Student Activism and Belonging

A conversation with Chris Arguedas, Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College.  

Chris Arguedas

I met Chris Arguedas at the NetVUE regional gathering hosted by Occidental College in January 2020, where we started a conversation about tending to the well-being of student activists. Chris generously agreed to share some of his thoughts about the particular challenges faced by student activists, especially students from minoritized communities, and his own sense of calling in the work that he does with students.

Describe the work you do at Occidental and the students you encounter and support. 

First, I am there to listen. I often meet with students on a one-on-one basis, and I take these opportunities to learn from them and to build trust. Relationships built on trust are what propel the work of an Intercultural Center forward. My work is also to make students feel seen, in particular students who are underrepresented and racially minoritized in higher education, who often move through the world without being treated with respect. And, more specifically, I conduct training to mitigate institutional barriers at the college; I act as a liaison (and translator sometimes) between faculty, staff and students as it relates to issues of equity and social justice; and I co-create programming with students that recognizes and honors their identities and helps them step into their greatness. 

How did you come to do this work – what do you understand to be your calling? 

I grew up in the deep South, Mississippi to be exact, but I was born in Costa Rica. My multiethnic experience created a lot of dissonance for me throughout my life, and my queer identity has too. I was often met with confusion, hostility and sometimes, blatant racism and homophobia. But, I was steadfast in my learning, my desire to lead, and my compassion and sensitivity. Those tenets are what have driven me to be in relationship with others, to meaningfully contribute to those relationships and complicate dominant narratives about identity. I also want students who feel different to understand they are not alone, and that their differences have an extraordinary power, despite what others might think or say about them. My calling is to love other people fully and invite them to consider their greatness, even when that means holding hard conversations, and to hold myself to the same standards I expect from my institution and community.

For your students who are activists, how does that intersect with their academic pursuits? Do they align? Do they ever conflict? Do you have the sense that they feel a sense of calling behind their activism?

“Activism” is an interesting word in higher education. It means different things to students, faculty and staff, and sometimes measures the work students are doing inside and outside of the classroom as qualifiers that govern “true” activism on campus. Activism as a college student often looks different than activism in the non-profit sector, or activism in low-income communities. What is activism? Who decides that? The lack of clarity and shared meaning can lead students to wonder if they are not enough of an activist, at times making them feel guilty or less than whole. Not feeling like enough for students of color can be a product of internalized oppression and horizontal hostility, just as much as it is a growing experience in the ongoing pursuit of justice. I believe institutions of higher education have to be critical about how much pressure they place on student activists, and students from minoritized communities, to do the heavy lifting as it relates to social justice activism. 

Magnificent tree on the Occidental campus (January 2020).

On my campus, many students who are activists are simultaneously learning corresponding theory in the classroom that propels their thinking forward and fuels their ambition to make change in the world… I believe we grapple with theory at the same time that we are living and experiencing it. From an Intercultural Center perspective, there should always be a designated space for students to be in community, heal, talk about what they are learning in the classroom, and find some degree of safety. Without it, and without our collective effort to create a sense of belonging, students from minoritized backgrounds, especially black students, are being asked to think about race, racism, and anti-blackness, as they survive it, without always having access to the support mechanisms they need to recognize who they are as a whole person, including their joy. Students need to see, feel and hear regularly: you got this, you deserve to be happy, you are whole, just like we all do. And, I believe we can embed hope into the fabric of the college, while at the same time encouraging academic discourse on influential Black Studies work, among other theoretical frameworks.

We talked a little bit about watching students come into their own as activists in those times when they are offering valid critiques of the very institutions within which we work. It’s hard not to feel proud of them even as we are embedded in the structures they are critiquing. We also talked about the need in those moments to “get out of the way.” Say more about that strange role. 

Getting out of the way has been one of my most profound professional lessons lately. For me, that translates to removing your ego from the situation. It means talking less and listening more. When I first started at Oxy, I thought I had all of the answers about how to best support student activists, or students with a passion for social justice. I was wrong. While I like to think of myself as open, understanding, and patient, that is still my ego talking. Getting out of the way often means treating the folks you seek to support as the experts. So, if I am at Oxy to work closely with and support students of color then that means walking behind them sometimes. It means walking beside them when they need me, and walking in front of them only if they need my protection, and that is often a decision we make together.

