U-Más Fuerte Together: The UMass Racial Justice Coalition

Members of the UMass RJC explain their plans to make UMass an anti-racist institution.

July 10, 2020

(@umassrjc / Instagram)

(@umassrjc / Instagram)

Welcome to U-Más Fuerte Together, the Amherst Wire’s latest series that seeks to amplify BIPOC voices and document student activism at UMass. 

The death of George Floyd and the numerous Black people who have been killed since then have sparked national protests and conversations about police brutality, white supremacy and systemic racism. These conversations have become increasingly prevalent amongst college students, especially in primarily white institutions such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

On Wednesday, July 8, the UMass Racial Justice Coalition shared the full list of demands from each of the five task forces via Instagram that they plan on formally submitting next week. A more detailed version of the RJC’s demands is also available here. What initially began as a Google Doc, soon became a movement led by the UMass Racial Justice Coalition. Students at UMass are now signing their names to join and support the RJC’s demands.

As part of the Wire’s new series U-Más Fuerte Together (UMFT), we spoke with three members of the UMass RJC, Emily Steen, Zach Steward and James Cordero about the belonging to a mostly BIPOC organization, writing demands to create an anti-racist institution, navigating the administration and what students should know about the movement both at UMass and nationwide.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So for those who don’t know, describe who the UMass Racial Justice Coalition is and what you all do.

Zach Steward: Specifically for me, I would just say the Racial Justice Coalition works to make UMass truly anti-racist — not just in words, but in action. We strive to center BIPOC voices — and for those who don’t know, BIPOC is Black and Indigenous, people of color — we strive to center those voices in these conversations and to ensure that they are protected and given the same level of respect and care that their white colleagues are. 

Emily Steen: It’s fully student-driven, the RJC, and we have undergraduate and graduate members and we also have staff who occasionally get to join on. It’s really difficult with everyone’s busy schedules, but in our conversations, we kind of try and shape proactive policies that UMass can implement to ensure the safety and comfort — and success — of all BIPOC individuals on campus. And we make sure to — in all of our policies — center student voices.

You mentioned that it’s hard to collaborate with so many different schedules and there are so many different people, so I understand that you have different task forces. Around how many make up those task forces and are they overseen by like a smaller group of leaders? How does the group function with so many different roles?

ES: Well, we have five task forces: Actions Against Racism, Academic Equity, Preventing Racism, Healing Amidst Racism and Divesting from UMPD. Each task force has its own group. The reason we split the coalition into these task forces was so that people could kind of follow their passions and like, really delve into a project. I would say, at max, we have like 10 students who are committed and show up weekly to every single task force. Then, whenever people have time in their schedules, there’s new people joining. We do have our general meeting once a week and we have about 30 students who are able to attend that. It’s on a Saturday, so we’re lucky when people kind of sacrifice their time, but a lot of this is us sacrificing our time on top of jobs and making money, and studies, in order to see these changes. There’s definitely voices within each task force that really step up and guide the conversation. 

“We bring in the emotion and the actual changes that BIPOC students and staff want to see at UMass.”

Issues of racism and microaggressions — specifically against Black students and faculty — they’re not new topics at UMass Amherst, but what inspired you all to create a group dedicated to drafting demands and actually submitting them to the administration?

ZS: When I first started out, I didn’t actually anticipate that this is how it would end up, but this was after the murder of Georgle Floyd. I wanted to feel like I was doing something and not just continuing to sit on the sidelines and feel like I wasn’t doing enough. So, I decided to make a Google Doc initially, and get as many people together as I possibly could — and by that I mean individuals and student organizations as well — and work together to draft a list of actions that we could take either virtually or until we all got back to campus. Actions such as protests or things of that nature, but also to work on demands and we would end up submitting these demands to the administration later on. Eventually, I got connected to Emily. 

ES: So there’s a national momentum and Zach’s the one that brought that momentum to UMass. I would say he’s the one who brought everyone together and all these cultural organizations and kind of sparked the idea within everyone’s minds that, ‘Oh, we could do something at UMass!’ Because, like you said, there’s nothing new. I think folks who have certain privileges are learning about this for the first time, but the rest of us have constantly been aware of it and it’s just that new sense of momentum and support from allies and other BIPOC individuals. We’re just all ready to see the change. And we have a lot of support from the SGA and they kind of supported our efforts. Like I said, it’s a grassroots movement and they’ve really shown us how to organize and how to address admin, but we bring in the emotion and the actual changes that BIPOC students and staff want to see at UMass. 

So, SGA has given you some guidance on really addressing the administration. 

James Cordero: Yeah, I would say they’re opening the doors for students. You know, helping students make meetings, things like that, which is exactly what students are looking for I think, is just for the SGA to be a supportive role and help connect BIPOC students to admin so that this coalition can be centered around the voices of BIPOC students. 

