People around the world know George Floyd’s name. His death and his final words — “I can’t breathe” — ignited Black Lives Matter protests and drew millions to the streets across the U.S., and around the world, earlier this year.
Black activists have been at the center of the fight against racial injustice, galvanizing a nationwide reckoning with police brutality after Floyd was killed by a white police officer in May. Outrage over the police killings of Black people — Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Janisha Fonville, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Atatiana Jefferson and countless others — has mobilized millions to stand up and fight for change.
City councils are renaming schools and streets that were originally named after racist figures in Texas, California, Virginia and more. Officials in Berkeley and Minneapolis have promised to reform police departments, or disband them altogether. Statues honoring Confederate figures are being taken down — through both toppling during protests and sanctioned removal — across the country.
On the streets of Isla Vista, UC Santa Barbara’s college town in which 3.2% of the community identifies as Black, a protest calling for justice for Floyd in May drew close to 1,000 people, holding signs and chanting, with fists held high in the air. But as protest headlines disappear from mainstream news, it remains unclear how the Black Lives Matter movement has changed, or will change, the community of Isla Vista and UCSB.
We asked seven prominent figures from the Black community of Isla Vista and UCSB exactly that: What does this movement mean for the I.V. and UCSB community? And what is the future they envision for the Black community here?
Here are the hopes, visions and insights they shared with us.
Supporting the Black Community at UCSB
Undergraduates, graduate students and faculty who spoke with the Nexus described the changes needed at UCSB as twofold: Black students and faculty should be better represented in the UC system, and those who are already part of the UC need to be better supported.
Only 5% of undergraduates and 4% of graduate students at UCSB are Black, and those who spoke to the Nexus said that there are two key ways to raise these numbers: reviving affirmative action and hiring more Black faculty.
Anne Charity Hudley, a professor in the linguistics department, director of undergraduate research and North Hall endowed chair in the linguistics of African America, said that affirmative action has suffered from “bad framing” since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which prohibited state government institutions, including public schools, from considering race, sex and ethnicity in admissions or employment.
“I would love to see people really start to advocate and explain to people why affirmative action is repair work on an unjust and unequal system, rather than this notion of giving benefits to women and people of color,” Charity Hudley said.
In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 16, a measure to reinstate affirmative action. The UC Board of Regents unanimously voted in June to support ending the ban on affirmative action in hopes of diversifying its student body. Charity Hudley said that advocating for Proposition 16 is one of the most important actions that people can take to support Black students.
October 2018 marked half a century since UCSB’s Black Student Union (BSU) released its first set of demands to enact change for Black students and faculty on campus, but many of the group’s initial calls for change remain unanswered by UCSB administration. At the time, BSU called for an “increased hiring of minority persons,” “the appointment of Black coaches ‘whenever this becomes possible’” and the “non-condonement of any harassment by any students, whatever color.”
BSU again called on UCSB for change in 2019, when it asked the university, among other demands, to “[recruit] more Black students in order to increase our Black student population.”
But aside from recruitment, Black UCSB students and faculty emphasized that real change cannot occur without effective retention, and that the university should bolster its support for the Black students and faculty that are already here.
“We as a university can’t champion the fact that we care about diversity without providing the resources to sustain your diverse student population,” said Raymok Ketema, a rising third-year doctoral student in the history department who also attended UCSB as an undergraduate.
Ketema noted that graduate students, compared to undergraduates, give more weight to faculty diversity when choosing a school. She said “90%” of her choice to attend UCSB came down to the opportunity to work with Mhoze Chikowero, an African history professor and Ketema’s faculty advisor.
“I do think that having more Black faculty in any given department will increase the pool of applicants that are interested in UCSB,” Ketema said, adding that she was “super disheartened” to learn that out of the nearly 3,000 graduate students who attended UCSB during the 2019-20 school year, only 83 were Black.
Ketema said that more Black faculty need to be hired across campus — not just in the Black studies department — and that no department should have only a single Black professor.
“I think that we should have many Black faculty in each department, so that you can have community even within your departments,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that there’s different cultures with every given background.”
“Blackness is diverse and we should acknowledge that and have as many resources as we can to kind of prevent students from falling through the cracks, because not all Black students feel comfortable in all the same spaces.”
Alexandra Gessesse, a former Associated Students senator who graduated this spring with a degree in philosophy and Black studies, said that UCSB should prioritize diversifying the resources that are made available to Black students.
“There’s no way we can have one Black student organization serving the entire Black student population … We have African students. We have Nigerian, Somali students, Ugandan students who come from such diverse backgrounds that are grouped and categorized as Black to be put on campus. And then we’re subjugated to everything that falls under that umbrella,” said Gessesse, who founded the East African Student Association at UCSB.
