The Student Activists Working Toward a More Racially Just CUNY

Diana Kennedy’s tone is wary when it comes to defining herself as a student activist. While she doesn’t outright condemn the term, the third-year Hunter College student chuckles a bit and puts air quotes around it. She’s humble and down to earth, but her continued efforts to enact change at her school and throughout CUNY have been nothing short of bold.

Kennedy’s involvement in writing open letters to the school’s administration and collaborating with students across CUNY to advocate for the safety, wellbeing and representation of Black students are all things that would typically define one as an activist. But the term she seems more comfortable taking on is student organizer.

At the beginning of the summer, Kennedy rallied the help of Teona Pagan, a senior and a fellow student organizer at Baruch, someone she’s known since they attended Ossining High School together in Westchester. They worked to encourage their schools to respond to the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement in May and meet the needs of Black students in a time where they were feeling increasingly unsupported. The two students hoped that if their demands were met, all Black and brown students within the CUNY system would benefit.

Nearly six months after the Black Lives Matter protests began, Kennedy and Pagan are still working just as hard as when they started to make sure that every demand is recognized and hopefully met by their schools’ administrations.

Collective goals for CUNY

In her second and final open letter to Hunter, published in August, Kennedy demanded that the college cut ties with the NYPD, hire more Black and brown mental health professionals and coordinate with Hunter’s Black Student Union along with providing them a club room to organize by the time in-person instruction resumes.

Kennedy helped create CUNY for Abolition and Safety, a coalition that is “working to dismantle systems entrenched in white supremacy by addressing CUNY’s role in sustaining them,” according to an introductory post on their Instagram account. She also works with Free CUNY, a group that advocates for an anti-racist, free and fully funded university system.

Both activist channels are vocal about the desire for CUNY to stop associating with both the NYPD and Corcraft, a company that manufactures products made by prison labor, such as hand sanitizer and furniture, that are distributed to CUNY and SUNY schools.

With administration still not directly addressing this demand, Kennedy and Pagan said that severing the relationship with NYPD could be a long process, but one that would be a step toward assuring the safety and security of students.

And while many of the goals outlined in Kennedy’s letter are directed toward change at Hunter, she feels that CUNY students coming together as a broader coalition could be more powerful in the long run. Kennedy and others have realized how much power lies in numbers.

“Activism isn’t an individual action. It’s really part of collective organizing and strategizing. I sort of went about things isolated and as a sort of lone wolf and I found that that’s really not an effective way to go about things,” Kennedy said of her start as a student organizer. “One thing that really supported me was finding community and groups of people that shared similar views and visions.”

“CUNY is an even bigger dragon to slay,” Pagan said of her efforts to go beyond just Baruch. She further emphasized some of the shared challenges Black students throughout CUNY face, such as lack of diversity in honors programs and racial intimidation in the classroom. To highlight these issues, she started an Instagram page called Black at CUNY, inspired by a similar account run by students at Harvard.

The mission of Black at CUNY has been to raise awareness across all 25 schools by sharing individual students’ experiences with racism and racial injustice in a widely visible forum. “The thing that amazes me is how similar these stories are across these campuses,” Pagan said of the feedback she’s received and of the stories that have been shared, most of which are anonymous.

Administration response

After the call for action from students, the administration publicly took steps toward addressing issues at Hunter by launching the Presidential Task Force to Advance Racial Equity and the Speaking of Justice webinar series at the Roosevelt House. A representative from the BSU says this still isn’t enough.

“It’s a nice start, but I don’t think it’s as effective as they [the administration] want it to be,” said the e-board member, who asked not to be named. They said it feels as if the school’s initiatives toward racial equity are ignoring some of the things Black students are asking for that might generate more direct change.

“I want them to actually listen to us. We don’t want performative activism,” they said. “We want real, actual change, like actually implementing new courses that would be beneficial to the BIPOC community, hiring more BIPOC individuals for counseling and as professors, things like that. We’re not expecting Hunter to change the world, but it definitely starts within.”

The school did meet an open letter demand by extending the Racism, Injustice, and Change wellness center drop-in support group sessions into the fall semester. These meetings started as a way to meet demands from students asking the school to implement more inclusive mental health resources and were initially meant to end in August. A Hunter College spokesperson said the task force is still working on ways to ensure racial equity at Hunter.

“While we understand the desire for immediate action, the systemic and deliberate changes that the 100+-member task force is working to propose require thoughtful, robust consideration. These volunteers have already dedicated hours of work researching and developing ideas that will generate sustained and impactful change at Hunter,” reads part of the statement issued by the spokesperson. “The task force will continue working throughout the spring semester and present their recommendations at the end of the academic year. We are continually grateful to them for their commitment to improving the Hunter community.”

The legacy of activism at CUNY

Kennedy hopes that activists like herself and Pagan will be able to set an example with their organizing, especially at a commuter school that can sometimes feel so disconnected.

Teona Pagan (left) and Diana Kennedy (right). Photos courtesy of Pagan and Kennedy

“There’s such a rich history at CUNY of people being real political revolutionaries,” she said, reflecting on CUNY alumni known for their activism. Among these individuals are writer and activist Audre Lorde (Hunter ‘59), U.S. Representative and feminist leader Bella Abzug (Hunter ‘42) and Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and the first Black woman to run for president on a major party ticket (Brooklyn ‘46). “Being a part of student organizations that keep up and are true to that legacy is a really great thing to be part of.”

“If anything, being active on your campus makes you more knowledgeable about the stuff that your campus offers and the different issues that are going on,” she said of the impact of student activism. “It also helps you build a sort of community with people. It sets a good foundation for being able to organize in the future.”

She also emphasized it is important for students to remember they can take a step back from organizing if burnout becomes too much to handle on top of other stressors. “There’s a lot of fatigue that I feel throughout all of 2020. Everything is happening at once,” she said of her own experiences during this tumultuous year.

Pagan shared similar thoughts on burnout, also noting how she and other organizers don’t get paid for the work they do. They’re just passionate enough to keep working toward a more equitable CUNY for all students. “We’re way more interconnected than we realize,” Pagan said.

Kennedy feels that at the core of CUNY’s problems is the underfunding of the institution of public education. Once the state puts more money into the CUNY system, she hopes that the administration will effect more concrete change that would have a positive impact on the schools. In 2020, the pandemic has further threatened funding for CUNY, making this an even more pressing concern.

The hard work of student activism at CUNY is nowhere near its end. Student organizers are refusing to give up, hoping that continued pressure on administration will lead to real change.

“Even though I’m not super optimistic with the future of the presidential task force, I really want to see this work that they’re doing continue into the future,” said Kennedy, who is also part of the curriculum enhancement committee, a subcommittee on the task force. “I don’t want it to be a short-lived thing that just dies after all the hype around Black Lives Matter sort of dies down. I hope they stay true to their word and accomplish what they said they’re going to. I just really want to see students prevail.”

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