Going onto the demands and how SGA has been guiding the RJC, were there any sort of standards that needed to be fulfilled when you all were writing these demands?

ES: Well, what we did was find out first from BIPOC students, like what is it that we need to see? What is it that we’re not getting from UMass admin when there’s an act of hate? What are we not getting to prevent racism from coming to UMass? Like where is admin failing? And also, what do we need to succeed? Then SGA had suggested who do we talk to, like James said, they’ve helped us work on accountability. I had learned a lot about the administration at UMass and it’s just this whole conflated branch-work system and it’s a big mess. It’s very confusing, but they [SGA] kind of cut it down to size and helped us see, ‘Okay, let’s not ask the wrong people, let’s ask the right people the right questions,’ and go from there.

So, I see that you have already posted the demands on Instagram and I’m seeing a lot of people sharing them. Is this the formal submission of the demands? Or is this just getting out what you all are doing?

ZS: With the Instagram campaign, we are trying to do something similar to what the COVID task force did and to gain student, but also alumni and outside support for these demands before we formally send them to administrators. The goal is to send them to admin next week, actually. In that process, again, the goal of this campaign is to try and gain as much support from not only the UMass population but anyone who happens to be outside of UMass as well and who is interested in what we are trying to do. So, then that would end up showing the administration that it’s not just a small chunk of students, but it’s actually a large population that actually wants these things to happen and go through. 

(@umassrjc / Instagram)

ES: Yeah, exactly. And the formal submission that we’ll make next week includes an even further breakdown of every demand like it has accountability, purpose, guidance and deadlines. I’m going to toot our horn here and say that it was a lot of work and it’s very detailed. Good job, guys. 

JC: Yeah, I would say UMass administration will have no cause for confusion once these are submitted to them. They should know exactly what to do — they already should have known, it is their jobs — but we have decided that it would be in the students best interest to give them a little guidance as to how to best do their jobs given that they haven’t done what students needed them to do, particularly, what BIPOC students have needed them to do for generations.

The ideal outcome is that the administration kind of accepts the demands and they agree to work to implement them, but how will UMass RJC continue to push and hold the administration accountable after that possibly happens?

ES: That’s what we’re currently working on, in addition to finalizing the details of all the demands is like, ‘Okay, how do we hold them accountable?’ We’ve read demands from 1970, 2014 and 2018, and they’re very similar but obviously, there’s that disconnect between actually implementing them. We’ve had a lot of conversations with admin for the past few weeks and they tend to say they’re in support, but again, we need to hold them accountable to actually implementing them. So, this call is one of the first steps in putting our story out there and making it be known and kind of throwing it in admin’s face, in a way, that this will go into print and it’s something that they can’t necessarily look over. Also, the Instagram campaign was a great way of gaining support from students so that they know what’s going on and gain their support to pressure admin; that’s the big task at the moment, to pressure admin into implementing these demands. 

“When students organize effectively, what was once impossible very quickly becomes not only possible but a reality.”

If administration happens to reject or push back against demands, do you see any room for compromise or negotiation? How will RJC work with the administration if there is more pushback than expected? 

ES: We’re expecting pushback, for sure. Again, this is the job they should have been doing and they haven’t been doing it, as James said. So, we’re expecting pushback, but that’s why we’ve broken down a lot of it for them so that it’s easier for them to digest. We’ve also been reviewing these demands with different organizations like SGA, which are familiar with admin. We’ve also reviewed them with a couple admin. Again, I think it’s just applying that pressure. I’ll let Zach say his favorite line about admin’s personality. 

ZS: As Emily queued it up for me, I would just argue that at least from my own perspective in these last few weeks and the conversations I’ve had with admin, it seems as though they want us to do their jobs for them and as I’d like to tell them, ‘We can do that, but we’re not getting paid. This is how we’re spending our summer and this is emotional labor for us.’ I can only really speak for myself here, it’s emotional labor for me because this is time-consuming. I’m a full-time student and I also have a full-time job, and this is how I’m spending off-work hours. Even sometimes when I’m at work, I’m doing this work. So, it’s difficult for me to hear someone say, ‘We’d love to work with you, but just give us all your suggestions and we won’t give you anything.’ And it’s like, that’s not how this works. I think the other point of this piece, in terms of holding them accountable, would be just recognize that we’re not going to come to the table and just give you everything, and you not give us anything.