Beyond creating new academic and social resources for Black students, those which already exist must be better funded and supported by the university, Ketema and Gessesse emphasized. Both cited the Black/African-American Scholars Floor in Santa Rosa Residence Hall as a vital way to bring together Black undergraduates, but Gessesse said that Black students who don’t live on the floor may not “know what resources are there for Black students.”
Ketema said the resources currently offered across campus are “surface level” and difficult to access, and that UCSB needs to close the gap between students who need help from the university and the offices that can provide them that help.
“The goal would be that Black students will have easily identifiable resources available to them without having to jump through a million hoops to get it to them, because it took me a really long time in undergrad to learn about my resources and access them,” Ketema said.
In the meantime, Black organizations across campus have already started to fill that gap by providing vital social and academic resources for students, Ketema said. The campus administration needs to financially support the work these organizations are already doing, she added.
“This school has money,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that hard to properly support and back the Black workers that are trying to do the work that the university should technically be doing.”
Celebrating Black Voices
“Now more than ever, the cries of #BlackLivesMatter [are] being spoken around the globe,” Dahlia Hylton, former director of the Office of Black Student Development (OBSD) at UCSB, said in an email to the Nexus before leaving the university in August.
“And living in a space of duality — joy and sadness — is something we have to reckon with on a daily basis,” she continued.
Hylton arrived at UCSB in January 2020 as the inaugural director of the OBSD. The office represents the fulfillment of one of BSU’s primary demands, which Chancellor Henry T. Yang promised to address in March 2019.
As the first person hired within the OBSD, Hylton said that improving the experience for Black students at UCSB means not only inclusion, but “appreciation.”
“The beautiful part about being a brand new office, with no precedent, is that we can develop this space into something that evokes exactly what our students need. And that’s a sense of belonging; that’s security; and acknowledgment,” Hylton said.
While offices designed to serve Black students including the OBSD are a step in the right direction, the university is still ignoring one of the smallest demographics on campus, according to Sekani Robinson, a doctoral student in the sociology department.
“[Black students’] needs sometimes get overshadowed or they get low-balled,” Robinson said.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has emphasized, Black people face unique, pressing problems that require specific solutions, Robinson added.
“This movement really highlights that we’re not going to throw a ‘people of color’ thing on this, but [ask] Black students specifically, ‘What do you need?’” she said.
For Robinson, a Black student in a graduate program in which “there are very few of us,” she feels the university is seeing the struggle of and listening to the voices of its Black students for the first time.
“They’re like, ‘Okay, we need to listen and hear out Black students,’” Robinson said, adding that it’s also important to support Black voices without tokenizing them. “It’s almost like this new thing that they’re hearing now.”
Ethan Bertrand, board director for the Isla Vista Community Services District (I.V. CSD), said that nationwide calls to reform police departments and condemn uses of force against protesters have been echoed in Isla Vista.
“I’ve heard from my constituents, my neighbors and my friends about them not feeling safe around law enforcement officers,” Bertrand said.
Bertrand acknowledged that meaningful change to police systems will take time, but individuals can start by engaging in community conversations that get to the root of police presence.
“What does safety mean? What does racial equity mean? How can we promote public safety in a way that also promotes racial equity?”
One of the most important questions to ask, Bertrand said, is whether “people are experiencing racism or structural racism through the ways that we keep our community safe.”
And if the answer is yes, then “our community is not safe.”
Ariel Bournes, who graduated from UCSB in 2012 and currently works as a community relations officer at the UCSB police department, said he looks back at his college experience with mixed emotions.
“I enjoyed my time here and I don’t want to speak negatively about my college. I love my college, but the reality of the situation was, in many circumstances, the color of my skin was the first thing that people saw and it put me in a position where it was something to be overcome, which is ridiculous.”
Looking to the future, Bournes envisions a community in which Black voices are more than just heard.
“I’m imagining a space where we are celebrated, not just tolerated. Not just having our opinion sought during times of crisis, not being seen as, ‘Oh, you know, they’re the squeaky wheel, what can we do to make their voice go away?”
Bournes says Black voices need to be included as “a valued perspective.”
“This is a people group that has a rich history in our country, dealing with these issues … addressing these things, being the leaders [of] these causes. Let’s utilize this resource and let’s expand this resource. Let’s equip this resource, let’s support this resource.”
The responsibility of educating others about racism is a task that often falls on the Black community and other communities of color. However, upholding that responsibility quickly becomes a burden, Gessesse said.
“When it comes to Black students talking about why you shouldn’t be racist, all of a sudden, it’s like this is our duty. And it’s not our duty. It’s our duty for our community. But it’s not a duty to educate others and empathize with us,” Gessesse said.
Ketema said a university’s focus shouldn’t be on educating white students about Blackness. Rather, the university should focus its efforts on improving Black students’ educational experiences.
“I don’t know if I feel like it’s my duty to advocate for white students to learn about anti-Blackness. I feel like sometimes it’s better for my energies to be put towards improving situations for Black students instead of trying to teach white students about fundamental anti-racist, anti-imperialist ideas,” Ketema said.
