One started in verse. One started in prose. One started in song. Tension between student protestors’ silence and campus administration speeches hung heavy over the Quarry Amphitheater during the John R. Lewis College Dedication, as its three keynote speakers were tasked with speaking to a restless crowd.
Siagatonu wrote her first poem at UC Santa Cruz in September 2006 in House Six at College Ten. Now it is known as the Angela Davis House at John R. Lewis College.
Noting their belief that art is the soul of social movements, our histories, our cultures, and our collective liberation, Siagatonu started her poetry with a Lucille Clifton quote.
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
The first-generation queer Samoan poet said that oppression didn’t know what to shoot at first. She stated that the hemline of her skirt was an overactive jury that, “treats her body like a courtroom and her voice box like a closet.” She said she’s still alive because everyone deserves to be treated sacredly, after being put through hell, listening to rhetoric of hate, all the while as the words of her community calls her name in a tongue that they didn’t immigrate here with.
“Most days, I let the trauma write all of my poems. Because saying that out loud on a stage is the first step towards getting help. Because I trust the microphone on a mic stand and an amphitheater full of people before I’ll ever trust the police.”
For her, the stage is a sanctuary and an emergency room.
She’s alive because she watches Oakland pick itself up before new neighbors turn it into a white hipster’s wet dream. She’s alive because no one can see the difference between Iraq and East Oakland, or Southside Chicago or South Central. Because her poetry students have to go to funerals more times than class, talking about the biggest fear of most of her friends is raising a Black child in a joke of a justice system.
She listed those we’ve lost in the past decade: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aretha Franklin, Maya Angelou, Whitney Houston, Nipsey Hussle, Toni Morrison, John R. Lewis, and many more.
“I hum my poetry at half mast because we artists of the revolution know that we are on borrowed time, using borrowed words, watching our leaders turn ancestors in our life. I’m still alive y’all. Because whatever wants me dead, does not know that you cannot kill somebody who isn’t afraid anymore,” Siagatonu said.
Being a College Ten student is where she first became radicalized against oppressive systems. There, she fell in love with the words of queer Black feminists like Audre Lorde and June Jordan.
In doing so, it taught her one of the greatest lessons she’s learned — what she says in her poems must be aligned with how she moves in the world.
“It’s not that school teaches us how to think critically, it teaches us what to think critically about,” Siagatonu said. “To answer the highest calling of my heart and stand up for what I truly believe, like John Lewis asked of us, requires me to remain principled by my values. Values that I crystallized and gained from being a student activist, organizer, and poet here on this campus.”
Cole bounded up to the podium with enthusiasm, and immediately demanded the same of the crowd.
“I’m coming all the way from D.C., so I’m gonna need some energy,” Cole said.
The Oakes alumnus reveled in the return to his alma mater, driving home the idea of student power. He began his time at the microphone by having all students and alumni stand.
He then turned to the concept of “Ubuntu,” a South African phrase about collectivism.
“Ubuntu is a South African principle, that means I am because we are. I exist because we exist. And we exist because I exist,” Cole said. “The collective power that’s in this room is absolutely necessary.”
Cole has seen that power win too. As National Director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth & College Division, Cole has seen the collective power win on a national scale. Students were encouraged to win their local battles to form nationwide narratives.
Such an ambitious vision for organizing wasn’t inevitable though; when Cole first came to campus he expected to be a bookworm, studying chemistry and keeping his head down. But not at UCSC.
“I talked about my experience of Santa Cruz as really learning the words to describe my experience as a Black man in America,” Cole said. “I was able to build power through solidarity. And I was able to learn to love myself as a Black man.”
It started in Oakes, where Cole became a neighborhood assistant for the Biko House and recruited Black students for the Rosa Parks African American Theme House. Cole joined the Afrikan/Black Student Alliance, now known as the Black Student Union (BSU), their associated dance troupe, and the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) as a means to perform, develop skills, and be in community.
STEM spaces weren’t always as welcoming for Cole, often seeing only a few Black students in large lecture courses and feeling disrespected because of his background and home in Oakes.
“[There is] this assumption about the people who come and the quality of students who live in that space,” Cole said. “So for my Black STEM majors, I see you, I see what you’re doing. I see you working. Thank you for holding it down.”