JC: To add onto that, I would just say that in 1969, Black students occupied what was then the George Mills dorm, and actually overnight, kicked all of the white students out and proclaimed that was New Africa House and that would be the new headquarters of one of the first Afro-American Studies Department in the nation. A week later, UMass granted them that, and that is why we have an Afro-American Studies Department today. So, when students organize effectively, what was once impossible very quickly becomes not only possible but a reality. We are not expecting that UMass will agree to everything overnight, but we do expect a good-face negotiation over what can and can’t be done. At the end of the day, we want to win concrete improvements in the lives of BIPOC students and we’re confident that through organizing and through building community power, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

“It’s difficult for me to hear someone say, ‘We’d love to work with you, but just give us all your suggestions and we won’t give you anything.’”

On that note, what are some ways that you all take care of yourselves and your colleagues?

ES: We spend so much time on Zoom. I was on Zoom yesterday from our 5 o’clock meeting till midnight, just working on these demands and trying to figure them out and format them. But in our general meetings, we always start with a group alignment or a group affirmation, then we just give everyone a moment because we realize that it’s — like Zach said — emotional labor. We’re putting a lot into this and we’re not getting paid for it, so it’s important to take that time and just have fun. Sometimes we ask a question like, ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ Sometimes we do a group breathing exercise. We try and laugh too. We try to make sure our meetings don’t have to be serious like it is a very serious subject that we’re addressing, but we’re already putting in the work to get it done so we might as well allow room to smile, laugh and have a good time so that it doesn’t totally consume you. Because it is dark stuff if you allow it to think about all the failures of a system that’s supposed to take care of you, but if we maintain that light spirit in our meetings it’s really like the group is here; the Racial Justice Coalition is here. And we’re not solely focused on racial justice. Anywhere we can, we build in anti-hate policies across UMass or general student support. A lot of the work we do is trying to increase access to the Cultural Centers and the Stonewall Center within CMASS, and increase funding for CCPH because it’s abysmal and students — even if they’re just stressed out in a semester — need somewhere to go regardless of additional racial stress that many of our BIPOC students are experiencing. 

JC: Emma Goldman,* a revolutionary writer said, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” [*Emma Goldman was a Jewish woman who emigrated to the U.S. in 1885, where she became known as an anarchist activist.] So, I would say take as much joy as you can in everything, including the work. And to really emphasize what Emily was just saying too, is the joy and the improvements in people’s lives that this coalition is seeking to build is obviously around racial justice and I think people need to realize that a racially just society extinguishes hate and oppression everywhere. A racially just campus is better for literally every student, including students who are privileged and might think that race does not affect them, including white students who maybe don’t understand why racism affects them or don’t understand how UMass is racist. At the end of the day — I hope they do understand soon — but really this is about a campus for everyone. And that kind of collective joy is what we’re going for. 

Before we wrap up, is there anything you didn’t have the chance to say that you would like to mention now? Any final remarks?

ES: My favorite professor at UMass — who is the only Black professor I’ve ever had at UMass — said that this movement, even beyond UMass; the broader movement that’s going on, is an awakening across America and it’s about the absolute unity of humanity driven by the African conscience. I think that really speaks to what James was saying. This is for everybody, but this is driven by a group of people who have been oppressed and are ready to use our creativity and use our natural emotions to bring about change – but for everybody.

“We as a community — every person who has to do with UMass — have the opportunity to make real change when we come together.”

ZS: To those students who don’t feel as though there’s a place for them here or to those students who feel as though race doesn’t affect them: it may not affect you directly, but it affects someone you know and if you care about that person, then that means you care about this issue. Just because it doesn’t affect you directly, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect someone else. So, before you decide to either not partake in a movement like this or do so in a sense of performative allyship, just do some homework first. Do some homework, reach out to people you haven’t reached out to for a bit and just recognize that they’re hurting right now. Recognize that they might need someone to talk to and that you might be one of those people, even if what’s going on currently doesn’t affect you. 

JC: We as a community — every person who has to do with UMass — have the opportunity to make real change when we come together. That’s exactly what this coalition is doing with the support of the Student Government Association, the graduate employee organization, the resident assistant and peer mentor union, students from all kinds of backgrounds in the UMass community, and particularly BIPOC students who are leaders of cultural organizations and all kinds of other organizations and people, are coming together to form a movement that will make a difference for UMass. So, if you’re out there and hearing this and this is the first you’ve heard of us, this is the first time you’ve heard of students pushing UMass to be an anti-racist institution, even if you’ve got no experience — think about it. We are powerful when we are together. So, get involved, do your research, contact us and think: what kind of change do you want to see at UMass? Don’t think about it as an abstract, think of it as: what kind of change are you willing to work for?

According to UMass’ Campus Data, which illustrates the composition of the university by race, ethnicity, gender and age amongst students, faculty and staff, 5% of faculty were Black/African American in 2018. In UMass Amherst’s At a Glace data from 2019-2020, 4.1% of instructional faculty identify as Black/African American (this includes both faculty in the Tenure System and Non-tenure).

Email Brianna Silva at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @brisilvv.

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