Would you mind just telling me about yourself and how you got involved with African Black Coalition?
I grew up in Oakland in a really Nigerian family. I went to high school in Oakland and then I went to Cal. And while I was at Cal the BSU was active while I was there, but they didn’t really do anything. So I started getting heavily involved in the Black community when I moved into Afro House, which is the Black co-op on campus. Doing a lot of organizing with them was awesome, but before then I did a lot of Black Queer organizing on campus, and I facilitated the groups that we had there, through the Gender Equity Resource Center.
Then I moved into Afro House and it was great because I had the chance to work with a lot of people on organizing around different things, but also around the Black community. Then I studied abroad the summer after my junior year, a couple summers ago, and while I was there, Michael Brown was murdered…
I came home and shortly after, the non-indictment dropped, and I remember feeling anxious and powerless and really hopeless. Then I got together with other Black people, and we put together a healing space the day after—we all agreed that we had to do something. And there were a lot of people who were feeling this angst. So after really long nights we put together an action—we did an action on campus and it was amazing. There were hundreds of people, there was all this media, and what we did is we shut down the main eatery in the middle of campus for four and a half hours.
It was a beautiful space. Mostly I think it was about communicating that this shit is not okay and we’re not going to stand for it, but also bringing people in the Black community together who hadn’t necessarily felt like they were involved in the Black community or felt like they were welcome in the Black community. So that was the most beautiful part for me. After that there was this little cadre of Black students who were all about direct action, and I feel like that’s the best way for me to heal. So we kept going. We got bigger and we got better. We learned lessons about what not to do and what to do, and how to put a liaison on police so that people are safe.
It was about communicating that this shit is not okay and we’re not going to stand for it, but also bringing people in the Black community together who hadn’t necessarily felt like they were involved in the Black community or felt like they were welcome in the Black community.
And then I got involved in ABC, because a lot of the same people that I was organizing with then, are part of ABC now. For an organization, it’s really important for me to feel comfortable with the actual people—not just the mission statement but the actual people—and make sure that we’re on the same level. I love the people I organize with in ABC, I love ABC’s mission and what we’re doing, and the work that we have done and are continuing to do.
You said that when you got to campus you found that BSU wasn’t really doing anything; were you involved in activism before you got to college? Is this something that your family is into or did you just get into it yourself?
It’s actually the opposite, my family is not into me doing activism at all. My dad thinks I should just vote. [Laughs.] My dad called me and said, “I saw you on the news today.” I was like, “Whoops!” [Laughs.] It’s been a process trying to enlighten them about what’s going on. I think with a lot of African immigrants it’s easy to play into this notion of, “I don’t understand, I work so hard to come here and get my education,” and there are all these Black people in the United States who have this opportunity and aren’t doing anything with it”…So, it’s been a journey. And I think a lot of times in the movement people get surprised that I am African or first-generation Nigerian in America, and are like, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this, this has nothing to do with you,” but that doesn’t make sense to me because it has everything to do with me.
If your family is not on that wavelength, what made you start to get involved in this stuff?
I think just learning about my history. Political education is really important to me, so that’s the majority of what I do, because I think when you teach people what’s happened and what we’ve come through, automatically you feel this sense of strength: “Damn, this is what the people who I descend from have been through, and made it through,” but also, “This is what has been inflicted upon my people.” Once you learn about that, there’s no way you can go back to not knowing it, and there’s no way that I can know what I know now and not do what I do. So I think political education is really important because once you teach somebody what has been inflicted upon them, they can get angry and do something with that emotion.
What is the work that the Afrikan Black Coalition is doing? It seems like there’s a lot.
I can talk directly about what I’m doing and then talk about a few other projects we’re working on. I’m part of the Political Bureau for Afrikan Black Coalition, and Afrikan Black Coalition in general is a statewide organization—we organize primarily with college students all throughout the state, so all the BSUs from the [University of California system and the California State University system].
One of the major projects is a demands process on every campus, so that means the Black students getting together and doing research about what they need on campus to make it a better environment for Black students. That means Black mental health workers, that means endowment funds—basically, making the campus better for the Black students that come after us. Another thing that we do is political education: we’ll go and speak to folks around the issues that pertain to our people.
Once you teach somebody what has been inflicted upon them, they can get angry and do something with that emotion.
