by Paige Allison
The weekend of April 11th-13th, over 900 college students (40 from SCCC) from all over Washington gathered for the 23rd Annual Students of Color Conference (SOCC). The conference surprisingly took place in the boonies of south-central Washington, Yakima. It was definitely a change of scenery traveling from wet, gray Seattle, through the snowy pass to our sunny destination of Yakima. Yakima’s welcome sign greets visitors with the slogan, “Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington”, with city street banners boasting “Washington’s Wine Country”. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) those of us with the conference could not experience Yakima’s “highly regarded” wine during our stay because the SOCC is a completely drug/controlled substance free conference.
All students were given a SOCC guide which outlined the schedule of events. The conference was broken up into a series of five workshops, three keynote speakers and two social events over the course of three days. Conference organizer’s goals are to help facilitate the, “awakening of your [students] inner scholar”. The five workshops are structured to help this process: Identity (racial, ethnic, or cultural groups), Awareness of Others, Skills Development, Social Justice/Social Activism and Personal Development.
The agenda for the first day was to get settled into our hotels, go to the conference orientation, attend the Identity workshop and later attend a “social event”. We gathered in the Ballroom of Yakima Convention Center for the opening ceremonies. There was a sort of undeclared loudness competition of school pride as each college was called during roll call. Some of the schools like Green River Community College and Olympic College even had matching shirts. Olympic College might have been the loudest declaring their presence with screaming, table drumming and a call response chant that I don’t remember.
Towards the end of roll call SCCC was called. As opposed to all the other colleges screaming as loud as they could, all of SCCC’s students and faculty stood up in silence. Raising one fist in solidarity, support, and in salute to Tina Young, Director of SCCC’s Multicultural Services and also an organizer for the conference.
After the roll call and orientation, our first Keynote Speaker, Dr. Darryl Brice, came on stage to give a lecture he calls A Happening Waiting to Accident: Students of Color and Their Courageous Journey through Higher Education. Dr. Brice, a Sociology professor at Highline Community College, talked about the role that racism has played and continues to play in our institutions of education. He provided useful and sobering facts about the history of the white-washing of our education through the centuries. Dr. Brice introduced the Salutogenesis theory of resilience. When people persist healthfully in spite of harsh living conditions. Christina Jonathan (Student at SCCC) responded, “The Dr. Brice’s presentation got me thinking about whether I want to be a psychiatrist or teacher.”
For me personally, as someone who identifies as multi-ethnic (Korean American, Scottish/Irish/Welsh American, Native American) it was life changing to attend the first workshop and meet other people of mixed ethnicity. In this workshop I got to know people from other schools, as well as SCCC, who have gone through some of the same identity questions and problems as myself. I have never in my life felt so understood, supported and grounded in my racial identity as I did during this first workshop. I think that the conference organizers realize how important it is to understand and be proud of one’s own identity before you are able to successfully (and healthfully) be an advocate for social change.
Elrond Shelly (Student at SCCC, name changed to protect privacy), who self-identifies as multi-ethnic (African American/Black Foot/Mixed European descent), and fellow mutt shared his own struggles with coming to terms with being multi-ethnic, “Growing up not having multiracial role models [that looked like me] reaffirmed my feelings of conflict and anger for both sides of my family. As I got older, [I realized] I have an interesting perspective on life, from two sides. From not having a role model it has made me want to become one.”
Julia Hanley (Student at SCCC), who identifies as white had this to say about the white Identity workshop, “I realized just how privileged white people are in comparison to other races and it should not be that way. Yes for awhile, I used to blame myself for all the massacres my race put on others. I felt no connection to being white. The white identity group made me realize that I could stop racism. I accept myself more now. At first I didn’t want to go to the White Identity group but it turned out to be one of the most important experiences for me during the conference.”
Workshops directed specifically toward awareness of white privilege, and/or steps that one could use to deal with white guilt, were offered throughout the duration of the conference. Some examples include: White Privilege 101, Have You Been Bought in or Sold Out: Deconstructing Social Media that is Used to Promote Racism, Sexism, and Hate Crimes, Advocacy and Equality in Healthcare, Intercultural Dating…etc.
The options for workshops were just about as diverse as the students participating in them. There was an extremely broad spectrum of topics taught in the 75 different workshops over the course of the conference such as: Gender inequality, LGBTQ education/empowerment, race-specific histories/stereotypes, religion, female empowerment, spoken word/storytelling, prison privatization, music & dance, tools for community building, and more.
My Nguyen, a Vietnamese International student from SCCC shared what she learned from one of her workshops, “I went to How to Survive a Predominantly White Campus. They told me to get more involved in my school. Also, focus on my passions and read more because if you are a minority in a dominantly white campus then you might want to drop out. [I was told to] disregard this by getting involved in my school and my own community.”
Of all the students I talked to, the common complaint was that they could only attend 5 workshops. Many wished that the conference lasted a week so they could go to more workshops and get to know more students from other schools. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t any time for students to network with each other.
On the first night, a two hour open mic was hosted in the Ballroom, in which many SCCC students participated. Slots for the open mic filled up within ten minutes of the sign up list posting and the SCCC students who participated performed near the end of the two hours. Acts performed include, but were not limited to spoken word pieces, song, and dance. By the time the open mic was coming to a close a good 85% (or more) of the audience had left. A large chunk of SCCC students remained in support of their fellow classmates.
On the last night of our stay in Yakima, SOCC hosted a “social event” with DJ Mex Men. I felt like I was at some high school dance all over again. The exception being, the smell of nervous teen B.O. replaced by the prominent smell of full grown traumatized multicultural ass. But it was bearable. What was unbearable was the music being played. It was a sort of bizarre, almost comedic dissonance to listen to misogynistic songs like Get Low by Lil Jon & Eastside Boyz in contrast with the two days of empowerment. When multiple people asked the DJ if he would play something a little more positive he would play one song then go back to unconscious rap. On the flip side, the “social event” was still entertaining with b-boys and b-girls getting down on the dance floor.
Haggard from a long night of dancing and socializing students we went to the last workshop: Personal Development. Afterward, we gathered for the last time in the Ballroom for community reflection/awards awards ceremony before returning back to Seattle. Back to reality. Throughout the conference a call and response chant caught on with whomever was speaking and the audience, “If not you, then…WHO? If not now, then…WHEN? If not here, then…WHERE?” In the closing ceremonies this chant was repeated a last time, 900 strong.
On the bus ride home SCCC students reflected on their favorite parts of the conference:
My Nguyen said her favorite part was, “The storytelling interaction with people, making friends. Not the dance.”
Amrit Gail said, “[I liked] Seeing so many different people with so many different issues. And realizing that we are all really the same.”
A post conference meeting was put on a week later to turn in reflections and get all conference-goers together one last time. During this meeting Tina Young asked us to share our thoughts and personal definition of one word: Community. These are words that our new community came up with as a definition: “safety, pride, an extended family, strength, empathy, having a safe place to be authentic. Collective common compilation of shared experience brought together in an environment where you can see clearly everyone’s basic humanness. Acceptance. As long as there is a shared acceptance it doesn’t really matter what you come with. Take what you gain as a means to use as a protection when not in that space.”