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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA2020 Racial Injustice Protests

Black student activists create discussion space with Undercommons

By Aaron Julian and Ravija Harjai

January 12, 2016 7:38 am

About 70 students gathered at the bottom of Janss Steps Monday as student activists launched a meeting space to discuss issues black youth encounter.

A group of five UCLA graduate students created the meeting space, called the Undercommons, to offer students a place where they can talk about problems such as mass incarceration, said Shamell Bell, an event organizer and doctoral student in culture and performance at the Department of World Arts and Culture/Dance department. The group will meet from Monday to Thursday every week from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., she said.

Thabisile Griffin, an event organizer and graduate student in history, said she thinks the initiative will bring together students, teachers and local grassroots activists who want to discuss differences in opportunities available to people of color.

During the event, Kevin Michael Key, an activist and member of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, performed a monologue as a prisoner riding a bus from an L.A. County jail to another facility.

Key said he drew on his personal experience to relay the trauma that prisoners may experience, including losing their sense of self, feeling trapped and realizing the role of race in their convictions.

“People who look like me often end up in jails and institutions,” said Key. “Mass incarceration is a caste system in the United States, and it goes back to the days of slavery.”

Olufemi O. Taiwo, an event organizer and graduate student in philosophy, said he thinks the Undercommons will help counter what he called bias in history education in high schools, because it will offer students an opportunity to engage in discussion outside the traditional classroom setting.

“Students should not be satisfied with the level and type of education available to them here at UCLA,” Taiwo said.

During the launch event, students and organizers suggested defunding prisons to help fund universities, tackling inequalities and injustices within the UC system and using the university as a tool for social justice.

Sa Whitley, an event organizer and graduate student in gender studies, said she hopes the meeting space will start a conversation that will achieve greater social justice within UCLA, the University of California and Los Angeles.

Chris Luna, a doctoral student in physics who attended the event, said he thinks the meeting space will expose students to different perspectives.

“There are two brown people in my (doctoral) program and I am one of them,” he said. “I want to share my perspective of working with students from low-income areas.”

Bell, a choreographer and core organizer for Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, said she plans to teach a street dance routine next week to combine art with social activism.

“We’re taking all of our talent and envisioning a radical future,” she said.

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Aaron Julian | Alumnus
Julian was an Opinion columnist.
Julian was an Opinion columnist.
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