(opinions) activism

Vigil and Die-In for Those Killed by Police, June 6, 2020.

Over the past few weeks, the world has memorialized the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade alongside the countless other victims of a nation founded in systemic racism.

These tragedies are not isolated events. They have occurred throughout the history of our nation, and their causes and consequences affect the Black community every day. The years of racial profiling, discrimination, prejudice and trauma remain even when the media and politicians shift their focus.

Regardless, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to change the world with every passing week, inspiring others to take a stand in the fight for justice.

Virginia Tech is not exempt from these changes or this fight. This is a call to action that many are eager to answer.

Black Student Alliance Director of Community Outreach Mamai Mulwanda, a junior majoring in political science and economics, encourages new activists to take the first step in becoming a part of the movement.

“(Allies) can educate themselves on the issues and listen to what activists have been saying for years,” Mulwanda said.

A Gloria D. Smith Professor of Africana Studies at Virginia Tech and faculty member of the Department of Political Science, Brandy Faulkner notes the importance of understanding the movement.

“The history of police terror in Black communities is extensive, and it is a very difficult history to talk about and an even more difficult history to experience, and we’re still experiencing it as everybody in the entire world watches. I think sometimes the magnitude of that really does overwhelm me, that we’re all seeing it happen, yet it is not changing quickly enough. That is not to say that some changes haven’t been made, they just haven’t been effective,” Faulkner said.

This delay in progress is explained by Faulker as a misinterpretation or outright neglect of the underlying issues within our country. When understanding how and why prejudice has become rooted in our institutions, we have to reflect upon the fact that society itself has allowed this to happen.

“It’s tough because there are two things going on,” Faulkner said. “We’re looking at a system of policies and procedures (and) laws that have failed and failed miserably in addressing this issue. On the other hand, we’re dealing with the human aspect. Even if we get all the laws right, if we have perfect policies, it is still human beings who are responsible for implementation and actions. Racism is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of so many people that it takes center stage in most of our interactions.”

Because of this, progress is not the responsibility of just our officeholders, but also the everyday endeavors of individuals to hold themselves accountable.

“We have to figure out how not only to make better policies, better laws, better procedures, but how to make better human beings, and I don’t have the answer how to do that, not by any stretch of the imagination,” Faulkner said. “I just know it has to happen, so that’s what makes this problem so incredibly difficult. It is a people problem on the one hand, but it is also a problem of (the) system as well.”

As Faulkner explains, there is no easy or simple solution. Rather, there is much work to be done. 

“We are in so many ways trying our best to use a reform approach, so the perspective generally is that the system works, that the system is a good one, but every now and then things go wrong and when they do, we just need to figure out what went wrong in that particular situation, solve that problem, but then leave everything else in place. What that doesn’t recognize is that systemic problems often are not reformable,” Faulkner said. “Sometimes you really do have to start from ground-zero and rebuild. That takes a lot of time, that takes a lot of effort, and it’s a scary process for so many people when you’re talking about doing things that are so different from the way they’ve always been done. A lot of people will feel scared about that, and that fear stops them from really understanding the ways in which the current system is harmful to others, and it has to stop. There are many layers to this situation and every one of them has to be addressed.”

As these issues are so difficult, people must realize what it means to stand with the movement beyond just posting a black square.

“Ways to be an ally (include) holding yourself and others accountable, educating yourself, and understanding your privilege and (using) it for good,” Mulwanda said. “Avoid sharing traumatic posts, and don’t center your own personal experiences into the narrative. There is so much to unpack when it comes to systemic racism, it can be as little as micro-aggressions or as big (as) Black people dying at the hand of racists which is all important to understand.”

For these very reasons, it is important to listen to and amplify Black voices as they lead this movement.

“There are several ways to get involved,” Faulkner said. “One of the most important things to think about is who is around you. Who is directly affected and what can you offer in that context first? I think that is important because even as we are in the mix of a national crisis with police brutality in the Black community, a long-standing systemic problem, everyday we encounter people who are affected by those things. It’s not something that is in Minnesota, way out there. It’s not something that is in St. Louis. It’s not something that is in Brooklyn. There are people right here at Virginia Tech who are affected by the things that are going on, so in what ways can we recognize that they are affected and then figure out ways to support them? The only way you can do that is by asking. Often, when we talk about allies, we want to come up with a definitive list of strategies that can be applied across the board, and we don’t have that list. It’s always best to look at those who are directly affected and ask them what they need. Sometimes they just need you to understand, so being able to listen, to learn, to engage, and other times, they need your action. Use your voice. Speak out against injustice wherever it occurs. Sometimes they need your resources. That can be your time. That can be your energy. That can be financial. All of those are ways to support, but it’s really about recognizing that there are people who have power and how can we get them to not abuse that power first and foremost, but as well, how can we tap into that power so that we can make systemic change.”

This is something Gina Vandivier, a senior majoring in political science and human development who serves as president of Latin Link, is leading her organization in understanding.

