NEA EdJustice Features

As racism rears its ugly head on college campuses, black students fight back by organizing

Caleb Kupa, college student and Black Student Leader Day activist, marches for racial justice with fellow NEA Student Board members.

By Sabrina Holcomb

Bananas hanging from nooses and Confederate flags dotted with cotton on American University’s campus.

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A black Cornell student beaten by white students who used racial slurs during the attack.

The fatal stabbing of a black University of Maryland student by a member of the “Alt-Reich: Nation” Facebook group.

A steady rise in incidents like these is sending a chilling message across America’s college campuses.

Working to empower black students nationwide, NEA’s Community and Partner Engagement department held NEA’s first Black Student Leader Day, a crash course in civic advocacy that helps students “turn the crazy things that are happening on campus into a win.”

The students who participated know firsthand about crazy campus racism—one organizer was running for student body president when someone hung a noose in her dorm during Black History Month.

Given the current climate, Black Student Leader Day was an empowering experience and “right on time” for future educators like Caleb Kupa, an NEA student member at Westchester University.

“No matter what black students are facing—from campus racism to skyrocketing tuition costs, we walked out of this course knowing how to do something about it,” said Kupa, who’s even more motivated to challenge racial and social injustices on and off campus.

Over 100 energized black students, many from historically black colleges and universities, took part in the standing-room only event, where they learned, arguably, their most important lesson of the day—not to fear authority and decision makers.

Students strategize during Black Student Leader Day.

“We should never think it’s not our place to approach someone and have a powerful discussion about the issues students are facing,” said George Washington University graduate Shannon Kirkland.

Over the course of the day, students heard from community activist Umi Selah, co-founder of Dream Defenders, an organization that trains young people in nonviolent civil disobedience and transformational organizing.

Students also honed their skills in lobbying and grassroots organizing, with the aim of returning to their schools to organize for racial justice.

Delvin Hodges and Nisha Gaston had barely hit campus before they swung into action.

“I started teaching my roommates everything I had learned as soon as I walked through the door,” says Hodges, a University of San Francisco student.

Gaston, a Bennett College student who as “Miss NAACP,” represents the student chapter on her campus, also hit the ground running. Gaston met with the administration on a housing and food pantry plan for students who might be left homeless if their undocumented parents are deported, and helped coordinate a “students to the polls” march for a North Carolina municipal election that took place this week.

“We’re not just students,” says Gaston of herself and the other students she befriended at Black Student Leader Day. “We’re soldiers and survivors.”

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