Organizing against racism and anti-Blackness on a very white campus

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Cicely-Belle Blain. She is a fourth year student at the University of British Columbia, and she was one of the organizers behind a recent event on that campus that was part of the current wave of activity by Black students and their allies at universities across North America.

It's a truism that most important institutions incorporate, into how they work, their own versions of the relationships and practices that benefit some and harm others across the length and breadth of our social world. From the outside, or from a position of privilege within, it can be easy to lose sight of that reality when it comes to universities -- it's easy to think that the islands of critical thought and action that years of hard struggle have won and preserved in some universities are much larger and more influential than they actually are, and it's also easy to miss how many postsecondary institutions reward (or at least strategically ignore) radical-sounding words just as long as they are kept carefully divorced from any action that might challenge the institution in which they are housed.

One axis upon which this is true in most North American universities is white supremacy (tightly intertwined, of course, with settler colonialism). There are exceptions, but it is all too common that racialized (especially Black and Indigenous) people are underrepresented in faculty and administrative positions; that their perspectives are underrepresented or completely absent from the syllabi of most courses and programs; that they face disproportionate barriers in gaining admission; and that as students, faculty, and staff they face a range of barriers, hostilities, and even violences within the institution.

Over this past year, there has been an upsurge in organizing on campuses across the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada, by Black students in particular, and by those who support them. Triggered by powerful organizing at the University of Missouri in the face of intense systemic and direct racism, and happening very much in the context of the broader Black Lives Matter upsurge led by Black youth, much of this wave of organizing has happened under slogans like #StudentBlackOut and #BlackOnCampus.

Blain knew that she wanted to organize something at UBC campus to show solidarity with students in Missouri and elsewhere, and to challenge the pervasive systemic racism and anti-Blackness on her own campus. She had been involved in feminist and other social justice work in her time at UBC, but there had been very little anti-racist organizing on the campus in that time. The Black student population at UBC is very small, so she and the people she raised the idea with decided to organize an event that would bring together a broad range of students of colour and Indigenous students (while keeping the specific experiences of racial violence and harm experienced by Black students clearly visible). They organized an event that explicitly centred their own voices, bodies, and experiences through performance and conversation. The event culminated in an impromptu march through the campus and the presentation of demands to a representative of the university president. Blain speaks with me about both the UBC and broder movement contexts, about the event, and about the kinds of changes that Black students, students of colour, and Indigenous students need to see at UBC.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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