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“We’re just students fighting for other students”: the Ujamaa Collective works to dismantle racism at Carleton

As Carleton and the nation reeled from the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, leaders of the Black community on campus knew they had to unite in a new way to create the change they wanted to see. Thirteen Black students came together to form the Ujamaa Collective, an activist group dedicated to making Carleton a safer and more accepting space for students of color. 

The central focus of the Ujamaa Collective is a nine-page list of demands for the College to “promote our safety, our intellectual and social viability, and our overall well-being.” Since its founding, the Collective has held several meetings with top administrators and made clear their desire for direct and immediate action to make Carleton a more anti-racist environment and support the Black community on and off campus. 

Ujamaa consists of leaders from the Black Student Alliance, African and Caribbean Association, Men of Color, the Africana Studies Department, Black Femmes Collective, and Dark Humor. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many of the organizations had independently mobilized responses. “There was a lot of overlap in what we were doing, and we didn’t want to recreate the wheel,” explained Jevon Robinson ’22. “In the past, the Black student orgs did collaborate but not to this extent.” They created Ujamaa as a group specifically dedicated to addressing racism on campus, through their list of demands, and supporting the protests and the wider Black community through T-shirt sales on their website.

Like the Black Student Alliance, its preceding umbrella organization, Ujamaa Collective aims to foster connection and establish mutual support networks. “We wanted to create a support system for each org so we can better ourselves as organizations and create a more unified community,” explained Hermela Shiferaw ’23.

So far, several demands from the original list have been fulfilled. The College scheduled anti-racism training for security officers at the beginning of the school year and invited prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore to speak at a Convocation in October. 

Given the urgency of their demands, the members of Ujamaa expressed frustration that they have only seen action on a handful of items, and slow action at that. Diaraye Diallo ’23 said, “we come with blueprints for the things we want, with research and evidence and surveys about the facts we deal with and how it can be adapted, and they are just taking their sweet time.” She said the Carleton administration has been reluctant to accept some of their primary demands, such as the formation of a Black Center as a social space for Black students to come together. 

“It’s been frustrating,” said Raba Tefera ’21 of the administration. “They say they care, but their actions do not match their words.”

Josh Angevine ’21 said that meetings with administrators can often feel like a run-around designed to wear them out. He said, “When we meet with them, they can steer the conversation in a way that they want. Stevie P. or some other representative would say something that they wanted to talk about and ignore what we brought up that they didn’t like.” 

Some of Ujamaa’s goals relate to more subtle aspects of campus culture, said Robinson, and those have been particularly hard to change. He pointed to the phrase “with everything going on,” which professors and students used to describe the events of last term. “Black students don’t have the privilege to decide whether to talk about these ideas or not, and to oversimplify them as ‘everything going on’ is not productive” Robinson said, noting that the language continues today. Such differences in the Carleton community’s attitude toward issues of racism are not outlined concretely in the list of Ujamaa’s demands, but Robinson noted that it is nevertheless a crucial area to improve.

A day in the life of a member of the Ujamaa Collective is full, too full, they say, to add the task of reforming an entire institution to the usual hustle of the Carleton term. They have effectively written a comprehensive anti-racism action plan for the College, while organizing their own student groups and extending emotional support to one another during a stressful time. None of their work thus far has been compensated financially. 

“We were told that the advocacy and the fight we are doing for our lives is of educational value,” said Diallo, though she added, “I’m not here to educate people, they are. That’s their job.” This is no ordinary volunteer opportunity, she said. “Our peers do not have to spend the entire summer mobilizing, writing papers, writing blueprints, fundraising, creating social media posts, and organizing on top of  internships, on top of jobs, and dealing with the pandemic that is killing Black people, and being Black in America in general.” If they cannot themselves be paid for their work, she and her co-leaders said that they need to see someone else hired to take over in the near future. 

“Even over the summer alone, we had a lot of people just get burned out before school even started,” Angevine said, noting the sheer amount of time required to make Ujamaa happen, in addition to the intensely emotional nature of the work. Robinson spent his internship lunch breaks working on Ujamaa and worked to make time “because the Ujamaa stuff had to get done. I feel like all of my personal time, except maybe like two hours, goes to Ujamaa in some shape or form.”

Robinson and Diallo say the Alumni Council and Alumni Relations have been two of their strongest partners. They supported Black Student Association’s care package project and spurred progress by lighting the fire under the administration. “The administration didn’t care until the alumni wrote a letter that they were pulling out their money.” 

“Seeing support from professors, faculty and staff is nice,” said Shiferaw. “Someone’s listening, someone’s caring.” 

Even with alumni and faculty backing them up, Ujamaa leaders say their biggest support network is each other. “A good chunk of our time is spent checking on each other, making sure that everyone is good enough to keep going,” said Robinson.

Angevine said that while all the support from the wider Carleton community has been heartening, real improvement “has to start with the people with the most power being truly accepting of what we feel like we need to see change and listening to the voices of their students. Once the top can finally understand that change needs to happen, then it will be a place that is more accepting for POC.” 

A big priority for this term, Robinson said, is converting the current Community, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee into a Diversity and Inclusion office that would ideally hand the work that they started over the summer to a team of professionals and student workers who are trained and paid. 

The members of Ujamaa remain hopeful that Carleton can improve. “We wouldn’t be putting up with all the stress and anxiety if we didn’t think that Carleton can actually become a better institution.” said Robinson. Angevine added, “It’s a fight we’ll have to continue even after we’re gone. Alumni have played a big part in opening my eyes to that.”

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