As an undergraduate at my predominantly white institution, St. John’s University in New York, my future wife and I were very involved in numerous organizations on campus, mainly the NAACP, Haraya Pan African Students’ Coalition, and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. We were strong-willed activists seeking immediate change at our university. However, immediacy wasn’t always a part of our definition of change, but rather it developed over our four years after seeing movements die out and administrators ignore the “requests” black students really demanded. Through this journey and inspired by students in the Black Liberation Collective, we designed the Students of Consciousness, a movement tailored to the particular structural and budgetary issues among black organizations on our campus. While the story of our movement is particular, our calculations for change can be reproduced or modified. This simply serves as an option for future movements.
Students of Consciousness rose from the ashes of a former movement — Seen but Not Heard, established in Spring 2014. SBNH was founded by a few members of Haraya Pan African Students’ Coalition. While SBNH was supposed to be separate from Haraya, for fear of administrators pulling their budget for protesting, it was never really perceived by administrators or students as a separate entity. While SBNH advocated for students of color who experienced a hostile environment on campus, they mainly focused on the explicit whitening of the Spring Concert, formerly known as Black Music Fest.
Haraya was the largest organization on campus, had the largest budget and was one of the few organizations that received an office in the new student center. However, because of their power on campus, they were in a constant tug-of-war with Student Government, Inc. (SGI) who wanted to control the largest event on campus, Black Music Fest. White students complained that Black Music Fest, by its name, genre of music and artists, was exclusive to black students and, unsurprisingly, SGI and administrators took action. In order for Haraya to continue to hold Black Music Fest, they had to change the name to “Spring Concert.” Eventually, SGI had a seat at the table for deciding who would perform at the concert and attempted to change the genre of some of the artists away from hip-hop and R&B. In the Spring of 2014, Haraya’s executive board made a decision to cancel the concert, not because it was not interested in being inclusive, but because Black Music Fest was already an inclusive event that celebrated black culture, recruited black students and provided a space for black vendors. At no point did Haraya intend for the Spring Concert to deviate from its roots in blackness.
There was no evidence of exclusiveness — only white people complaining that they did not feel comfortable in black spaces. Black spaces included, but is not limited to, the concert, barbecues on Lord’s Way (or “the Strip”) (See The Torch editorial from May 1, 2013 titled “Time For University to Fix ‘The Strip”), Fraternity & Sorority Night (put on by the African and Latino Fraternal and Sororal Alliance, which was recently changed to the Multicultural Greek Alliance), and Haraya’s general body meetings. The strike against black spaces was amplified by numerous complaints against public safety’s interactions with black students and NYPD policing only black events, Student Affairs’ unwillingness to act when black and brown students experienced explicit racism on campus (See SOC’s blog) and the permeation of national police gun violence into the student experience. Haraya took a tremendous stand by not having the concert. Their message was that while they would continue to work on their inclusiveness, they would never let the university whiten their organization simply because others were uncomfortable with blackness. St. John’s was one of the most diverse universities in the nation, yet while black faces were printed on brochures and celebrated on their website, they were just that—seen…but not heard.
SBNH was short-lived, not lasting past the spring semester. Most of the leaders graduated and the structure of the activist organization was not strong enough to continue into the next academic year. Basically, there were a lack of leaders prepared or inspired to continue the movement and there was no foundation for leaders to build on the next semester. However, it still had large implications on the strategies and structure of Students of Consciousness.
Students of Consciousness (SOC) was generally founded because of the continued racial tension on campus, the continued negligence by student affairs to acknowledge black and brown issues and celebrations, the alarmingly low retention and graduation rates among black and brown students and the continued diversification of the student body without diversification of faculty and high-level administrators. These problems were brought to the forefront at the same time that faculty members were organizing around similar issues in their departments. Nothing SOC was fighting for was new, but it was revolutionary. SOC was a movement, not an organization, that was laterally structured, meaning without a formal head leader. After seeing the decline of black organizations due to internal issues with leadership succession and the lack of information shared between successors, SOC was designed to be malleable, meaning to bend to whomever had the time and audacity to assume leadership. There would never be one leader, but a group of leaders who naturally rose to lead and redefine the purpose of the movement as they saw fit. Upon graduation or the day a leader could no longer physically contribute to the movement, they would automatically serve as a consultant. SOC was a place where young leaders, who were not affiliated with campus organizations, could rise and older leaders could humble themselves and relinquish power. There were many leaders, all who had their own skillset and their own network. Each one was trained to have conversations with various high-level administrators for the purpose of making substantial change related to their tasked demands. This structure was somewhat precarious and without hard checks and balances, but it relied on the informal agreement among a small group of leaders that they would make the best decisions for the good of the movement and for the advancement of black students, faculty, administrators, and spaces on campus.
SOC was not attached to any university budget and it was allied with faculty who sat in board meetings with them. Established on February 8, 2016, SOC was the movement that SBNH tried to be, but could not because of its affiliation with Haraya and SGI’s power to take away their budget. Haraya has made tremendous change at the university as the second oldest black organization on campus (1968), and without their prior movements SOC would not exist. Haraya was the original black space on campus. However, SOC’s autonomy has given it dangerous potential, and was designed to build on the foundation Haraya designed. While many black student leaders were opposed to the movement from the start and may continue to be, I am proud to say that through our protests, our social media campaigns, our demands and our behind-the-scenes meetings with administrators, significant change has been made. There is now microaggression training during freshmen orientation week, several faculty of color were recently hired (see SJU New Faculty), many black and brown students come to us as the first line of contact after a microaggression and a town hall meeting with the president of the university is coming soon. This change does not discount the work of other organizations and, in fact, would not be possible without the support of other organizations. What is most important is that SOC is a medium for change and student leaders have the option of using the movement how they see fit. There is more than one way to achieve change and I encourage students to use every single way. Not every leader needs to be in the limelight and not every person needs to be a leader. The future of the black and brown radical wing of the university relies on listening to one another, humbling thy self amidst opportunities for power, accepting constructive criticism, and being able to move forward knowing it is impossible to appease everyone. At every step, unity should try to be preserved, but it is understandable if it does not happen. This is how SOC has been preserved and is the only way it will continue to thrive.
While many black and brown students across the country may not be in the exact situation we were in when we started SOC, know that it is okay to be controversial and it is okay to demand change. We spend thousands of dollars not only on our education, but on our college experience. College is the ground where leaders are trained to make change in the real world. Make sure your voice is heard, that you have the space to flourish and that the university is cognizant of your concerns and is willing to support you (the customer). The framework for SOC can work at many universities, and others it won’t work at all, but I encourage everyone to think outside the box, be strategic and be confident in your decisions. Like Kendrick Lamar said on his album, Section 80: "show your pain." My response — and do something with it.