It is four in the morning. Though my hands should be reaching for my blanket to cover myself with and finally go to bed, they find my phone instead. Lying peacefully in bed is a fundamental human right that was stolen from Breonna Taylor when police officers stormed her home and killed her. I can stay awake for another few minutes to sign and spread petitions calling for her justice and an end to no-knock raids. Then, the same must be done for all the Black lives who have been lost to police brutality and who have suffered from our nation’s systemic racism. Hunched over the screen, I look through the names and memorials of victims, educational literature, links to donate and sign petitions,videos of protests, and activists sending essential information to each other through social media. The reality of our country is far worse than whatever nightmare I may have, and my dreams are lacking compared to the awe I have for the activists who are changing the world.
Many of these people are students of our own. Whether it be from the streets of Blacksburg or the replies section of Twitter, students are showing solidarity and making their voices heard, even against those who are louder.
Such is the case for Jimmy Kaindu, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Kaindu sought out to make a long overdue change at our own university.
“Freshman year, I lived in Lee Hall and personally did not find out about the history of such hall until spring semester. I did not think I could make that big of an impact because I was just a student,” Kaindu said. “However, after recent events, it gave me a greater urge to try to make a change. The population of African American engineers is significantly low. With Lee Hall being a STEM dorm, it further discourages the African American engineering community to pursue their career knowing they live in a dorm hall named after someone affiliated with the racial groups like the KKK.”
As the movement to end systemic racism throughout institutions continues globally, students are expanding their learning beyond the classroom and understanding the knowledge of lived experiences.
“Compared to other cities/towns, Blacksburg is fairly secluded,” Kaindu said. “This is where social media heavily comes (in)to play. Each time I log onto Facebook, I get a glimpse of what is happening in the world. Though it isn’t necessarily firsthand, I find social media a key contributor in how I stay informed with current affairs.With the most recent events, there have been several petitions and protests being posted on social media. Watching my fellow brothers and sisters stand up for justice and equality inspired me to do and be better.”
In his endeavors to bring change to the university, Kaindu turned to the same platform in which he found inspiration — the internet.
“Originally, I was never a big supporter of social media. Besides Facebook, I deleted the rest of my social media accounts to better focus on my academics. Having that one platform, however, was sufficient enough to become educated with what’s happening in the world today,” Kaindu said. “Social media can be an immensely powerful tool in spreading information to the extent where I did not even have to leave my house and was able to create a petition and rally up thousands of people.”
Azeez Attar, a junior double majoring in public relations and Arabic, also took to social media to speak out about his concerns for underrepresented groups on our campus. He was inspired by an appreciation for fellow students, his love for Virginia Tech and a hope that the university will continue to make progress so that incoming students can have a better college experience.
“First of all, I am one of many voices in the minority community at Virginia Tech and my letter was a compilation of experiences and grievances from so many others. I am a proud student of my university and I care enough to want to see real change,” Attar said. “I love my school and I want to try my best to help lay the groundwork for new generations of minority students at Tech to enjoy their experience and feel welcome. For any incoming freshmen, I can’t wait for you all to come and understand that, while there are issues, I am here for you and so many others in the community are as well.”
To ensure that Virginia Tech fosters a safe environment for students, Attar sought out to address these issues head-on with school officials online. Attar shared a letter on Twitter in response to the Virginia Tech administration after its statement about the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent news of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers left many questions unanswered.
“My letter was birthed out of pure frustration with Virginia Tech’s response to our country’s recent tragedies. First of all, they were late with their response, which was strange to me considering they had posted a (now revised) ‘A+ rating in Diversity’ on Instagram (and Twitter) very recently,” Attar said. “Secondly, when President Sands did respond, he indicated that students should look at the VT Principles of Community, which I felt was tone deaf considering the University has not stated any direct initiatives to combat the problems that lie within.”
In expressing his thoughts with administration and fellow Hokies, Attar strived to bring our underrepresented communities to the forefront of the conversation among faculty and students as well.
