Unpacking Practical Activism

Participants attend workshops, presentations about making tangible change

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Practical activism is more than awareness about an issue — it’s doing something tangible and getting involved in a cause, said Biah Almajid, co-lead student planner for the 15th annual Practical Activism Conference.

About 400 students attended the free, day-long conference on Oct. 21 in the College Nine and College Ten Multipurpose Room to learn more about tools for local and global change. The event, hosted by Colleges Nine and Ten and Oakes College, included interactive booths, tabling, spoken word by poetic activist Porsche Kelly, a speech by civil rights attorney and activist Zahra Billoo and 10 workshops about various social justice issues.

Oakland-based spoken word artist Porsche Kelly performs at the 15th annual event. Kelly is a member of Freedom Speaks, a group of artists centered around themes of hope, justice and faith.
Photo by Danielle Del Rosario

Students ran booths about topics such as education inequality, pronouns and food justice. Tabling organizations, including Food Not Bombs, Sanctuary Santa Cruz and the Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center, welcomed attendees to ask questions about their missions and events. By connecting students with different organizations and offering ways to get involved on or off campus, Almajid said, students can learn important tools for change.

“With [the Practical Activism Conference], students are developing ways in which the audience can do something for that issue, whether it’s donating to a cause or signing a petition or going to a certain event or being involved with a student organization,” Almajid said.

After discussing social justice issues in class, Almajid said students frequently feel frustrated and fed up because professors don’t always discuss ways to take action. The conference was a way to take these conversations a step further.

“We really aim to educate folks, not just students, but community members and faculty on these different issues because lots of times we have conversations about these [issues] in classrooms, but they’re just conversations,” Almajid said.

Three students lead a redefining beauty workshop outside of the College Nine and College Ten Multipurpose Room during the Practical Activism Conference.
Photo by Danielle Del Rosario

Workshops focused on topics such as international LGBTQIA+ human rights, the Syrian refugee crisis, Black Lives Matter and climate change. Activist presenters came from campus, the local community, the Bay Area, and one video chatted from abroad. Alongside presentations, workshops consisted of hands-on activities, video showings and open conversation. Colleges Nine and Ten director of academic and co-curricular programs Wendy Baxter explained the colleges created the event hoping it would encourage students to interact with issues they’re passionate about.

“I’d always thought it would be super powerful to have a student-led initiative that happened early in the year that would norm engagement in [the colleges’] themes and student involvement and activism,” Baxter said. “I thought it would set an important tone for incoming students.”

This year’s keynote speaker was Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Billoo was among a team of U.S. citizens who filed suit against President Donald Trump’s first version of the travel ban. As one of the lawyers and protesters, she spent days at the airport opposing the ban. She also gave a speech to thousands at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. and plans to attend the inaugural Women’s Convention 2017 in Detroit, Michigan this weekend.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, speaks at the Practical Activism Conference. When Trump implemented the first travel ban, Billoo provided free legal advice to affected families at the San Francisco International Airport
Photo by Danielle Del Rosario

During her college career at UC Hastings College of the Law, Billoo was involved in the Muslim Student Association and an anti-war organization. Billoo said college can be the perfect environment to start an activist career.

“The time is now. Start as soon as possible. There are so many opportunities,” Billoo said. “And in the same way that college is a training ground in how to work hard and do well in the workplace, college is also a training ground for activism.”

Baxter said aspiring activists should stay committed to the issues they are passionate about, even when things seem daunting. She also said the conference was created to remind attendees of their capabilities.

“We do have power to make change and we all have to do the best we can to move toward a positive world in which socially just practices are central,” Baxter said, “move our country, move our world, move our communities, move ourselves toward more wholeness and positivity.”