In our conversations, you have mentioned mental health, well-being, and counseling services on campus (noting that they can only do so much). What are your current thoughts about how the services from across campus can be better coordinated to support students? 

During my time in higher ed, there is this unconscious thing that often happens when students are hurting and need help: they are quickly referred to counseling or therapy. Why is that? What I ask most faculty and staff to think about is belonging as a psychological need. Belonging can happen in many different ways, and what we know to be true about belonging is that it can alleviate temporary setbacks. It makes us feel less alone in the world. We (faculty, staff and administrators) each have a responsibility to enact belonging, and when we successfully cultivate a sense of belonging for students from minoritized communities, we mitigate anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. We have the power to make someone feel like they have a place at the institution. That is not the job of the select few folks of color or the most passionate student activists. If we really want to do what’s in the best interest of students, we partner with them, we show them they matter, and we actualize our shared goal of co-creating and facilitating an environment where students can become their best selves. As the Director of the Intercultural Center, my responsibility is to get folks in the same room and tap into the various resources we have on campus to make sure we are adequately serving underrepresented students. I am fortunate in the ways that my colleagues at Oxy are willing to partner with me, but there are faculty, staff, and students across our various institutions who likely feel alone, and may think this work is entirely on them. Reach out. Ask, how can I help? What can I do? And then do it. We have the capacity to breathe life and love into our campuses when we put our heads together.

For students, how does their activism, their overall well-being, and their unfolding sense of a calling intersect?

They are definitely intertwined. Activism is contingent on well being and in order for it to become someone’s calling, they must feel like it is also giving back to them. When people are called to do something, but that thing demands too much, or takes too much, or doesn’t validate them, then it creates more harm. If I, and other student affairs folks or faculty, are successful, we are able to step in when it’s appropriate and say, “You’ve been doing some amazing things. How are you doing though?” We invite the student to consider themself in their work. To be reminded that one of the most critical and influential relationships is the relationship to self. And from there, we connect them to restorative outlets, like therapy (if they want that), or programs and communities that care for them, so they can get back out there and do the work they are called to do. Sometimes, students have to be reminded that they deserve care as they seek to change the world and care for others. 

We talked a little bit about the fall and what will happen when students are back on campus (virtually or actually), and the pointed challenges they have made and will make to all aspects of how our institutions operate. Say more about what you think that might look like. What’s coming? 

We are in a powerful moment in time, one where we have reached new dimensions in the conversation about racism, anti-blackness and systemic injustice. Leaders and folks in positions of power across industries are being called to act swiftly and in ways I’ve not seen before. It’s also interesting to observe the varying responses on and off campus, whether it be emails in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, or major corporations’ social media responses after serious accusations of racism. I’ve seen some places get it right, and others give lukewarm, allusive, and insincere responses. I think the “waiting game” has officially ended, and folks are done waiting for substantial change. The underlying premise, in my opinion, is: Black folks aren’t asking for a lot, so let’s stop making excuses for what we can or can’t do, and get to work. I think this wave of energy and change is going to hit higher education in a significant way, and faculty, staff and administrators need to be prepared to answer some hard hitting questions, and do better by their colleagues and students who need it most. The time is now, so don’t wait to get started, if you haven’t yet. And, try not to overlook the relationship between the devastating impact of COVID-19 on black and brown communities, and the Black Lives Matter movement. They are closely tied, and if college administrators aren’t willing to explore the relationship between the two, then that poses a significant threat to equity and justice work, and supporting students this coming year.

You mentioned the need for some “institutional humility” right now. I love that phrase. What does that look like? How can institutions learn to practice more humility? 

Institutional humility is the key to a successful response and sets the foundation for transformative change. What does it mean exactly? It means not being afraid to own the untold, painful stories of the institution’s memory. Acknowledgement can be a tool for substantial change work if we use it properly, and we reach deep into our institutional memory, or archives, and face our origin stories. Oftentimes, we in higher education have somewhat of an identity crisis on our hands. There is who we hope to be, our aspirational goals, our values, our vision for a better future, and then, who we have always been. Who we have let into our institutions, or not. Who we honor in our classrooms. Who we listen to in meetings. Who we hire. Who we compensate more than others. Institutional humility is a reconciliation between who we hope to be and who we are. It is about finding truth and not shying away from the ugly parts of it, and allowing it to mobilize us. Most importantly, there’s no path going forward if we are unwilling to engage our past. 

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