“I hope the VT administration looks at the letter and asks themselves the hard questions that will likely make them feel uncomfortable. Often, Virginia Tech does certain things to appease, but in the process, their lack of real understanding of minorities is glaring. The response on behalf of Sands read like that of a trained public relations professional, and oftentimes, that is the worst way to respond in times like this that require true sympathy and sadness,” Attar said. “Regardless, I know that my letter likely did not find the eyes of anyone significant in administration, but for any students at Tech that read, I pray they will be inspired to ask for similar changes, or gain knowledge of why I felt the way I felt.”
For Attar, this is only one step in his endeavors to make the university and the world a better place for minority groups.
“I personally have used social media to spread information about the Black Lives Matter movement as well as trying to spread ideas and messages that I feel can help a larger audience. But honestly, I’ve just been tweeting how I feel, which is angry, and inspired to make a change in whatever way I can,” Attar said. “Furthermore, I help run social media for SOHHL (Students of Hip-Hop Legacy), a student organization at Virginia Tech, in which I posted donation links, and also called out the University with a similar sentiment I had in my letter.”
The same platform has also been a forum for Attar to learn about different issues and build upon his understanding.
“Social media, especially Twitter, has been very influential for me. I’ve used Twitter since 2013 and I’ve seen the platform grow into what it is today,” Attar said. “Twitter is a great news source if you fact-check, and it is a great way to spread your ideas to other like-minded people. Also, I’ve seen some great tweets that have made me truly question certain societal problems. I’ve reached certain parts of discourse in so many different communities that I would never have access to in my personal experiences, and that is so valuable. Moreover, finding this discourse and scrolling through comments to see both sides is a really effective way for me to test people’s logic behind what they think, and reach my own conclusions. Twitter along with my education has truly sharpened my ability to articulate myself and understand the experiences of others.”
These insights are what inspire Attar’s action. Understanding the struggles that others face is a driving factor in working for change.
“To me, being an activist is about fighting for what you believe in and understanding how power structures impact those around you. It is about finding the power of your own truth and spreading it in the most positive and progressive way possible,” Attar said. “Being an activist does not mean trying to be something you are not or trying to project certain character traits to others for approval or popularity; it’s about doing what’s right in the best interest of others.”
Through all his activism, Attar would like to see true progress both on a national and local level.
“Firstly, I hope the nation is able to recover from the tragic events that have happened, and hopefully incite some real institutional change,” Attar said. “I hope these events inspire people to vote in all elections. If there are more Black people and other minorities in power, from judges to senators, it will be the key to changing the problems that are at the root of the issues facing Black men and women. Lastly, I hope for something similar to what South Africa did with the Truth and Reconciliation commission in order for the country to take steps to right the wrongs of 400 years of oppression to Black people.”
“For my university, I hope they take what has been said by many in the minority community at Tech and try to make things better,” Attar said. “There are many student organizations that are key drivers for diversity and VT shows little to no support for the people doing the groundwork. I want less paperwork to hold events for smaller organizations, I want more funding, and I want more VT (administors) to take notice of the important and essential work that organizations like Students of Hip-Hop Legacy, Black Student Alliance, Ethiopian Student Association, African Student Association, and other clubs under the Black Organizations Council do for diversity at Virginia Tech. Lastly, I want Virginia Tech to invest more money and faculty into cultural spaces at VT similar to the Black Cultural Center.”
Ensuring that improvements are made in our closest environments is especially vital for Attar, and he encourages others to speak up for them as well.
“Your own communities are the most important to try and instill positive change. Although it would be nice to have a huge platform of people to speak to and give your thoughts, many of us are left with much less. That is OK,” Attar said. “The change you can instill in your household, university, or even with a random person you meet is key for fundamental change in this world. Focus on your own communities and ask yourself how you can help them. Lead with love, and you will find your way.”
These young activists are sure to make a difference in the world, and Kaindu is already making one at Virginia Tech. President Sands addressed demands to rename Lee Hall, detailing his plans moving forward.
