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'Blackout’ rally at Santa Rosa Junior College highlights prolonged fight for racial equity

Students, staff and faculty reiterated their call for urgency in the effort to dismantle racism in the school’s systems and culture.|

Approximately 150 Santa Rosa Junior College students, faculty and staff members demonstrated on the front lawn Wednesday to call for increased urgency in the effort to dismantle racism in the school’s systems and culture.

"While we wholeheartedly appreciate the steps that the JC administration has taken here on campus, we also recognize that there are still systemic barriers for our community,“ said Regina Mahiri, an administrative assistant and a member of the Black Leadership Association Collective on the SRJC campus, which, along with the Black Student Union, organized Wednesday’s demonstration.

“Culturally, nothing has changed,” Mahiri said, referring to the year that has nearly passed since students and staff called on the administration to increase opportunity and diminish barriers for students and staff of color, with particular emphasis on those who are Black.

Organizers timed Wednesday’s “Blackout” event to coincide with a SRJC Academic Senate meeting. Some faculty senators left the meeting to join the crowd on the lawn, while other meeting attendees present via Zoom blacked out their screens in a show of solidarity.

SRJC President Frank Chong was not present. He told staff in an email earlier in the week that the organizers had his “full support,” but that he would be out of town. Cabinet members representing the administration would be in attendance, he said, though none identified themselves during the event.

Speakers acknowledged progress on some of the demands made in the past year, but emphasized that in many other instances, leaders seem to have gotten stuck at the conversational phase. And though such talk is necessary, it’s not an end point, they said.

"I have spent this last year going from one committee meeting to another committee meeting,“ said Delashay Carmona Benson, student body president and co-president of the Black Student Union. ”And I’m sick of it.“

Benson highlighted several of the demands she and others put forth to the SRJC administration in 2020 where movement has occurred. The junior college has hired at least one Black therapist to be available for students needing mental health support. Additionally, the school allocated space for the Sawubona Black/African American Student Success Center, though Carmona and others with the BSU raised more than $120,000 toward the salary for a coordinator themselves, she said.

“SRJC, how much did you raise?” she said, to a laugh from the crowd listening.

In his emails to the campus community in the past month, Chong acknowledged that more work remains to meet the organizers’ demands. In more than one message, he has thanked those continuing to speak up.

But frustrations persist in the process, often related to the subject of the campus police force. The BSU and BLAC have called for disarming SRJC police and redirecting funding from the department to student services. The outcry has spilled over into the school’s recruitment last month of a new police sergeant.

Toward the end of the month, Chong announced a pause on the process.

“I publicly acknowledge that continuing a recruitment for a new police sergeant without having a larger community conversation is dismissive of the requests of BLAC and BSU,” he wrote in his email referring to the two student groups. “I want to publicly apologize for that action.”

His proposed response: a listening session with SRJC District Police Chief Rob Brownlee and others, to be held on May 20.

Comprehensive equity training for all campus community members, including the Board of Trustees and the SRJC police force, remains another key priority for the Black leaders.

George Sellu, a faculty member in the Agriculture department and a member of the faculty senate, also expressed frustration over what he described as momentum from the administration in reviving ethnic studies opportunities at SRJC, without incorporation of Black experts.

“They’re telling everybody how great they’re doing,” he said. “The only thing is, we don’t know about it ... Does that look like real change to you?“

Organizers repeatedly challenged attendees to take a personal role in shifting the culture of the 104-year- old junior college, Sonoma County’s most populous campus, with an enrollment of 15,479 students for the spring semester. Approximately 2% of its student body is Black.

As the event ended, attendees went to the whiteboard set up near the speakers’ canopy to post sticky notes with their individual commitments to anti-racism.

Daisy Cardenas, who works as a coordinator for the HOPE program serving first-generation college students, said she wrote the word “accountability,” on her note. She had both herself and others in mind.

“I think it goes beyond saying that you want to be antiracist or saying you want to stand in solidarity,” she said. “It needs to be a 24 hour, seven days a week commitment.”

Black student and staff leaders said they plan to continue speaking out. Another event is planned for May 15, though its focus is broader and will include other marginalized groups. That “Unity Walk” will kick off at 2 pm on May 15th, and will include a walk to downtown Santa Rosa as a gesture of community building and resistance to racism.

Summer Winston, an organizer of Wednesday’s event and a faculty member in the Computer Studies department, is among those balancing her desire for deep change and the acknowledge that institutions rarely move swiftly or entirely toward that mark.

She used an apt metaphor to describe her outlook.

“I’m not naive. My hope isn’t to do the impossible, of 100% curing the disease of racism on SRJC’s campus,” Winston said. “My hope is herd immunity. With enough of us deciding to shift our culture one commitment at a time, SRJC will shift.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to better reflect Daisy Cardenas’ perspective on the Blackout event as expressed to a reporter.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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