I decided to run for president of my institution’s Black Graduate Student Association.
Spoiler alert: I won.
My friends went through a range of responses, from being anxious about how much stuff I already do to referring to me immediately as “Madame President.” Some folks thought it was a snap decision, while my Dad said, “Well it’s about time.”
The truth is, I’ve been in a growth process surrounding Black student organizations since I was on Black Student Alliance’s board at UVA seven years ago. I served there for one year, and due to my declining mental health, I quit the summer before my third year.
And as much as I’d love to contribute my decision to leave that space solely to my mental health, I also had a hard time with the way men’s voices were privileged, the “in-groupness” of it all and what I felt, at the time, was a performance of activism. I felt like there wasn’t space for me, not realizing that I had the agency to make space for myself.
So I left.
Still, the imprint of my time there remained. I stayed in touch with a fourth year who had also been on BSA and went on to pursue a doctorate in English, and she became a huge resource for me throughout my graduate school journey. It showed me the beginnings of what I would come to understand as a number of interwoven Black communities, rather than one group that could not be effectively serviced as such. And, in some ways, most importantly, Claudrena Harold’s, our BSA advisor’s, teachings about the activist and advocacy roots of Black student groups at Predominantly White Institutions lingered long after I had removed myself from BSA.
For the rest of time at UVA, I became very involved in smaller scale organizations. I worked as an intern with the Outreach Office of Admission and the Ridley Scholarship Foundation. I invested in the French House and Language House Council. And I became the stage manager for the Black Monologues.
In an institution where titles were collected like souvenir coins, working with these organizations helped me to undo harmful notions of leadership without purpose. Though often unrecognized, the work of my last two years were the most fulfilling. It taught me to invest wisely and in communities you already belong to.
Bloom where you are planted, but also make sure the garden others inherit is well tended for them when they come along.
By grad school, which you will know if you’ve been following along with BGDGS, I was feeling lost again. I resented feeling forced to participate in my program’s student organization given that I felt the program often was a place of hostility for me. So I turned elsewhere for support at the institution, frequenting the Black Law Student Association gatherings and getting involved with a short lived Black undergraduate student publication, but nothing seemed to stick.
My solution was to turn to the digital. You know that story: I worked for a few years building up my network of Black graduate students and Black faculty to turn to at other institutions through Black Girl Does Grad School and Twitter. Between my thriving digital life and the various pockets I began to occupy at school, most notably with the Lemon Project, I began to feel more supported.
During this time, the Black Graduate Student Association began to emerge in a new iteration. It had once existed at the institution, but with little documentation, it was difficult to know much more about it. Madeline Williams worked to get this new formation of the organization off the ground, and in my thirst for community, I began to frequent meetings.
I would be lying if I say I hadn’t considered running for the executive board over the few years of the organization’s existence. But the timing was never right: first I was in the midst of comps, then trying to complete a first draft of the dissertation. So I settled into being a fairly active member.
But this year, two big shifts occurred: I joined the Arts & Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee (CDEI) and I began talking to my friend, Taylor, very seriously about transformative work.
Though seemingly unrelated, the two were inextricable. Through the CDEI, I gained the language to identify and articulate what I didn’t want in a university community. It then gave me ideas for possible solutions to these problems. By the end of the fall semester, I was able to articulate with ease the issues with pipelines, climate, and siloed diversity work, which was bolstered by my formal training in being able to articulate how power dynamics work from American Studies. But I quickly became frustrated that though we were very good at identifying, articulating and offering possible solutions, there seemed to be a disconnect, at least for me, between having a firm understanding of how these infrastructures work to disenfranchise and oppress, and breaking down solutions into actionable items.
In a word, I was faced with the gap between my values and my actions.
My friendship with Taylor has turned into an incubator for transformative thought. She makes me think harder and want to move with more intention. Before having these conversations with her, before we began our All About Love book club, I knew abolition made sense, I knew how love practices worked in theory, but I didn’t know how to center those ideas in my daily life. I didn’t know how to act on them.
What I began to understand was that transformation in our society begins at a community level. It begins with us practicing being loving towards each other. It begins with investing in each other. Small actions will lead to larger change.
Perhaps, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to take down the Academy, but I could cultivate a garden in community with others in which we are cared for and valued. Even though I plan to leave the academic space, I know others will come, so I began to ask: what tangible things can I do to make sure those who come to occupy this space will feel cared for and valued?
In doing this, in centering communication, connection, care and celebration, we can build a sustainable environment for us, outside of the structures of the Academy, where we matter first. And perhaps that won’t break the system down… but actively choosing care may disrupt it.
In that break, we have the potential to replace what doesn’t work with something new.
What I propose is a building on the great work already done and being done. I’m simply asking: How can we connect Black graduate students to resources outside of their BGSA and their school? How do we establish long term connections? How do we provide networks of care for our Black grad students? What can we do to ensure academic success and value the work that Black grads are doing?
I think some of the answers are to build on and with. Five years at my institution has shown a number of pockets throughout the university that are doing really amazing work. We need to be working with them. We need to, if possible, find financial support for the research Black grads do, as well as provide venues for us to share our findings in supportive environments. I can tap into my digital networks and skills to help us create a repository of resources for us so that we always have access to things like local childcare, hair services, and churches.
But one of the most important things I can do is to make it clear that this is a space that values you. You deserve to be valued and cared for. So how can we work on infrastructures to better the climate for existing, incoming and prospective students, so that they know they’re valued?
I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m so willing to try.
It’s time to make the digital, physical.