Many of the sentiments from the original 1968 BSU demands, including the need for Black representation, support for the Black community and space designated for Black students, are mirrored in the demands BSU presented in 2019. A majority of the issues lie within the design of higher education — a system that continuously favors white histories over Black histories, Ketema said.
“It’s a deeply embedded systemic problem, and I’m not confident that any of the recommendations I make will necessarily improve the lived experiences for students because realistically this institution wasn’t designed for me to be here. So, as long as it’s functioning as it was structured, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m supposed to be here,” Ketema said.
At UCSB’s Counseling and Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.), Black students are severely underserved, Ketema said.
There are currently five staff members that identify as Black, according to C.A.P.S. Director Brian Olowude. Two psychologists, Meridith Merchant and Mario Barfield, were hired in September 2013 in order to better serve Black students, as a result of the BSU demands and Yang’s agreement to fund the positions. However, when Merchant was promoted to Assistant Director of Mental Health Initiatives and Inclusion in May 2019, Barfield was left as the only clinician available to meet with students who requested a Black psychologist.
According to the 2018-19 C.A.P.S. annual report, students that identified as Black, African American or African accounted for 8.6% of all students that visited C.A.P.S.
“We desperately need more Black therapists,” Ketema said. “Everybody’s talking to the same people. And I think it can also deter Black students from going to see a therapist when you realize that everybody’s seeing the same therapist.”
The responsibility for making the university-wide changes to better support Black students falls on the administration, Gessesse said.
“[Is UCSB] financially investing in our well being? … Are [they] investing in the resources that I need as a student? Are [they] getting the departments more faculty?” Gessesse said.
From the original BSU demands in 1968 and the subsequent demands in 2012 and again in 2019, it’s time that UCSB administration addresses the failures of higher education that Black students have been pointing to for decades, Gessesse said.
“Do I have to keep checking on the Chancellor to do his part?” Gessesse said. “Or is the Chancellor going to do his part because he understands the task? He’s good at doing [these] annual reports, why can’t he do his reports and check in with the demands he signed on to?”
“Why do Black students have to hold them accountable?”
Building for lasting change
Three Black women co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager, was shot and killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch coordinator, who was later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
Seven years after breaking ground, the movement is bigger than ever before, but supporters still stress that advocacy and allyship are needed long-term.
“My biggest fear is that this will be, whatever, a two-week, three-week moment. And then we all go back to things, our normal lives,” Bournes said.
The kind of change needed for the Black community requires continued allyship, Bournes said. For him, that part of that means continuing sometimes uncomfortable conversations about race. Since the start of the protests, his text inbox has been flooded with messages from people asking him about race and police brutality, he added.
“I can’t tell you how many conversations I had where it’s like, ‘Hey, Ariel, this is the first time I’ve thought about race. This is the first time I’ve thought about police brutality. This is the first time I’ve thought about these issues. I understand that you’ve been thinking through and dealing with these things your whole life, so can you talk to me about them?’”
These conversations, though exhausting for Bournes, are worth having for the change they could bring, he said.
“If I’m going to exhaust myself, this is the cause I want to exhaust myself for, making sure those who have been marginalized historically are given a voice and are given their moment,” Bournes said.
Bertrand has led the charge for the same cause within the I.V. CSD. At a meeting in June, the board unanimously condemned police brutality, declared racism a public health emergency and created a working group dedicated to police reform and anti-racism efforts.
“I think that policing has focused a lot on maintaining order and control, but not enough on creating a healthy community where all of us genuinely feel safe in a holistic way,” Bertrand said.
In an effort to reimagine the role of law enforcement in I.V., the working group, comprised of Bertrand, Board President Spencer Brandt and Board Director Jay Freeman, is looking into community-oriented policing solutions.
Bertrand said these solutions should fit the needs of the community it serves. In I.V., where Bertrand said “many of the issues involve alcohol and drug emergencies,” solutions should focus more on “harm reduction and wellness.”
“We have a big opportunity there to foster a community of equity and innovation, to prepare and to build the bench of leadership for folks who will fight for racial equity, wherever they go after Isla Vista.”
Black Lives Matter isn’t the first movement to fight for justice in the Black community, Gessesse said, but for some, it may be the first they experience in their lifetimes.
“For some young Black people, this is their first time engaging in a Black power movement. For their parents, it was Rodney King and for their grandparents, it was Emmett Till,” Gessesse said.
What has changed since then is not so much what the movement is fighting for, but who is listening, she said.
“The things that people are experiencing, as early as 1925 to [the future in] 2025, are still the same thing,” Gessesse said.
“I think it’s important that BLM right now, as it stands today, is a humbling reminder of the same argument and uphill fight that the Black community in America has constantly been fighting towards.”