We also do direct actions; I’m the Director of Field Operations, so direct action is me, that’s what I do. We also have our Department of Operations so that we can be independent. And we also have a community program going on in West Oakland right now as well as working in a continuation school in West Oakland that’s primarily Black, doing political education and support. Basically, we are trying to expand and doing everything that we see there’s need for in the Black community for elevation.
That sounds very comprehensive.
Could you talk about what kinds of things the group sees Black students needing on campus? One of the things I’m interested in is trying to figure out is what the ideal experience is for a Black student on a college campus, and it seems like you guys have definitely done a lot of research into that. What kind of things have come through?
I think we don’t necessarily frame it as “What is the ideal experience?” but we know that a lot of the experiences that Black people are having on college campuses right now aren’t ideal, so we’re working to go up against those experiences—people being pushed out of their majors and pushed out of classes, and all of this, just isn’t right.
How and why are people being pushed out of their majors, for example?
Me, for example, I was a Biology major, and there were people just being like—counselors or coaches, if they were athletes, being like, “Well, are you sure you want to do this?” Or, “Maybe you should just do this easier major,” and being encouraged to take classes that people find not as challenging because they don’t expect them to be able to complete their work. Or people who fail classes and are willing to retake them but people are just like, “Well, maybe it’s just too hard for you,” or “Maybe you shouldn’t do this,” and playing into the imposter complex that people already have.
I was just reading an article in The Atlantic that talked about how a lot of Black people are not ending up in high-paying careers because they are not encouraged to pursue them in college and they don’t have counselors that are showing them the options of what things they should major in, in order to get them a salary that will help them build wealth. It’s kind of amazing, all the different ways and influences that stop Black communities from elevating themselves.
Right, exactly. And then there’s also the social/racial tension between everyone—the racist things that happen on campus, and people who just want to test the boundaries of what’s okay to do. At a predominantly white institution, racial tension and racial incidents are really common. Some people have blocked it out and are used to them; some people like us will address it every time, because silence is seen as complacency by a lot of people.
Are there any campus policies that some of the school groups are trying to work on to prevent those kinds of microagressions and those kinds of tensions on campus? Are you seeing any diversity training-type initiatives?
Yeah. At some of the predominantly white institutions there are Vice Chancellors of Equity and Inclusion, and that’s a recent change to policy that is meant to address that type of thing. But also, the entire UC system divested from private prisons, and that’s a policy that directly feeds into the exploitation of our people, so that was a really big deal for us, and we knew it was going to be a fight, but we just achieved that at the end of last year.
I know how exciting that feels because Columbia just divested, too.
Yeah! So congrats to you, too!
The last thing I wanted to talk to you about is…How important is free speech as a right on a college campus in comparison to or tied together with all the other responsibilities that a college is supposed to carry out for its students, like education? I’m interested in thinking about how the various demands that are coming from different Black student organizations bump up against what a college is “supposed to do.” I was wondering if you would be able to go a little bit more in-depth about the importance of political education for American citizens in general or minority groups in particular.
My framework is mainly in political education because I see a large importance for that. But I think a lot of people put a lot of energy into trying to get folks’ attention…Some people are trying to appease people in power so that they will give them freedom, but they don’t hold freedom, or they don’t hold what we want. So a large part of direct action is speaking to our people. That’s the main audience when we do a direct action because otherwise you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. When we did activism on campus, we were talking to the Chancellor, but moreso ,we were talking to other Black people on our campus [and] on other campuses so that they can do the same thing to exercise their voice as Black people…the main thing for the demands process for me was to make the campus better for folks that came after, but also speak to Black people on other campuses to do the same thing…
A little earlier I talked about institutional racism and how people are just getting that as a concept, and believe that once you stop doing what was deemed institutionally racist, then everything is equal again. But you have to reinvest resources into what you were oppressive against.
Some people are trying to appease people in power so that they will give them freedom, but they don’t hold freedom.
One of the big things that the Black Lives Matter movement did was put the struggles that Black people go through every day in the forefront. In this time [period], administration—whether you’re white or otherwise—you can’t deny what’s going on and what inherently affects the Black students on your campus because you are located in the United States. As an administration you cannot just take a passive role—“Well, I’m not personally racist so everything’s fine.” When you see racial incidents happening on your campus or when you see Black people openly complaining about things that are not okay on campus, [you have to do] something about it. Having face-to-face conversations, but doing something after the conversation, having planned steps. It was really a struggle to work with our administration who was in denial about a lot of things, and I think that’s oftentimes the case. But I think the role of administration needs to be a lot more hands-on—as it would be if the same situation was happening to a different racial group.