recent trend of funneling youth from public schools into juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The conference’s speakers include Angela Davis, a political activist, educator and author; Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party; Attallah Shabazz, an activist and the daughter of human rights activist Malcolm X; Marc Lamont Hill, an activist and associate professor at Columbia University; and poets Yazmin Watkins and Javon Johnson.

Second-year and ABC conference logistics coordinator Amber Austin said being involved in the African/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA) community gave her leadership skills as well as a second family.

“Constantly being surrounded by people who understand what it’s like to be black at a university and who have the same goals of success and are willing to lift me higher when I need it most, is one of my main motivations for retaining myself [at the university],” Austin said.

Workshops and programs coordinator Tiana Jimmerson became involved in A/BSA as a freshman and now, in her third year, serves as president of Black Sisters United, one of A/BSA’s umbrella organizations. Jimmerson spoke of the connections she made through being involved.

‘“A/BSA has always given me the community I’m used to,” Jimmerson said. “It’s nice to be surrounded by the people who look like you, and to be provided a space for us to connect on the same level. They’re not just friends, they’re family. A/BSA has always been a good supporting backbone.”

Excitement about ABC has been brewing since last February at the previous conference, when UCSC students put their bid to host this year’s conference. The 11 core members began planning immediately, bulldozing through the summer and reaching full speed now, with only a little over two months left.

Several units have funded the ABC conference so far, including the associate Vice Chancellors from across the UCs, the Committee in Ethnic Programming, Core Council, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, several college senates, the Dean of Students office and the Student Union Assembly.

However, the planning is only halfway done as the date approaches for conference organizers to reach their fundraising goal to coordinate 500 students for a weekend and foster a space for change and activism within their community.

“I learned there’s nothing wrong with making my community and my identity a priority,” said registration coordinator and ASU co-chair Shadin Awad. “For far too long we haven’t put ourselves first. We should be empowered in our community.”