For the first time in their lives, they are in a room with a group of 60 to 120 people who look like them and have similar issues they want to talk about. This is an experience, says Jamie Ardeña, SCC’s Multicultural Center Program Manager, of some students when they attend the Students of Color Conference (SoCC).
Every year a group of about 20 SCC students attend the SoCC, which is geared towards people of color who go to Washington state technical and community colleges.
This year, as in many years past, the conference was held at the Yakima Convention Center, so on April 6, 23 SCC students and school advisers got on a bus for a couple of hours and drove out to Eastern Washington to spend three days at the conference with about 860 other attendees.
Frank Leon Roberts, an educator and activist known as the “Black Lives Matter Professor,” was the keynote speaker on Thursday..
He spoke about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. According to conference attendee and SCC ASG Policy and Procedure Officer Nida Haque, Roberts’ talk gave her a way to speak about the movement.
Haque wears a BLM pin and says she gets remarks, such as “Don’t all lives matter?” Haque says she has always been offended by this, but had not been sure how to respond so the other person would understand.
In his talk, Roberts said that BLM is a movement that is not segregationist, but affirmational. Haque says he explained that when a group of people who have a long history of being downtrodden are lifted up, they are not the only ones who rise, we are all built up.
Haque also says that Roberts dressed casually, explaining that we have an idea of what looks respectable and we don’t take people seriously if they don’t look like that.
This hit home for Haque, who grew up in Pakistan. She says she has been wondering about the relationship between her own need to look proper and the British colonization of Pakistan and India.
According to Haque, the British only left 70 years ago, and there is a desire among Pakistani people to look proper by emulating whiteness, including using creams and bleaches, and visiting the beach with big hats and long sleeves to avoid tanning.
The first day of the conference also included “Identity Development” sessions, where attendees met in groups based on the demographics with which they identify. In one session, students divided into groups for women, men, LGBTQ+, students with disabilities, and DREAMers/ undocumented students.
The next round of identity group sessions were based on racial and ethnic identities.
SCC student and Black Student Union president Terrance Bishop says the identity groups provided the opportunity for attendees to get to know themselves — they had time to talk in a safe place with other people who have had similar experiences. He says it was also a time when attendees could consider their own areas of privilege.
Azeb Tuji, an SCC student and Event Coordinator for the Arts & Entertainment says these sessions were for people of color to do work to understand themselves better. She says sometimes the group dynamics worked out perfectly and that happened, but not always.
According to Tuji, there were some white-identified people whose schools brought them to the SoCC thinking it would be a learning experience for them. She says some of these students did not use the sessions to learn about themselves, but to listen to groups with whom they do not identify.
Tuji says she finds this troubling because the SoCC should provide a safe place for people of color to learn about themselves, and therefore, they need to let their guards down. So, when people come in without an understanding of things she considers basic, like racism and white privilege, they disrupt the purpose of the conference.
Tuji says that these instances take the conversations away from important issues, like misogyny and homophobia within specific communities, and bring them back to the same topic that people of color constantly find themselves needing to address: white supremacy.
Some attendees mentioned that in the LGBTQ+ session, they wish there would have been a separate space for Queer and Trans People of Color. They said some students eventually broke off into this group on their own.
Ardeña, who identifies himself as a queer person of color says that fifteen years ago, he attended SoCC’s first LGBT caucus, and he feels disappointed that even after so long the space still isn’t quite to the point where all attendees feel safe
Jessica Gonzales, who is SCC’s Program Coordinator for Tutoring Services and attended the conference this year for the fifth time, says this is a topic that some of the 2017 SoCC cohort discussed with her quite a bit.
Gonzalez says she has given feedback about how the conference can be improved, but when dealing with the complicated issues the SoCC addresses, uncomfortable situations will inevitably arise.
Friday’s multiple themes included awareness of others and cross-cultural communication. One of the keynote speakers was Luis Ortega, the founder and director of Storytellers for Change.
Haque says that Ortega’s talk was a very impactful part of the conference. She says she was moved to tears and at first thought she was the only one crying, but came to realize that there were actually a couple of hundred other people, all together, relating to the same story and crying.
Haque says Ortega told the audience about being undocumented and overcoming numerous obstacles to attend the University of Washington.
“His story had so many parts in it that were other people’s (stories),” she says. “It’s like someone has finally said what you’ve been wanting to say and didn’t have the words to say. And I just started crying and so did we all. But it was a good cry. A sad cry and a good cry.”
Saturday was a short day focused on Personal Development.
PJ Deguzman, an SCC student and Peer Navigator, says attendees were able to get into deeper topics on Saturday. He and several other attendees describe these workshops as being similar to 200 or 300 level classes, where the previous workshops were like 100 level classes.
Gonzalez says that the conference means different things to all attendees, and that because it is so complex and dense, they will all be processing their experience for some time to come.
Ardeña says the conference attendees will get together to debrief in the beginning of May, after they have had some time to let their experiences settle in.
After the Conference
Haque says she was a little disappointed when she returned from the SoCC because the rest of the world felt less open-minded. She appreciates that the conference organizers put all-gender restroom signs up over the existing gendered ones for the weekend, which she says made her aware of her cisgendered-privilege. She reflects that on SCC’s campus, it has been a lot of work to get a few all-gender restrooms, and many other campuses won’t even entertain the idea.
On the other hand, upon returning she also feels grateful for the connections she made with other attendees. As Haque and I talked about the conference out in front of the Multicultural Center, several people from the conference came by to say “hi” to her. She pointed out that this sense of community was missing from her life, but she now feels it with the SoCC 2017 cohort.
SoCC is head yearly, and students thinking about attending in 2018 have encouragement from this year’s attendees.
Bishop says the conference is a good experience, and he would recommend it to anybody. He cautions, though, that when coming into the conference, people should expect to meet people with different levels of cultural awareness, or “wokeness.” Even people who seem like they’re woke about some issues, Bishop says, might be less open-minded about other issues.
Tuji points out that being woke isn’t something that just happens, it’s a never-ending process.
Ardeña says that some SCC students, particularly those who attend the SoCC more than one year, come in with a higher level of sophistication around the topics discussed. He says that this is because the students have grown and learned in the past year from the conference, from SCC classes, and other members of the community.
For anyone interested the 2018 SoCC, Ardeña says to look for Facebook posts, information on the Multicultural Center’s website, emails, and posters this fall. He also encourages people to visit the Multicultural Center (PUB Room 9301) to introduce themselves, and let him know that they want to be involved. Or email Ardeña at [email protected].