Despite a stressful 2020 election and a divided nation, BIPOC activists and advocates remain hopeful and confident in their causes.
By Jingwen Zhang, Staff Reporter
Valentina Villarroel, a UChicago second year and UChicago Without Borders founding member. Provided.
On the night of November 3, Valentina Villarroel, a second-year student from Bolivia, was trying to stop herself from relentlessly checking election results.
Her distraction strategy was watching Dancing with the Stars, but then she received the results for her local race in Weston, Florida. She was upset and disappointed that people in her community elected a mayor who, she believes, doesn't support minority populations.
“I got very mad about [the results],” said Villarroel. “So I checked [the general election results], and I entered this cycle where I just kept refreshing pages.”
Villarroel is a founding member of UChicago Without Borders (UWB), which seeks to make UChicago safe for all community members of differing immigration statuses. She voted for Biden not because she was confident in Biden’s support for immigrants, but because she believed that another 4 years of Trump’s presidency would bring more harm. The Trump administration’s new proposed rule, released in June 2020, would sharply restrict gender-based asylum claims, which influenced Villarroel’s vote for Biden.
Like Villarroel, other BIPOC were dissatisfied with both candidates and voted only for a better alternative.
Tyler Okeke, a second-year Black student, was “not enthusiastic about how I cast my vote.”
“But I understood that that would always be the nature of my relationship with this democracy,” said Okeke. “[My vote] would never be in full alignment with my values, but I have to vote for the best option at the moment.”
Third-year Miles Franklin, sixth from the right. Provided.
Miles Franklin, a third-year student who identifies as African American and White, felt less than enthusiastic about voting for Biden because “he threw Black communities under the bus in an attempt to gain favor with Latinx people.”
“[It] is entirely possible to elevate both [communities]. While I think Biden is more likely to implement better policies than Trump did concerning minority communities, I think he will do so because he knows people want him to rather than because he has an inherent, real understanding of the importance of healthy, diverse communities,” Franklin said.
Second-year Latine student Esmeralda Hernandez, too, decided to settle for the better alternative. “Trump’s comments [about people of color and immigrants] have made it seem it’s acceptable to bring hate towards all of these communities. Biden is a calmer and saner alternative.”
Despite the feeling that neither election outcome would be ideal, BIPOC students also recognized the importance of voting and active participation in the election.
For Hernandez, this 2020 Election was a symbolic moment because she is the only one in her family eligible to vote.
“I felt very excited and very proud because no one else in my family can vote, so it’s something that I’ve looked forward to for a while,” said Hernandez.
“I was very stressed but also incredibly moved by all of the people who made it very clear that it was important to vote… It feels like everybody understood the gravity of the scene and did all they could to make their vote count.”
Esmeralda Hernandez, a second-year Latine student. Provided.
Villarroel believes people should not limit their political activity to just voting.
“You have so much more agency if you don’t [just] think of your agency as being your vote,” said Villarroel. “[Otherwise,] are you waiting to have your agency be given to you every four years?”
As part of UWB, Villarroel became disheartened by the lack of support for international and immigrant students on campus and, along with other members of UWB started a petition demanding the university declare itself a sanctuary campus to support UChicago’s immigrant community. To date, the petition has received close to 1,000 signatures. UWB is now pushing for a meeting with the Provost through the DACA Working Group under the Center for Identity + Inclusion.
Although both Ayomide Badmus, a first-year student from Nigeria, and Diana Kalima, a fourth-year Black student, are ineligible to vote, they similarly recognize the importance of making their voices heard in other ways.
“Our stories are our voices,” said Kalima. “For immigrants of color who cannot vote, we don’t have to remain silent. Engaging conversations with our peers is a great way to start.”
Kalima is president of the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights (UCCIR). The organization recently hosted an imagination session to “explore...what we would want in an equitable and inclusive immigration system.” UCCIR will be hosting an undocumented student ally training on November 18 for those who want to become allies to undocumented students.
Badmus emphasizes the importance of “supporting local organizers and local candidates that can bring much bigger changes on the local level than the presidential election.”
During the Democratic primary of Maryland’s 5th Congressional District election this year, Badmus did phone banking for candidate Mckayla Wilkes, who supported the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the protection of immigrant rights. Badmus also advocated for Wilkes at their high school and on social media.
In a polarized society, activism can often feel challenging.
Growing up in a highly conservative community in south Georgia where she and her friends were often harassed for voicing their opinions in school, Hernandez has found advocating for immigrant rights in her community daunting and difficult.
“You have to tiptoe around certain issues which people ...can get really angry about,” she said. “[But] people on the right...that I’ve met aren’t all awful people. They just don’t have the same mindset as mine.”
“[People on the right in my community] like me as a person, so I feel like if I could push more to let them understand that immigrants and people [of color] are just the same as me and are people worth knowing, I can definitely get them to seek change, although this is still a difficult task,” Hernandez said.
But other students take polarization as a matter of course.
Okeke believes that “everything we fight for, especially if it involves Black people, would be controversial and polarizing in this country,” but remains confident in promoting causes that are essential to him and his values.
Tyler Okeke, a second-year student organizer. Provided.
He was one of the students who initiated the Right to Grieve Campaign at the end of Spring 2020 to secure academic relief, such as canceling finals or providing extensions, for Black students at UChicago after the killing of George Floyd and during the summer protests. “[Academic relief] was something that our community needed and something that our community got.”
Polarization did not stop Hernandez from advocating for the rights of immigrants and people of color either. Although her hometown was “very much on the law enforcement’s side” and there was “no movement for BLM around where I live,” she gave her support through donations and on social media.
“As long as I have people who will help me and support what I stand for, I will continue speaking up despite the backlash,” Hernandez said.