The uncertain future of the Showing Up for Black Lives event series

Student moderator, Kayla Williams (junior), poses a question to panelists at the event Showing Up for Black Lives: Until Black Trans Women Are Free, None of Us Are Free in Choi Auditorium in Johnson Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Hope Fowler // The Occidental

The fourth installment of the Showing Up for Black Lives (SUFBL) event series took place in Choi Auditorium Oct. 11 with the event, “None of Us Are Free Until Black Trans Women Are Free.” The event brought panelists from the black trans and gender non-conforming communities to speak and perform in front of over 250 community members from Occidental and the surrounding area. The panelists discussed decolonization of the western world, the attempts to force marginalized groups to assimilate, activism in the black trans community and the meaning of hope when there is little reason to hold on to it.

According to organizers, the goal of the SUFBL series is to invite guests from marginalized groups and grassroots activist organizations to speak about racism and oppression at free public events on campus. Despite the continued success of the series, many organizers and students said they feel as though the program could end at any time due to continual fundraising issues. Additionally, adjunct professor Amy Tahani-Bidmeshki, who teaches the American Studies course that the series relies on, explained that SUFBL series will most likely not take place at Occidental College if she is no longer employed by the school.

Sandy Pattison (senior) is one of many students who has supported the series since its inaugural event in October 2016. According to Pattison, the unique environment of these events allows for a deeper connection to the conversation because it strips away the barriers of a traditional academic lecture so each speaker is able to tell their own personal story in their own way.

“I thought the inclusion of creative performances and art as a way to allow the panelists to share their experiences and opinions and also express a way of coping with the violence and oppression they face daily was very powerful and also did a great job of somewhat de-intellectualizing the dialogue and creating a deeper connection between the panelists and the audience,” Pattison said.

Securing funding for events has been the biggest challenge for SUFBL, according to Shaila Hernandez (senior). Hernandez has been a student organizer for SUFBL since the beginning of the semester, her primary task being funding. She said that organizing the events is often a constant struggle with the school. While many departments, grant providers and administrators have given financial support to SUFBL, most of their funding has been limited, Hernandez said.

“Garnering support from the institution was really difficult, especially from individuals and administrators that should have stepped up,” Hernandez said. “For me, it was very eye-opening to see how little support they were offering us, especially financially, but even getting a response could be a challenge.”

Two of SUFBL’s most supportive funders have been the music department and the Media Arts & Culture department. Professor David Kasunic has been chair of Occidental’s music department since 2014.

“The things we care about as an institution will only continue to exist if they become part of the DNA of the institution,” Kasunic said. “Liberal arts colleges are fragile ecosystems. Wonderful initiatives, programming ideas and departments can change with administrations or staff changes if they are bound up in the initiatives brought to the community by personnel and not by positions.”

While Kasunic and the entire department enthusiastically support the SUFBL series, Kasunic said that there are other departments and organizations, such as the Office of Student Life through the Remsen Bird Fund, that would be better suited to assist SUFBL because the funds the music department uses would normally be for music students.

Emily Liang (sophomore) is the treasurer of the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB), another crucial source of funding for SUFBL. The purpose of DEB is to support marginalized communities for groups that do not have access to institutional support, whether it be financial or otherwise, according to Liang and the DEB website.

“Ideally, DEB shouldn’t have to exist because the administration should be already addressing and supporting all these groups,” Liang said. ”DEB gets its money from student fees, and it’s the students who are supporting this when it should be the administration that’s supporting these things. There shouldn’t need to be this alternate source of students’ money that we are, as student government, allocating to support these marginalized groups, because these marginalized groups should already be supported by the administration and the institution more than it is at the moment.”

The American Studies department hosted a panel for Showing Up For Black Lives in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Wednesday Oct. 17, 2017.

Kayla Williams (junior) is a club liaison for DEB as well as a former organizer and current moderator for SUFBL events. Williams said she felt that SUFBL has been neglected by the administration and institution.

“I think the institution needed to step up a lot more than they did,” Williams said. “There wasn’t a lot of attempts by the administration to publicize this event as they did with other events. There also just weren’t really as many representatives from the administration there at the event.”

Rhonda Brown, Occidental’s chief diversity officer, said that she has supported SUFBL financially because she believes in the importance and value of the event.

“In my almost three years at Oxy, I don’t remember a student-organized series as ambitious or sustained as SUFBL,” Brown said via email. “It’s impressive, given that student groups generally don’t have the ability to do any planning over the summer or winter break, and are juggling planning with academics and co-curriculars.”

According to Brown, the issues of funding SUFBL and similar events are in part caused by Occidental’s process of event fundraising.

“One of the challenges that all Oxy programmers face is the decentralized and often uncoordinated nature of event planning here on campus,” Brown said via email. “Because of the number and diversity of events put on every year, and the limited resources that every funder has, it is challenging to provide the kind of support programmers are seeking throughout the year, take advantage of important opportunities when they arise, and be equitable in how support is distributed.”

According to Brown, there are some institutional resources available to all academic departments, such as Remsen Bird funds, and for students, the fees collected by ASOC and DEB. However, the planning and organizing of student events is often carried out on an individual basis by student organizations, academic departments and administrators. Professor Kasunic also identified this as an issue with funding. According to Kasunic, since budgets are set in July of every year, proposals are meant to be made in the spring before, but many student organizations are often unable to plan so far ahead.

Jim Tranquada also identified the disorganized nature of funding for student events in a statement on behalf of the president’s office.

“SUFBL’s September 27 email requesting funding for its October 11 event asked for a response by October 2, but wasn’t opened by the president’s office until after that deadline,” Tranquada said via email. “Had it been opened earlier, there’s no doubt that the president’s office would have provided funding for the event. We regret missing this opportunity. We appreciate the efforts of the students organizing SUFBL to help ensure that there is a sustained dialogue about important issues facing students of color at Oxy. We’re looking at how we can make sure requests like this are handled in a more timely way, and hope that it doesn’t discourage SUBFL from requesting support from the president’s office for future events.”

No matter how the funding process of SUFBL changes, according to professor Tahani-Bidmeshki, the insecurity of her position as an untenured professor could lead to the event leaving Occidental regardless.

“It is important for everyone to know that this series may come to an end if I am no longer at Oxy,” Tahani-Bidmeshki wrote in an email. “As an adjunct, my job is not guaranteed and this series is connected to my AMST 101 course. I do hope that SUFBL remains an annual event that brings folks together to think about the importance of everyone’s involvement in the movement for Black lives, but again, it is connected to the theoretical and grassroots community work that emerge out of my course. I will continue the series wherever it is I end up, but since Oxy has hosted it for the past 3 years, it would ideally continue at this institution.”