“I greatly appreciate President Sands for making a statement regarding this issue. For us students and those who want a change, it demonstrates that he cares and indeed listens to the people’s concerns,” Kaindu said. “However, I noticed that he goes on to say, ‘I am asking that we review this issue again.’ I am not sure what else there is to review. I do not think any new evidence will be found on Lee. At this point I think the decision is plain and simple to see. Students and faculty are uncomfortable with Lee Hall and that should be enough for its renaming. Renaming Lee Hall is a very good start for Virginia Tech to display such microcosm. Alternatively, Virginia Tech can also honor minorities who have made a positive impact on the world — for example, Malcom X or MLK. By honoring figures like (them) on campus, it exudes the message that Virginia Tech stands against prejudice and racism.”
Though these movements are currently gaining momentous achievements, activism and advocacy still live on when hashtags are no longer trending. Although Kaindu’s efforts have already been fruitful, there is much more work to be done to establish a campus that serves students of all different backgrounds and skin colors.
“To me, being an activist is someone who promotes positive change in the community. Someone who gives a voice to those who do not think they have one. Someone who willingly serves the community. To me, an activist is someone who does more than advocates for change; they take the next step and take action to promote change,” Kaindu said. “In all honesty, I have never considered myself as an activist until recently. I would hope that my experience could display how anyone could be an activist so long as they are willing to put the effort. Activism is continuous. I will not stop until I reach my goal. I would usually doubt myself on how much change I could make, but this has inspired me to continue advocating for change in the world.”
As the future of the nation, students like Kaindu have their minds set and do not plan on giving up anytime soon.
“Moving forward I want to continue to promote change in the world. There are a lot of issues to be fixed and they seem overwhelming, but I know with the right support any change is possible,” Kaindu said. “I have started to see changes with the protest against police brutality. Moving forward, I want to also make changes with how ICE is treating the immigrants. Kids are being detained and locked up like criminals. I was born in Zambia, Lusaka, and had the opportunity to become a citizen of the U.S. Not everyone gets this opportunity; immigrants come here looking for opportunity just like anyone else. I want to start drawing awareness to how Americans treat immigrants, especially illegal immigrants.”
Now, change is still needed here at this place we’re supposed to call home — Virginia Tech.
“Communities around the world have begun to act and take down symbols that support racism. I want VT to join in this movement,” Kaindu said. “I want VT to also rename Barringer Hall. Paul Brandon Barringer wrote ‘The American Negro: His Past and Future’ and he explored what he described as ‘the Negro problem’ in the South. In this novel, he repeatedly says that African Americans benefited from slavery by reducing their inherent savagery. Barringer goes on to say some of the most disgusting racial views I have ever heard, such as, ‘With the savage, however, there is no self-control, and dishonesty gives theft, anger gives murder and desire rape. This state of being is pathognomonic of savagery; and the African fills the bill.’ With this said, I am confident to say that Virginia Tech does not support such views and ideals. Yes, Virginia Tech honors him for his contributions to the University, however, I believe that when you honor someone, you need to assess both the rights and wrongs from their life’s work. The publication of ‘The American Negro: His Past and Future’ sits heavily on the latter.”
Like many others, he hopes that the university will be an ally in bringing about these changes, rather than an obstacle.
“I want the university to think more about their students and less about their reputation,” Kaindu said. “By renaming Lee Hall, it would demonstrate how the board supports the minority community and how they made an effort to dismiss any discomfort/inequality given to students. Progression at a university can be made in many ways, however, I believe the optimal college campus first starts with an equally treated student body. One step would be to change the name of Lee Hall. Another step would be to name it after Linda Adams Hoyle (class of 1968), the first black woman to graduate from Tech. This would not only make minority students feel comfortable but assure them that Virginia Tech promotes diversity. Virginia Tech failing to respond positively to this petition and its 10,000 echoing voices is Virginia Tech failing its ‘Ut Prosim’ motto towards their colored Hokies.”
Virginia Tech must work for a better future, one where diversity is not seen as statistics for bragging rights, but a fundamental part of our university requiring a safe environment where all are equal. Students are proving to be powerful catalysts for these changes.
“One voice is enough to start a change,” Kaindu said. “When someone speaks up, it encourages others to do the same.”