Cole’s most transformative moment as an organizer was the summer between his sophomore and junior years, when he attended the Students of Color Conference and began to build solidarity networks across California.
Learning from his comrades at other UCs, Cole began to carve out more spaces for Black students. That summer culminated in a spontaneous protest of George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, where Cole organized a student march from the Quarry to Downtown Santa Cruz.
From Huey P. Newton’s graduation on the Oakes lawn, to Angela Davis’ support of the youth, to John R. Lewis’ own legacy being enshrined, Cole called upon UCSC’s deep activist history as both inspirational and instructive.
Yet, the powerful history of UCSC has done no favors for campus organizers. In such a tenuous moment, Cole asked the UC administration to listen.
“The students are speaking, but are you listening? At this moment in time, we have to make sure this is not performative. But it’s transformative.” Cole said. “Transformation means to me that we are showing people about their power, that we are changing real people’s lives, and that we’re building strong lasting institutions of power. Again, the demands of the BSU students must be met.”
Cole then introduced “one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our generation.”
LaTosha Brown began by singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” confidently belting each verse across the amphitheater. Students hung onto every note from the organizer and founder of Black Voters Matter.
“I think that it’s really important for us to recognize the power of art and activism,” Brown said. “It’s also important for us to recognize that sometimes we have to hear things that make us feel a little uncomfortable.”
Brown began by centering students and encouraging those protesting that they were playing their part in the democratic process, thanking the students for their activism and their created discomfort.
“We need young people to push us, actually, so that we can go to our best selves,” Brown said. “Those of us who have been seasoned, who are around, it is our responsibility to lift that up so that all voices are heard in this space.”
Discomfort was key to Brown’s speech as she encouraged the assembled students, faculty, administration, and elected officials to courageously lean in rather than shy away. Brown called for each person to take responsibility for creating the present moment and improving it.
She then settled the crowd, first encouraging them to close their eyes before asking two questions:
What would America look like, without racism?
What would this university look like, if all that were here, the students, the faculty, the employees, that every single human being felt valued and respected?
Rather than immediately answer the two herself, Brown opted to ask one more query, this time far more rhetorically.
“Name one thing that has been brought into existence, in the physical realm, that wasn’t first envisioned,” Brown demanded. “There is nothing that can be brought into existence that has not been envisioned. If we’re not envisioning a world without racism, then we’re spinning our wheels, we’re not serious.”
That envisioning, the radical re-imagining of what this country ought to look like, is central and necessary to Brown’s successful approach to organizing.
Brown also rejected the rigid identitarianism that has come to define modern politics.
“I believe righteousness is as righteousness does. So we literally want to change the world. To me, it’s not about your politics, it’s about your humanity,” Brown said.
Humanity and love quickly became the focus of Brown’s remarks, framing politics and protests as acts of love rather than anger. This approach is contrasted against the mean culture that controls American politics, and society as a whole.
“What’s wrong with a little love?” Brown said.
Brown didn’t choose this work either; love was a calling, and couldn’t be ignored. Brown and Lewis come from similar backgrounds, both hailing from rural Alabama. She criticized the desire for conformity of thought as a means for securing peace and justice, noting how often our own opinions change on a dime.
“Our challenges, we have not learned the art of holding space for each other and our differences, while we literally acknowledge and honor each other’s humanity,” Brown said.
Brown directed this statement to the crowd, asking them to see each others’ humanity before going forward. Brown then turned her focus to the university administration.
“I’m hoping that the administration is paying attention to this moment,” Brown said. “I may not be invited back and that’s okay. But I’m hoping they understand that I’m coming in the spirit of truth and love. There’s so much that can be broken open in this space. So as I’m seeing students, when folks are protesting, that is normally a sign that they’re not being heard.”
Brown’s call to action — share the space and the decision-making. She then turned to the five Vs:
Vision, voice, values, vote, and victory — each a core tenet of organizing.
Brown came back to love as an ending point, asking more tricky questions that left the audience confused.
“What would politics look like, if we centered the love of humanity? What would this campus look like? If we centered the love of humanity? What would your household look like If you centered the love of humanity? That’s the vision that I believe in. That is the world that I am fighting for.”