“Latin Link is Virginia Tech's social LatinX organization whose mission is to promote LatinX culture on Virginia Tech's campus through educational and social events while uniting students and faculty of all backgrounds,” Vandivier said. “As a cultural organization, we are dedicated to educating the community not just on our own struggles, but the struggles of others, which is why we are in such strong support of the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘Tu lucha es mi lucha,’ (meaning) ‘your fight is my fight.’  For us, the word ally means fighting alongside the Black community, not just supporting from the sidelines. Although we ourselves will never fully understand all that the Black community has endured, we must lift their voices and be ready to listen. It is not our place to tell members of the Black community how they can or cannot protest, as it is our responsibility to listen, not lecture.”

Likewise, JC Cepillo, a senior industrial and systems engineering major and president of the Filipino American Student Association at Virginia Tech (FASA), and Joy Danielle Santos Villanueva, a senior international relations and history double major and vice president of FASA, led their organization in showing their support.

“The Filipino American Student Association was founded in 1988 and has a main priority to provide the Virginia Tech community with a family, regardless of background, beliefs, sexuality or identity with the intention of learning about Filipino culture and values,” Cepillo said. “As a minority-based organization, the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely important to us as we have zero tolerance on racism or social injustice for any reason. The Black community has faced so many hardships that have never been corrected, and we stand by them as an organization in support and solidarity. We aim to help out all communities and persons of color in combating racism and providing a safe community for each person to thrive in their passions and desires.”

As leaders of their respective communities, these students show other students that they must be proactive to educate themselves on this human rights issue and act accordingly.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is not one you can remain neutral on, as there is no such thing as remaining neutral when it comes to racism and oppression,” Vandivier said. “Sign petitions, research organizations and funds to donate to, listen to Black voices, and educate yourself beyond what's conveniently available to you on social media. Speak up when you hear anti-Black remarks or rhetoric, especially within your own social circles. Have those difficult conversations with friends, family members and classmates, challenging them to think from a different perspective and holding them accountable for what they say and do.”

To carry out this commitment, Latin Link led initiatives to learn more and donate funds in a collaborative effort.  

“We recently raised money for the Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block and the George Floyd Memorial Fund, and are continuing to raise awareness within our LatinX community,” Vandivier said. “We've been encouraging our members to educate themselves on anti-Blackness within our community and will be providing opportunities for our members to learn together by attending informative Zoom sessions and viewing the Netflix documentary ‘13th.’ We will continue searching for ways to support the Black community in any way that we can.”

In listening and providing support to Black voices, these organizations are utilizing their power as a collective for change.

“Working with, organizing with those who are directly affected and figuring out what strategies and tactics can create the desired change,” Faulkner said. “In terms of privilege, typically what I see is that those who do have positions of privilege do have access to resources and there are certainly communities who don’t have that access. So, to the extent that you can contribute resources, that’s very helpful to those who don’t have them. Sometimes you never know what you have until somebody needs it and that’s why it’s so important to talk to those who are directly affected because they might say, ‘Look, I need you to come support this event and it’s a two-hour time commitment.’ You’re in a position of privilege to say, ‘Yes, not only will I show up and support the event, I’ll bring others, so that they can hear or experience what’s going to be said or done in that place.’ Sometimes there are financial resources that people with privilege have access to and they have to be willing to use those resources to support those who don’t have them. Often, that’s difficult for people of privilege to understand that you have things that others need. If you are to be an ally, you must give up those things. The resources cannot be understated.”

Listening to Black leaders is also the best way to ensure that one’s activism is beneficial to the cause.

“You have to remember as an ally that your role is one of support,” Faulkner said. “You must take direction from those who are directly affected by an issue. Sometimes that means you will have to step back, listen to what those who are affected actually want and need, and sometimes it may not be what you think they should want or what you think they actually need, but you have to put that aside … Those who are directly affected are the center and you take your lead from them.”

To ensure that the efforts of these activists and resources last, it is important to understand that this is not a phase, but rather a way of living.

“When the hashtags are no longer trending, allies should continue to educate themselves, have conversations about racism, especially with family members, be anti-racist, and sign petitions, but mostly stay involved because movements like these don’t end quickly,” Mulwanda said.  

This includes continuing the fight here at our very own institution, Virginia Tech. As we return to campus in the fall, it is important that we continue these efforts for a better community. 

“Be an ally in Blacksburg, the same principles apply. Educate yourself by going to events and holding your peers accountable,” Mulwanda said.

Though it may not seem like one voice can make a change, we can collectively call for action through the unity of our communities.

“Find an organization. We must be organized,” Faulkner said. “I know that sometimes this is difficult because we live in such an individualist society and we tend to think that our individual contributions are what changes things, and more often than not, that is not true … There are lots of organizations out there that are doing some significant work, and you have to tap into them. Just do a little bit of background reading on what’s available here in the New River Valley. For example, we’ve got groups like Virginia Organizing that has been working across the state since 1995 to make change in communities, and they’re very effective. Get into organizations that are already doing the work. You don’t have to always reinvent the wheel. There are people who have been working on this for years. Find out who they are and tap into those kinds of organizations, and that’s really where we start to build power as a community to affect change.”

When those bonds are built and we work together, we learn to celebrate each other and, as Professor Faulkner explained, the power of our unity.

“It’s our collective power. It’s our collective work that makes the difference.”

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